As you probably know, training your dog has numerous benefits, for both you and your pooch. Training is crucial to him living happily with you and other family members, it helps avoid unwanted behaviors and it enhances your bond with your pet. We offer numerous articles on this website about how to train your dog, including step-by-step training plans for teaching specific cues. But there are a few basic do’s and don’ts that can help set up your dog — and you, of course — for success.
What to do
Let’s start with the things we want to focus on doing:
Take baby steps. Have a clear idea of the behavior you want and then break down the training required into small, attainable steps. Dogs learn better and enjoy training sessions more if they are successful and receive a reward. (Hey, who doesn’t?) If your dog doesn’t seem to be “getting” what you’re asking of him, think about how you can make the training process slightly easier. For example, if you are trying to teach the cue “down” and your dog just sits with a puzzled look on his face, start by rewarding him for simply lowering his head and then increase the criteria from there.
Be consistent. Dogs are exceptionally good with details. To your dog, “sit,” “sit down” and “Fido, sit” are different cues. With that in mind, make sure you are using exactly the same cue every time you ask your dog for a particular behavior. This strategy will help to avoid frustration on the part of you and your dog, and will help him to understand what you are asking.
Use positive reinforcement methods. Positive reinforcement means rewarding your dog with treats, toys, praise or whatever motivates him. Just like humans, dogs want some payoff for working. You can’t expect your dog to continually work for nothing. With that said, don’t overestimate how much praise means to your pet. (It’s great when your boss says “Good job,” but you also want that more tangible reward — your paycheck.) So, be generous with the treat or toy rewards, especially at the beginning. Once your dog learns a behavior, you can adjust the reward schedule, but you’ll want to keep rewarding him periodically for a job well done.
Seek help from a qualified professional for challenging behaviors. Dogs are complex beings and may exhibit behaviors that are beyond the scope of the average person to change. For more information on how to find a qualified professional to address a specific challenging behavior, read the article “Pet Behavior Help: Trainers, Behaviorists and Vets.”
What not to do
And now for those things we need to focus on not doing:
Don’t have your training sessions go longer than 20 minutes. Most dogs do best with training sessions of 10-15 minutes, so keep them short. Even five minutes of training can be very effective, especially if you are able to do it multiple times per day.
Don’t start training someplace with a lot of distractions. Like people, dogs learn more effectively if they aren’t distracted by a busy, noisy environment. For example, if you’re trying to teach your dog to sit, start the training in a quiet room in your home rather than at the neighborhood park, where you’d have to compete with animals, other people and noises for your dog’s attention. Once your dog is consistently performing the behavior on cue, you can start to proof it. “Proofing” means practicing a behavior in different environments and situations, until the dog generalizes the desired behavior and can do it anywhere, even with distractions.
Don’t use force, pain, fear or intimidation when training. It can be tempting to push your dog’s butt down when teaching him to sit or to yell “no” when he jumps up on you, but those methods can backfire. Some dogs may react with an aggressive response and others may completely shut down. Plus, it’s not healthy for your relationship with your dog and may even harm the bond you have with him. Training should be fun for the dog, not a scary and unpleasant experience.
Don’t get frustrated if you have a bad training session. Learning isn’t linear and your dog may fluctuate in his progress from day to day. Stay calm, keep the big picture in mind and do your best with the dog you have in front of you. If it’s not working, then stop the session and try again later or the following day.
Remember, this is about establishing long-term behavior for a long-term relationship. So take it slowly, and above all, have fun.