Dog Training Basics: The Essentials for a Safe, Happy Life for Your Pet

The first dog I owned as an adult was a beautiful wire fox terrier named Max. On our first day together, I carried Max into the house in a crate, gently set the crate down in the living room and opened the door. Max hesitantly poked his eight-week-old head through the door, looked around and, very slowly, stepped out. He sniffed around for about five seconds and then… urinated all over my recently refinished hardwood floor. It was an instant reminder that, along with all of the years of joy and companionship we would share together, Max was going to need some immediate and effective training.

If you have just become the proud owner of a precocious new puppy, or an older dog in need of learning a few new tricks, this article was written for you. Below you will find some sound introductory information and advice designed to get you started on training your dog to become the well-behaved family member you want, while giving him the safe, happy life he deserves.

 

  1. The Tools of the Trade

Training your dog properly will take time and effort. It can also be a lot of fun and will definitely help to strengthen and solidify that special bond between dog and owner. The process is certain to go a lot more smoothly if you use the proper equipment. Not all of the items listed below may be necessary in every case, but experienced trainers agree that using them will increase your chances of training success.

  • Collars, Harnesses and Head Halters

There’s an endless variety of collars and collar alternatives available, many designed specifically to assist owners in training their pets. Determining the one that works best for your dog is key. Factors to consider include your dog’s size, strength and temperament, as well as his or her current level of training. You may need to try out a number of possibilities to find the perfect fit for your dog, but going through the process is well worth it. And remember that a training collar or alternative should be used for training only and replaced with a regular collar when training time is over.

  • Leash and Lines

Leashes are essential for both training sessions and to keep your dog safe during walks, in busy environments and where leash laws are enforced. Like collars, the variety of leash designs, styles, lengths and functions is almost endless. And, as with collars, choosing the right leash will depend on your dog’s unique physical and personality traits, and on the type of training you are doing. Traditional leather leashes remain popular and are often recommended for training purposes due to their strength and softness on the owner’s hands. Retractable leashes are handy, but can also be dangerous, and therefore are recommended for non-training purposes only. A recent innovation is the “hands-free” leash, where the leash is connected to an adjustable waist belt, leaving both of the owner’s hands available to provide commands or treats during training.

  • Treats/Treat Bag

Make no mistake, positive, reward-based methods of training are highly recommended today over those employing negative reinforcement and punishment. More on positive training below. Probably the single most effective reward for your dog is a nice, tasty treat. Treats should be something that your dog cannot resist, so try out a variety of types to find the ones that he or she craves the most. Treats should also be small, even tiny, because you will want to use a lot of them and you don’t want your pet to fill up.

Remember, treats can and should be used at all times you wish reinforce and encourage positive behaviours, not just during designated training sessions.  That means always having them at hand. Using a treat bag or pouch is highly recommended for this purpose.

  • Clicker

Another great tool for positive reinforcement training is the clicker. A clicker is a small hand-held item that makes a sharp clicking sound when pushed. It is most effective when used, along with a treat, immediately after your dog does the right thing. For example, if your dog sits properly on command, you would immediately click your clicker and give her a treat. The reason a clicker works is that your dog is simultaneously alerted by the clicking sound when he or she receives the treat, thus reinforcing the desired positive behaviour.

  • Crate

Crates are excellent tools for helping housebreak and housetrain your dog. Crates also provide a safe, comfortable personal space that plays to your pet’s natural “denning” instinct. Some people think that using a crate is cruel, but that is absolutely not the case. The key is to use your crate properly, meaning introducing its use positively, with short stays at first, and gradually working up to longer stays.

 

  1. Positive Reinforcement Training: The Way to Go

All of your obedience training and behaviour modification efforts should be founded on the practice of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement training, simply stated, is providing your dog with a reward (treats, praise, play) whenever he or she acts or responds in a way that you like, as opposed to negative reinforcement, where you punish your pet for acting in a way you dislike. Positive reinforcement training is highly preferred today by most experts and it’s what we recommend, too.

Here are a few tips for effective positive reinforcement training:

  • Immediate Reward

You want to encourage and reinforce your dog’s positive behaviours through the use of rewards. In order for that to happen, he or she must associate the reward with successfully completing the specific desired behaviour, and that means the reward must come immediately following the behaviour. In other words, you have to be there with the reward at the very moment the desired behaviour occurs. Another good reason to keep your treats handy in a treat bag. If you don’t have a treat immediately available, be sure to reward your dog with a healthy dose of praise.

  • Keep It Short

Dogs respond best and learn more effectively in short training sessions. So, think brief and positive. The result will be that your dog will think of training as fun and, as a result, your efforts are more likely to succeed.

  • Be Consistent

Consistency is very important, especially early on. If you are training your dog to sit, for example, you should immediately reward him every time he sits on command. And never reward unwanted behaviour. Inconsistency in your actions will only confuse your pet and hamper your training efforts.

  • Be Patient

Remember, you are training your canine companion to fit into a human environment, which goes against the dog’s nature. And that’s asking a lot. It’s easy to become frustrated and react negatively to your pet’s inconsistencies during training. Fight that frustration and stay focused on the positive.

  • Trading Treats For Praise

Treats are definitely the top choice as a reward, particularly when starting a new behaviour modification or teaching a new command. But always combine treats with praise. Then, after your dog begins consistently responding positively to the new activity, slowly start weaning him or her off of treats and rewarding only with praise. That way your pet will continue with the positive behaviour without expecting a treat in return every time.

  • Always End on a High Note

When you come to the end of a training session, always conclude with aspecial reward. It can be a larger than normal treat, extra praise or additional play. Anything that tells your pet that training is fun and something to look forward to the next time.

 

  • Obedience Training – The Basics

There are two basic categories of dog training: obedience training and behaviour modification. Obedience training concerns the training your dog to perform certain acts through the use of hand signals and verbal commands.

Below are some tips for teaching your dog the most essential obedience commands. Some commands, like “sit,” will be relatively easy for your dog to master, while others, such as “stay” and “leave it,” will be harder. Just rememberto always follow the general rules of positive reinforcement and that the three biggest keys to training success are patience, consistency and repetition. 

  • Sit

Stand or bend down in front of your pet with a treat in hand. Hold the treat near your dog’s nose and slowly raise your hand. Your dog will naturally raise his head to follow the treat and, in doing so, will simultaneously lower his rear end. Give the command “sit” during this process. As soon as his rear hits the floor, present him with the treat and praise.

  • Come

Connect a leash or line to your dog’s collar and allow her to move around freely for a moment or two. Pick up your end of the line, bend down to her level, give the command “come,” and gently pull on the leash. This will cause your dog to turn and begin to move in your direction. Continue to gently pull the leash until your dog reaches you. Reward her with a treat and praise. 

Once your dog has mastered this command while on leash, try it without the leash. Just be sure to do so in a safe and secure environment.

  • Stay

Note: Before starting this one, be sure your dog has mastered “sit.”

Have your dog sit. While standing or crouching in front of your pet, raise your hand with an open palm toward your dog, and state the command, “stay.” Move back a few steps and pause for a brief moment. If your dog has not moved, return to him and reward him with a treat and praise. If your dog moved, immediately return him to the starting location, place him back in the sitting position and try again.

Upon success, repeat the process, each time stepping a bit further back. Next, combine the “stay” command with the offlease “come,” rewarding your pet when he reaches you. You will also want to teach your dog a release word, such as “okay,” that will allow him to be released from the stay position without the requirement of coming to you.

  • Down

Hold a treat in your closed hand. Place your hand in front of your dog’s nose where she can sniff the treat. Move your hand to the ground. The smell of the treat should cause your dog to follow your hand. Move your hand along the ground. Again, your dog should follow. Once her belly hits the ground with her legs out, give the command “down,” and present her with the treat and praise. If she fails in the process and lunges for your hand, do not punish her or say anything. Simply try again.

  • Leave It

This one is a bit complicated and requires a few separate training levels. Stick with it, though. Successfully training the “leave it” command to your dog may ultimately save his life.

Level One: Hold a treat in your hand with a bit of the treat exposed. Move your hand toward your pet’s nose in a way that does not allow him to snatch the treat. The treat should draw his attention and cause him to sniff, paw or nibble at it. Do not give him the treat yet. The moment his interest in the treat waivers and he moves away from your hand, immediately give him the treat and praise. Repeat the process several times until your dog understands that he will only receive the treat after he turns away from it. Repeat the process several times again, adding the command “leave it” as he first turns away from your hand.

Level Two:Place treats in both hands. In one, use the treat that is your dog’s favourite. In the other hand, use a treat less interesting or attractive, but have this one a bit exposed. Move your hand towards your pet’s nose in a way that does not allow him to snatch the treat. The moment his interest takes him away from your hand, immediately give the “leave it” command, reward him with the favourite treat in the other hand and praise. The idea here is for your dog to understand that, by ignoring the less attractive treat in one location (your hand), he will be rewarded with the more attractive treat in another location (your other hand). Repeat the process several times until your dog is consistently successful.

Level Three: Place a less attractive treat in one hand, leaving the hand open. Place the favourite treat in your other, closed hand and hide that hand behind your back. Move your hand with the less attractive treat near your dog’s nose and say, “leave it.” If he is successful, immediately present him with the favourite treat and praise. If your dog goes for the less attractive treat, close your hand, pull it back for a moment and try again. Repeat the process several times until your pet shows consistent success.

Now, place the less attractive treat on the floor instead of your open hand and repeat the process several times again until your dog is consistent at successfully leaving the less attractive treat alone.

Level Four: Place a less attractive treat on the floor, clip a leash to your dog’s collar and walk him in front of the treat. As he passes the treat on the floor, say “leave it.” If he leaves the treat, immediately present him with one of his favourite treats and praise. Repeat several times until your pet shows consistent success.

Finally, repeat this process again, but reward your dog only with praise.

 

  1. Behaviour Modification – The Basics

Behaviour modification concerns changing or eliminating destructive or otherwise unwanted behaviours of your pet. Behaviour modification employs obedience training methods to teach your dog to do certain things, but additionally involves other strategies, such as modifying his schedule or environment. In short, behaviour modification is focused on changing the way your dog reacts in certain situations by both changing the reaction and dealing with its underlying cause.

The list of bad behaviours is almost endless. Common issues include aggression, barking, begging, chewing, rough play, whining, food guarding, howling, chasing cars or joggers, and separation anxiety. Behaviour problems can be serious and, in some cases, lead to injury to you, a family member or other person, or your dog or other animals. It is helpful to consult with a professional trainer when dealing with non-dangerous behavioural problems, but it is critical to do so immediately when confronted with dangerous behaviours, like biting and aggression. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for coping with some of the most common non-dangerous dog behavioural issues:

  • Barking

It’s important to remember that barking is a natural behaviour for most dogs and you should not expect your dog to never bark. Your concern should be with excessive barking. To deal with excessive barking, try teaching your dog the “quiet” command.

Start with a situation where your dog excessively barks, like when the doorbell rings. Have a friend come to your front door and ring the bell. As your dog barks, go to her and distract her by waving a toy or showing her a treat. When she stops barking, immediately reward her with a treat and praise. After a few successful runs through the process, add the command “quiet” at the moment she stops barking, and immediately present her with a treat. Repeat this process with a series of longer periods of silence between the “quiet” command and the reward.

Be sure to employ this process in all other excessive barking situations.

  • Chewing

Chewing is another natural dog behaviour. Dogs need to chew. Your goal is not to stop your dog from chewing, but to train him to only chew on appropriate objects, like chew toys. So, make sure that your pet always has an ample supply of appropriate chew toys available. If your dog chews on something inappropriate, such as a table leg, place him in his crate (or other environment away from the table leg) and present him with his chew toys. When he chews on the toy, immediately reward him with a treat and praise.

  • Rough Play

Rough play typically occurs when your pet becomes overly excited during playtime. To stop the roughness requires settling your dog down. When the rough play begins, immediately stop what you are doing. If you are on the floor, stand up and be still. Keep your hands to your sides and remain silent. Once your dog calms down, slowly start playing with her again. If she returns to rough play, immediately repeat your own stilling behaviour. If your dog continues with the rough play, call a time out, that is, calm her down with your stilling behaviour and then confine her to her crate for a period of time. Remember to be consistent with your response to rough play and your dog will soon learn to act appropriately.

  • Digging

The key to ending excessive digging by your dog is to first determine why he is digging. If the cause is excessive heat, bring himinside. If your dog is an unneutered male and he’s digging under a fence to get to a female, have your dog fixed. If the cause of the digging is simple boredom, play with him, exercise him or find something else for him to do.

Some breeds are just born to dig and you will likely never get them to stop digging completely. In that case, consider providing your dog with a digging area, such as a sand box. Then apply positive reinforcement methods to direct your dog’s digging needs to the designated area.

  • Separation Anxiety

Do you come home from work or the store to find thatyour dog has wreaked havoc on her surroundings? Your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. Along with tearing things up, dogs with separation anxiety may also act out with excessive barking, howling and whining. There are a number of things you can try to help your dog with mild separation anxiety problems, but if the behaviour is more serious, it’s important to consult with a professional trainer or your vet right away.

Things to try for mild separation anxiety issues while you are out of the house include: supplying your dog with lots of toys, especially chew toys; leaving the TV or a radio on; making sure the house is physically comfortable (light, heat, air conditioning, etc.). If you confine your dog to a single room or in a part of the house separated by a dog gate, make sure she is unable to interact with furniture or other items that she might chew on or otherwise destroy.

You should also try to condition your pet to being alone in the house. Start by placing your dog in her crate with lots of her chew toys. Turn on the TV or a radio with the volume at a low level. Then, without making a fuss or otherwise indicating your plans, leave the house. Don’t go too far, though. Stick around and listen to how your dog reacts. If she is upset and makes noise, give her a few minutes to calm down. Then, go back inside the house and, again without making a fuss, calmly and gently greet your dog. Immediately after this, take her outside to relieve herself. She may or may not go, but the idea is to let her know that she will always have the opportunity to go as soon as you return.

You will need to repeat this process a few times a day over the course of several weeks, increasing the period you are away each successive time. If your efforts succeed, great. If they do not, however, it’s time to consult with your vet or a behaviour expert.

 

  1. Socializing Your Dog

For your dog to experience a safe, healthy and happy life, proper socialization with you and others, both human and animal, is absolutely crucial. Socialization has to do with exposing your pet to a wide variety of situations (sights, sounds, smells, people, other animals, etc.) in a positive way, resulting in a pet without undue aggression or fear. Ideally, socialization efforts should begin as early as possible once your pet turns eight weeks old. Keep in mind that puppies in the first 12 weeks or so of their lives are learning sponges, happily picking up information from their surroundings at a huge rate. After 12 weeks, they begin to become more cautious and, once they pass the age of 18 weeks, socializing becomes much more difficult. So, plan on some serious socialization work for your dog between the ages of three and 12 weeks.

  • Early Socialization Activities

Before you grab your new puppy and head to the dog park for socialization lesson number one, remember that most puppies are not immunized against a host of dangerous diseases until they are 15 to 16 weeks old, if not later. So, how do you safely socialize your pet in the first weeks of her life? The answer is to bring socialization into your home. Invite friends and family members over to the house for some positive interaction. You can also invite other dogs to come visit, as long as they are friendly and are fully vaccinated. You can take your dog out to the homes of others, too. Just make sure she will not be exposed to dogs that may be unsafe or unhealthy.

  • Socializing with People

It’s important that your puppy feels safe and comfortable around humans of all kinds. That means male and female, young and old, big and small. The key is to do your socializing with people that you know will provide your puppy with a positive experience. Pick friends and family that will be kind and gentle, and who know how to properly hold, pet and play with him. Be especially careful with small children who may not understand the importance of gentle interaction. The key is to avoid any and all negative experiences during socialization, if possible.

  • Socializing with Other Dogs

Socialization with other dogs is also extremely important. As with humans, you should be careful to expose your puppy only to dogs you can trust to be gentle and friendly with her. Stay away from rambunctious puppies or older dogs, particularly those that are substantially bigger than your little one. Older large dogs may be fine, as long as they are kind and gentle. You simply do not want to risk exposing your puppy to injury or a negative experience.

  • New Surroundings

Once your puppy has passed his immunization period, you want to get him out to experience new people and places. You can start slowly, but then, the more the better.

  • Avoid Stress

Sometimes new experiences can be a bit too much for a puppy, so be on the lookout for indications of stress during socialization. Common signs of stress include clinging or cowering, tail between the legs, ears pointed back, excessive panting, grimacing, trembling, drooling, sweating and soiling. If you witness any of these behaviours, or anything else you believe indicates stress, immediately remove your puppy from the stressful environment and take him somewhere to relax.

  • Older Dogs and Socialization

Dogs not properly socialized as puppies can present a serious challenge. If your older dog exhibits socialization problems, such as aggression or fear, your best bet is to consult with a behaviour expert or your vet as soon as possible.

 

Conclusion

Dogs are not people, but it is amazing how many traits we share with our furry companions. Like human beings, dogs not only come in all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds, but also with endless variations in personality. Your dog is as much an individual as any person you have ever known. Keep that in your mind and your heart as you work through your training experience with your pet, as well as throughout what is hopefully years of a happy and healthy life shared together.

And remember: Patience, consistency, repetition. And love.