By Jeff Stallings (CPDT-KA)
We all have an idealized vision of what a dog should be, the mutt in the Norman Rockwell painting, asleep at our feet while we snooze on the couch. In our mind’s eye, our dog stays when told, comes when called, loves kids and other dogs, and walks calmly by our side: the perfectly behaved friend, year after year.
Yet all you have to do is spend a few minutes in any dog park to find dogs far removed from that perfect mutt, pulling on leashes, jumping on strangers, ignoring their owners’ calls, starting fights or threatening people. Why are there so many poorly trained dogs? Part of the problem is information overload, competing and contradictory advice on the best way to train a dog, then frustration at the lack of progress when it doesn’t seem to be working. But there are scientifically-sound and time-tested routes to a better behaved dog.
Dog training techniques have changed dramatically in the last few decades, from coercion-based (aversive) methods to more positive approaches. While “positive reinforcement” is now by far the preferred way to teach a dog new tricks, there are times when other tools are effective, provided the dog is never physically, mentally or emotionally harmed. I defer to the Hippocratic model when devising a training program for any dog: First, do no harm.
We must make a distinction between objective training on the one hand and behavior modification (reconditioning) on the other; I employ different modes of training for each of these broad categories. Positive reinforcement, with judicious use of well-timed treats, is ideal for objective training, such as teaching a puppy to sit/stay or training a dog to settle in his bed. Like almost all dog trainers working today I use “clicker training” to teach new commands. In fact, this highly-effective method is now the preferred way of teaching desired behaviors to ANY animal, including marine mammals, horses, cats and even fish! Every animal you’ve seen in a TV show or film in the last 15 years or so has most definitely been taught their starring roles using clicker training.
On the flip side, when working to stop unwanted behaviors (leash pulling, aggression, separation anxiety), I use techniques called “desensitization” and “counter conditioning”. Desensitization exposes the dog to very low levels of the trigger and then increases the level until the dog has become accustomed to the trigger (a skateboarder, for example. ) Counter conditioning is teaching a dog to display a behavior that is counter to (mutually exclusive of) an unacceptable behavior in response to a particular stimulus. For example, a dog cannot be simultaneously jumping on guests and lying on his bed.
Most of my clients hire me to address problem behaviors. I never use fear or pain to train a dog because fear is counterproductive 100% of the time, and pain is unnecessary except in extreme cases of dangerous aggression. That said, to quickly modify dog behavior there must be a consequence for inappropriate behavior. Note that in regards to dog training, “consequence” is not the same as “pain“: I do not advocate inflicting pain in any way. But there are often more expeditious ways to teach a dog not to jump on people, for example, than ignoring the behavior.
While dogs don’t use language in the human sense, pretty much all they do is communicate. Rumps, heads, ears, legs and tails form their “words”, and they know how to translate this language intuitively. For dogs, posture can announce aggressive intent or shrinking modesty. If you learn how to read the basics of this language, you have a head start on behavior modification.
It is important to understand that dogs possess “extreme perception” which allows them to sense the world in astonishing ways we cannot even come close to imagining. Our far more developed frontal cortex filters out much of what we perceive before we become conscious of it, the price we pay for our advanced human intellect.
In contrast, dogs sense the world as real-time raw data, which bestows the ability to instantly read our intentions, emotions and vocal patterns. Coupled with the dog’s inherent pack nature, this extreme perception of human emotions and intent presents the fastest and most reliable route to your dog’s better nature. Dogs are also masters of human body language, so it is often more effective during training to stop talking and to communicate our desires via gestures and positions.
When you decipher a dog’s most basic body language and make corrections before he reacts inappropriately—and then clearly express the desired behavior in terms he can easily comprehend—you put in place the building blocks of a deep and sustained relationship, one in which you, the calm assertive human, make decisions and he, the dog, happily relinquishes any desire to do so.
Of all the means for training at your disposal—treats, toys, harnesses, collars—the one most conducive to success is you. By that I mean the attitude and energy you bring to the training process. We want your dog to understand that you’re the ideal decision maker: consistent, persistent and fair. Dogs are masters of reading and reacting to our emotions: If you are nervous or distressed, your dog will in turn become over-stimulated and agitated. Conversely, if you’re firm but calm and relaxed when walking or training, he will understand that you are in control and will relax and more readily comply with your lead and commands.
For objective training, such as the sit, stay and down commands, I teach my clients to use positive reinforcement techniques, including clickers and (very small) treats. Beyond that, for most dogs I prefer to use a head collar for loose leash walking, recalls and other functional behaviors. Head collars have one strap that fits high on the head, just behind the ears and a second one that fits loosely over the top of the muzzle, just below the eyes. This type of collar, approved as humane by the ASPCA and made by Halti, Gentle Leader or Holt, works in the same way as a bridle on a horse, allowing control of a dog’s head position and therefore, his focus. (Head collars do not fit well on short-muzzled dogs, such as French Bulldogs and Pugs, so I use other standard collars, such as Martingales, for training. ) In addition to improving control over a dog’s mental focus, head collars often have an immediate calming effect because the pressure points stimulate the same muzzle and head locations that mother dogs use to guide their pups.
All dog behavior problems—separation anxiety; aggression towards people or other dogs; fearfulness; not coming when called; sustained or inappropriate barking; leash aggression; food aggression, etc—are more readily solved when you provide three things for your dog: (1) regular and rigorous exercise, (2) clear rules, boundaries and direction established by you, the unambiguously fair leader, and (3) teaching, then reinforcing, heeled walks. It sounds easy because the concept is simple; the work comes in being consistent, persistent and fair. My training services focus on clearly demonstrating how to understand and address these issues, effectively and humanely.
Leash pulling is the number one problem reported by dog owners. Look around and you’ll see all sorts of hardware devices that attempt to address the problem, most distressingly pinch collars and choke chains. Many people give up and resign themselves to their dog pulling incessantly on the leash, which is a shame because it’s no more fun for the dog than it is the person, and it ultimately results in fewer walks, less exercise and a frustrated dog.
There’s a better way to stop your dog from taking you for a walk (instead of the other way around), and that’s by teaching him to heel, to walk calmly by your side, on-leash or off. I can get you started with this most crucial of behaviors in short order; afterwards other problems are easier and quicker to solve, including the number two reported problem, jumping on people.
You have an advantage training a puppy in that you have an opportunity to instill proper behavior before problems arise. The most important activity you can do when training a puppy is to expose him or her to as many different dogs, people, places, noises and activities as possible, especially if you live in an urban environment. Unsocialized dogs present the most challenging behavioral problems later in life, including fearfulness and aggression.
One of the services I provide is detailing steps you can take to puppy-proof your home and at the same time promote quick potty training. I’ll show you how to keep your puppy mentally engaged, duly active and out of trouble, with each and every interaction a learning opportunity. Puppies are a lot of work, but if you’re consistent, persistent and fair and provide ample exercise and direction, it all pays off for years and years. Let me take the guesswork out of puppy training and help jumpstart a peaceful, fulfilling relationship between all members of your household and your newest addition.