If we want an easy life with our dogs — and to give them a happy life with us — a certain amount of training is vital. For best results, you train what you want and to your own standards, although plenty of gratuitous advice is freely given by others!
So, the first thing you need to do is isolate exactly what you want your dog to do, rather than what anybody else thinks you should teach him. Then match that with what the dog wants to do by instinct and by breed bias, and adjust so that the dog wants to do what you want and finds co operation with you worthwhile. Sometimes a bit of juggling is needed, and sometimes a touch of compromise. Rosy memories of childhood dogs, where training was done by someone else, do not necessarily reflect how the dog in front of you now wants to behave.
1. Are the exercises you propose to teach actually wanted or necessary to you? Old-fashioned training has its roots in the disciplines taught to military dogs, and may not be at all relevant to your own pets. If you have a long-backed dog such as a Lurcher, who finds ‘sit’ awkward, or a deep-chested dog like a Greyhound for whom ‘down’ is very uncomfortable, you do not need to teach those exercises. It’s just as useful to teach ‘stand’ as a way to halt your dog.
There is no need for a dog to sit at the kerb, as long as he understands that you like to pause before you cross. Nowadays owners often keep their dogs well into old age, so you can expect them to find certain physical positions less easy as they get more creaky, and of course injury or accident can affect how they move too. So, don’t feel as if you have to make them do things that will cause discomfort; instead analyse why you should teach a particular skill, and if you are being reasonable. There are often substitute actions that will still do the job but are much kinder to your dog.
2. Train a relaxed and comfortable dog. He is much more able to concentrate if he has had a run around beforehand and emptied himself first before you take him out and commence training. The important exception to this is that if you reward with food, a hungry dog pays much more attention! He doesn’t have to be starving, but if you feed half his usual meal before you start, and then make that up with training treats, it will ensure his concentration and maintain his figure. Or, if you don’t feed at all until you finish the session, it can be a real encouragement for a good recall as a final exercise.
3. Ensure that there are no distractions when you train something new, and only when he has got it off pat should you then expand the skill to new places and busier environments. These challenges are not necessarily visual, as sounds and scents can be powerful distractors as well as something that you both can see. Start at home where your dog feels safe and can concentrate fully on what you want. Dogs are environment-specific, so at first they will not realise that what you ask can be achieved in different places and where there may be distractions. Your job is to ensure he is safe during training, as trying to proof a ‘stay’ when other dogs are allowed to race up to him would be a betrayal of trust.
4. One word = one action as far as dogs are concerned. The word can be anything at all, but you need to be consistent, because astute as they are, dogs don’t speak any human language. There is no need to confuse them by rattling off several words, such as: “Come here at once, you naughty dog,” and although in human conversation you can use the same word for different meanings, you shouldn’t confuse your dog by expecting him to untangle the nuances of your speech. If you say ‘down’, meaning ‘lie down’, then saying ‘down’ when you want him to get off the sofa is not reasonable. Using a different word means the dog learns to understand you and you’ll teach exactly the action you want.
5. Similarly, if you have more than one dog, their names should be quite different. It may sound cute to have Poppy and Pippy, but that’s going to cause confusion — you may know which dog you want to do what, but they will not. Sensitive dogs can be all at sea if they don’t know which one of them you are speaking to, while stronger-minded specimens may just ignore you.
6. There will be days and times when both you and your dog just can’t take any more of life’s pressures — for your pet for instance if something stressful has happened, such as another dog charging at him on a walk, or the window cleaner appearing suddenly at an upstairs window at your home. A troubling experience fires either or both of you into survival mode, often for the rest of the day, and so these are not days or times to train. It should be a happy experience for both if you are to be successful. Do something easy and pleasant with your dog instead.
7. If you have more than one dog, train separately before you train together. This will increase your bond — dogs in multi-pet households especially love one-to-one attention — and make any small hiccups easier to overcome. Some people will tell you that dogs teach each other, but often in those cases they learn something ‘dog’ that is inconvenient, such as raiding the waste bin, rather than something that fits into the human world. However, it can sometimes work with matters such as house-training and group recall, but you should still train each individual dog, and regard any useful input by other canine members of the household as a bonus.
8. Teaching and learning new skills is not linear, and there will be times when it seems as if training isn’t working. Understand that this is normal and OK. If you are having one of those mismatch training sessions, step back mentally and ask for something that your dog enjoys and does well, and after he has done it once, reward lavishly and end the training for that day.
9. Learning goes through several processes in the brain before it is comfortably installed. With a new exercise, it has to process from the front brain to the hind brain (some studies suggest a mid-brain interval as well) and the best way for this to happen for all animals, including humans, is to sleep. In other words, don’t keep on! When the dog has more or less delivered the desired action for the first time, it can be so tempting to try to fi ne-tune the response with repetition, but don’t do this during that session. Reward lavishly, then let the dog sleep, and revisit the exercise for tidying up on the next day. It is much easier on both of you because then you are working with the brain and not asking for what it hasn’t absorbed yet.
10. Be aware that no amount of training can withstand biological imperatives. If a bitch is in season or a male dog, whole or neutered, is aware that one is nearby, this is not the time to train. Similarly, if a bitch is going through a heat cycle, a false pregnancy, or a real one, hormones will be changing to prioritise those circumstances. Some dogs of either sex can be so obliging that their will to co-operate with us transcends the pull of nature, but it isn’t a given!