I am often asked what is the secret to success in training a dog. There is not a straight forward answer as there are a number of factors which each play a vital role.
One of the most important factors is the ability to create understanding by effective communication. Hypotheses into how dogs learn and learning theories go right back in time to the early 1900s with the work of Scientists like Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner. As a dog training professional not only is it important to understand these learning models but also imperative to be able to apply the principles successfully in the correct context and translate the Science, which is often complexed, into simple, effective methods which anyone can follow.
Training your dog to walk on a slack lead, returning when called and be well mannered are essential for all dogs. Owning a dog is a privilege and you as the owner are responsible for its behaviour, something people are more aware of with the recent changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act. Control doesn’t mean dictatorship or bullying it means providing positive leadership through motivation , training and relationship.
Training should be an activity which both the owner and the dog enjoy. Its primary focus is to teach a dog basic obedience skills which are essential for control. It is a fact that trained dogs have far better and fulfilled lives than those which are not trained.
To train your dog it is important to be able to reward him with something he really really wants. Many people fail to engage their dogs attention as their dog simply is not motivated to what’s on offer. If you think about it how hard would you work if the incentive was £1 compared to how much effort you would put in for £100?
If your dog isn’t interested and wanting to learn the whole process of teaching becomes difficult and indeed almost impossible. Think back to your school days some teachers were so uninspiring it was hard to keep your eyes open during their lessons where as others made the subject interesting meaning you enjoyed the lesson- which did you learn most from? Its exactly the same for our dogs. When training your dog your role is that of a teacher and as a teacher you need to create a situation where the dog is in the state of mind where he wants to learn.
So what makes dogs want to learn?
These are the three common ones used in training.
Praise and owners attention can be a really powerful motivator and indeed extremely rewarding to a dog, however many dogs are completely unmotivated and uninterested in their owners when there is any form of distraction.
Many people suffer from what I refer to as the ‘lassie syndrome’ and have a romantic vision that their dog will be naturally devoted and in tune with them wanting to be by their side returning when called. The reality is there are hundreds of dog owners who don’t let their dogs off the lead for fear they will not return. This always saddens me as when you think about it if you let your dog off the lead and it runs off never to be seen again there must be a real flaw in the relationship and the dog must not care about the owner at all!!
The relationship we have with our dog and how he perceives us is key to the control we have over him. It is essential that your dog views the attention you give him as a privilege not a right. Think about it, if your dog can come to you at anytime and get attention from you why would he be motivated by it?
To ensure your attention is a motivator its really easy all you need to do is be interesting and fun so he wants to be with you but the most important and critical thing is ONLY GIVE ATTENTION WHEN YOU INITATE IT NEVER WHEN HE COMES TO YOU ASKING FOR IT.
When I advise clients to do this they often worry it might upset their dog and stop the dog from loving them, actually it has the exact opposite affect and your dog will be much more attentive and appreciate your attention. It is imperative that you do not deprive him of your attention merely change when you give it. In essence your dog will still get the same amount of attention just when you decide not him.
Food can be a really useful training aid but unfortunately it is the motivator I see most misused in training. There are too many trainers who advocate the use of food in particular in puppy training , who do not have the knowledge to teach owners how to use the food as a reward not a bribe! The result is dogs which understand commands but will only do them if there owner is bribing them with a nice juicy treat. To me there is no skill required in getting a dog to walk to heel, sit etc with a tasty treat used as a lure however there is skill in progressing this where a dog performs an exercise and then is rewarded.
By using the Science of conditioning principles it is really easy to make food a reward rather than a bribe , so your dog understands he gets it but for doing something you want.
I concentrate on getting my dogs to be completely motivated by their special toy so that no matter what is going on around them they will focus completely on the toy and nothing else. To achieve this its important that the dog doesn’t have access to this special toy whenever he wants. Some trainers recommend dogs don’t have free access to any toys, I don’t, mine have a massive selection of toys but I control the access to my motivational toy. I create a situation where my dog understands that its my toy that I allow him to play with when I decide.
Every dog is different and have preferences for different types of toys and games. For example Jazz my Dutch Herder loves a ball on a rope whereas Lily my rescue mutt loves soft squeaky toys. Some dogs prefer chase games others prefer a retrieve game.
Regardless which ever toy or type of game our dog likes it is essential to teach some rules:
- no grabbing – they can only have it when you tell them,
- to bring it back when asked
- to release it immediately on command.
To motivate your dog you must make it exciting and fun so he focuses on you and the toy
By motivating your dog it creates a positive relationship and serves to strengthen the bond between you both. Additionally essential control exercises can be taught in a fun manner asserting your position as the leader which in term ensures you have a dog who is biddable, under control and happy to obey commands