Latest News 2017 April The Basic Principles of Dog Training

The Basic Principles of Dog Training

So you've just got a puppy! Congratulations—but now you need a way to figure out how to keep your puppy safe, how to let it know what you want, and how to figure out what it wants from you! That's all that training is: a way for you and your dog to understand each other more clearly and set your expectations early on.

Whether you're training a puppy, a classroom full of kids, or a new hire, there's one basic principle to getting lasting results: reward good behavior, and ignore behavior that you don't want repeated. Obviously, discipline is necessary on rare occasions, but by rewarding positive behavior, you create an association between the action you want and the reward they want. That's key to effective training.

Below, we put together some basic tips and principles for being a good trainer—and included a list of commands that you can start with today!

The Most Important Thing to Remember

Your dog will never understand why you get angry. They're not wired to understand emotions the same way that we do—so when you get angry, they don't make a connection to their barking or their lack of potty training. They just see a big human acting aggressively or loudly, and that makes them nervous, agitated, or more likely to tune you out.

That's why you need to avoid getting upset during training. Be calm, be assertive, and be neutral—that way, your training sessions will be about your commands (not your energy).

These are the tools of every good trainer:

  • Treats
  • Toys
  • Praise
  • Petting

A trainer's toolkit should not include physical punishment, yelling, kicking, pulling, or any other aggressive or aversive-style training. These things have the tendency of getting out of hand—especially when you're frustrated or your dog is having a bad day for obedience (which happens).

The Fundamental Principle of Training

Teaching your dog to behave is about helping them associate good behavior with rewards. The stronger the association, the better they will behave. All training should be geared toward nurturing the connection between a.) obeying your command, and b.) getting their reward.

For example, when you first begin training:

  • Say the command-word immediately after they do the behavior
  • Reward them with a treat within a second of following your command
  • Gently guide your dog into doing what you want (e.g. sitting, lying down, etc.)*
  • Continue to reward their good behavior outside of training time

*One of the best ways to do this is to use your hand (with a treat inside) to guide your dog's head so they naturally do what you need them to do. For example, raise your hand high above their head to get them to sit. Bring your hand down low to get them to lie down.

Maintaining your dog's association between action and rewards requires consistency. If you see them behaving well outside of training, reward it. If they're misbehaving outside of training, don't reward it—ignore it.

Scheduling the First Training Sessions

You'll want to set aside about 15 minutes per training session. We recommend doing two sessions a day if you can. Because puppies are like toddlers, they have short attention spans—but will need frequent reinforcement. In the beginning, you'll want to eliminate distraction, so begin your sessions indoors at first. Move outdoors as your pup begins to understand your commands more consistently.

Don't schedule training when your dog won't have energy or strength! Don't interrupt their play time (it'll only frustrate you), and don't try training them when they're hot or tired. Ideally, you want your dog energetic, but ready to be attentive.

However, you'll want to make sure that your pup is hungry when you begin training, so schedule sessions right before meal times. A sharp appetite will create a sharp listener, and having an empty stomach will make your treats much more compelling as rewards.

Focus on these first few commands when you start out:

  • Sit
  • Lie down
  • Come
  • Stay
  • Leave it (use one treat in each hand—reward them for ignoring the treat in your "bait" hand)

It's important to start small with each of these. For example, if you're teaching your dog to come to you when you ask, start by being only a few steps away. Then step further away. Increase the distance until your dog responds to your command from several yards or more. Start small, and increase the difficulty/range as your dog gets more skilled.

Finally, make sure you say each command only once. If they don't obey, sit and wait until they understand. Show them the action again if necessary, and then repeat the command. Repeating the same command-word over and over is useless (they heard you—they're just not listening) and it may train your dog to tune out your commands.

About Treats (& Other Tips You'll Need)

When choosing a treat, make sure you pick something chewy and small. Usually, a treat the size of a pencil eraser is enough to create a positive association. Too big of a treat fills up your dog too quickly—and a hard-to-chew treat will slow down your training.

Feel free to use "high-stakes" treats for difficult or advanced commands. Ham, chicken breast, frozen liver, and other treats can help give your pup a little extra motivation. Don't overuse these though; you could end up diluting the impact of your "regular" treats.

As Your Dog Gets Better at Obeying

When your dog has a strong reward association for a particular task, use treats and petting less and less. If you've done your training well, their expectation of a reward will keep them behaving well—even if you don't reward them every time. Over time, the association alone will motivate your dog to obey your commands without any need for treats.

However, it's still good to use treats from time to time, just to reinforce that association.

Through it all, the one thing you need to always give your dog is verbal praise. Praise is one the most fundamental rewards you can give your dog—and by the end of training, praise will be the only tool you need to keep your dog safe, happy, and aware of what you want.