The Building Blocks to a Balanced Dog
Dogs don’t become well trained and well behaved by accident. If you ask any professional dog trainer or dog owner with a balanced dog, you’ll find they have certain things in common when it comes to how they raise and train their dogs. In this blog I will explain what I feel are the keys to having a great dog, regardless of what method of training you utilize. You don’t have to be a professional dog trainer to have a good dog; there’s more to it than just teaching commands.
Be the leader your dog needs or he will assume the position.
Dogs live in our human world, in our homes, and in our families with little to no understanding of the modern world or the rules we make them live by. Many of the things we do and ask of our dogs make little sense to them. Your job as a dog owner is to be a guide, to be the one to Lead the Way through this world by giving advice and guidance. You need to help your dog navigate this life in a respectful, unstressed, happy way. If you aren’t the one who’s making decisions and giving advice, your dog will happily start making his own decisions, and that’s where problem behaviors start. Be confident in your role as leader so that your dog can be confident in his, which will reduce his stress and take a lot of responsibility off his back.
How you live with your dog matters. Acceptance, Approval and Correction.
Dogs do best with some sense of boundaries and expectations. If your dog lives in a free-for-all in your home but you then expect good behavior on walks, while visiting a friend, or at the vet’s office, you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle and will be sorely disappointed. Allowing the opportunity for bad choices to be made and bad behavior to be practiced is only setting your dog up for failure and ensuring the bad behavior becomes a habit. Things like allowing your dog to jump on guests can easily be prevented by having your dog on leash and being prepared when guests arrive. Your dog steals food off the counter when you leave the room? Use a crate when you can’t supervise your dog. Letting your dog know you approve of good behavior such as listening when you give a command, and then praising/rewarding the behavior will make it more likely to be repeated in the future. Correcting behavior you do not agree with such as ignoring a command or jumping on the counter, in a consistent way every time it occurs will cause the behavior to stop. If you do not directly acknowledge a behavior then you are accepting it. Bad behavior should never be given acceptance. Basically if the dog doesn’t hear “No”, it becomes an automatic “Yes” in his mind.
The little things matter. Start from the beginning.
Is walking your dog a chore because he pulls, barks or lunges at dogs as they pass or perhaps he jumps on anyone who gets close enough? Think back to your dog’s behavior in the house before you even got outside. Did your dog sit patiently while you put his leash on? Did your dog wait politely while you opened the door, respecting the threshold and wait to be given permission to go through? Did your dog walk calmly down the stairs and out to the sidewalk? If the answer to any of these is no, you need to go back and focus on these little pieces of the puzzle.
The act of doing nothing is actually something pretty big.
Teaching a dog how to relax, be calm and do nothing is one of the most valuable things we as dog owners can do for our dog’s overall well-being and state of mind. A dog that can’t sit still or lay quietly without needing constant attention, praise or correction is a dog that won’t be successful at much else. A lot of times people’s perception of what a “Happy Dog” looks like is a dog displaying lots of frantic energy, who wants to run up and say hi to every person they pass, can’t hold a sit because their butt is wiggling so much and wants lots of attention and affection from everyone. If we picture a human showing those same traits, we wouldn’t describe them as “Happy”, would we? To me it sounds like a panic attack waiting to happen. A truly happy, balanced dog is one that can calmly do nothing even as other things are happening around him. Exercises like Place, long Down-Stays, Sit on the Dog, and Crate Training are excellent ways to help your dog learn the “art of doing nothing”.
If your dog won’t come to you on a 6’ leash, he’s probably not coming from across the park.
Off-Leash training starts with on-leash obedience. We see a lot of owners who are in a rush to let their dogs off leash and to give them lots of freedom before they’re fully trained. What they’re really doing is creating the illusion of freedom and the opportunity for failure. True freedom comes when you can trust your dog to make good decisions on his own in any situation. OK, but when do we get to “off-leash” training? As soon as your dog’s on-leash obedience is solid, sharp and reliable. We must start with our dogs on-leash first! Don’t be too eager to get rid of your leash, though. The leash can be a valuable tool for transferring information between yourself and your dog, and even dogs that are off-leash trained will benefit from some on-leash activities.
Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.
A lot of dog training is repetition and practice. Scientifically speaking, it takes about 500 successful repetitions of a command for a dog to learn to perform the behavior on cue. Let that sink in for a minute. In our training sessions with our clients and how we recommend they practice at home, we ask for a very high standard of precision and perfection. Why does it matter if my dog sits at my left, straight and facing forward with his paws behind the line of my toes when he sits in a heel? To be completely honest, unless you have aspirations of competitive obedience, it doesn’t. The reason we ask our dogs for such specific and detailed ideas and don’t stop at “good enough” is because of the real-world applications. If we always ask our dogs to match our mental picture 100% in our training and practice sessions, then our hope is when we need to use that training out in the real-world with unique distractions and scenarios that our dog will match our mental picture maybe about 80% of the way. 80% of absolutely perfect is still pretty damn good! (And probably 150% better than any other dog you see that day.) So practice perfectly with your dog to ensure their real-world behavior will be pretty damn good!
The 3 D’s: Distance, Duration and Distraction.
When we teach a dog a command or behavior they learn it in the context it was taught. Dogs are very situational specific learners; they don’t generalize well. That means if you teach your dog to sit in the kitchen with you standing on his right side, he most likely won’t sit if you move to another room and stand on his left side. Distractions are a big part of dog training. Any little thing can be distracting to your dog. Dogs see in a different color spectrum than us, hear in different frequencies than us and their sense of smell is their primary sense, being 1,000 times stronger than ours. Understanding these things means we have to admit that we can’t know 100% for sure what a dog will find distracting in a particular setting or what information they are picking up that we, as humans, can’t perceive. The best we can do is practice the same behavior over and over in slightly different situations and environments, increasing the level of distraction, increasing duration and increasing distance as your dog becomes better at what we’re asking of him. Our goal is to teach our dog, for example, that sit means sit regardless of where he is, what else is present in the environment, if you are stationary or in motion, facing towards him or away, standing close or far away, the wind is blowing, another dog is around, etc. Take baby steps. Find a level where your dog can have success and build up from there. It will take time, patience, and many repetitions.
End on a positive note.
Dogs do not have the ability to remember things like people do. Their memory is quite short. A dog will forget he did something minutes after he does it. Because dogs live in the moment, they aren’t focused on the past and they aren’t planning out a future. Therefore, whenever we are training or working with our dogs, we want to end the session with a success. If you are attempting to teach a new behavior or sharpen up something your dog already knows, instead of ending the session with the dog struggling to get it right, stop working on whatever it is that he’s struggling with and ask him for something you know he can do perfectly. Reward, release and then let him have some soak time. Let your dog quietly process what just happened in the session. You don’t want him to start associating the training with a negative because you were frustrated, and he couldn’t figure out what you wanted or how to do it correctly. If you want a dog who is happy and enthusiastic about training, make sure he can have a lot of success and always end on a high note.
Training is a lifestyle.
If you think spending an hour once a week at obedience class for 6 weeks is going to be the extent of what you will have to do in order to have a well-behaved and happy dog, you probably should have picked a different animal…I hear Pet Rocks are easy to train. Training a dog is all about consistency. You don’t have to practice with your dog for hours a day, nor is it beneficial to practice longer one day because you missed the previous day. If all you can easily fit into your busy schedule is 15 minutes of training with your dog, but you commit to do that 15 minutes EVERY DAY, then your dog will improve, your relationship will improve and you will see the results of that effort. Remember that you will never be finished training your dog. We are constantly teaching our dogs new things, guiding them into making good decisions and influencing their behavior as well as learning things from them. Training is a lifestyle and every interaction with your dog is training. It’s the accumulation of all the little day-to-day things you do with your dog and how you live with your dog; what you allow and what you don’t. Making sure you are consistent with your language and always following through when you give a command are the things that will make good behavior a habit for your dog.
Have a sense of Humor. It isn’t personal.
I cannot stress how important it is to not take the things your dog does personally. I think the reason people get so upset and frustrated with their dogs is because they feel like the dog is doing things just to ruin their day. Dogs are not vindictive, they live in the moment. They aren’t getting you back for something you did or didn’t do earlier and they aren’t trying to ruin your dinner plans. Dogs do the things they do because they’re dogs! With dogs, like most animals, you need to have a sense of humor. Don’t take it so seriously. Is training important? Yes, of course! But, is it the end of the world if your dog isn’t giving you the performance you expected? No. Dogs are animals; Animals are unpredictable by nature. Cut your dog some slack and cut yourself some too. Enjoy your dog and let them make you laugh every now and then!