Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Resolution: Teach an Old Dog Owner New Tricks

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) officially made January ‘National Train Your Dog Month’. And it doesn’t hurt that it coincides with New Year’s resolutions as well (for those not so new pet parents that need to take a different approach on training).  

Training a dog is a very important part of responsible dog ownership.  And while we all think it’s a no brainer not many owners realize that they have replaced training with extra love and treats.  Then, when the dog does something bad, he gets screamed at and possibly punished, but the bad behavior is never corrected and he never understands what he did wrong, so the bad behavior continues.  To avoid these incidents, a dog should begin his training as soon as he comes home with you, puppies included. 

As Cesar Millan, and any other trainer will tell you, dogs live in the now (the present).  They aren’t thinking about the life they use to have before you adopted them, or how they got in trouble last week for digging; all of that is in the past.  So, the first step to getting a well-behaved dog is to change the way you think about your dog. Think about your dog in the present.  What is he?  Is he a child? Is he a war veteran? Is he a nurse?  No, he is a dog.  While he may depend on you like a child, may have been rescued from an abusive home, and may stay by your side while you are sick, none of that matters in the present.  Those are experiences that have happened in the past and not the dog that stands in front of you today. 

I know a lot of pet parents do not believe that their dog’s past life does not affect him.  But I can tell you from experience, it only affects your dog because you hold on to it, not because your dog does.  If you want to see real changes in the way he behaves, you have to let go of his past and start from scratch. Sometimes dogs do become psychologically skewed (and not just from abuse) and that damage needs to be undone before you can move forward.  So, if you want your dog to become the perfect model citizen (which you should) then you have to be willing to put in the time, energy and effort it takes to go back to the basics. 

1.       Needs - Let’s start with basic needs.  When a dog’s basic needs are brought up in conversation most people automatically think food, water, shelter.  And while those answers are correct, most people do not think of another basic need, which is psychological.  Dogs need a purpose.  Whether it’s hunting, giving protection, or companionship, dogs need something to focus on and succeed at.  Acknowledging that basic need and combining it with a dogs drive to please their human will result in much more successful training sessions. 

2.       Attention - As you get ready to start your training session, keep your dog’s attention span in mind.  If you want your dog to succeed, keep each training session short and sweet.  Most dogs can’t learn to (or retain the commands for) sit, shake, and rollover in the same day.  And if you want reliable obedience then you need to be repetitive and patient.  Most dogs can give you their focused attention for 10 – 15 minutes. 

3.       Abilities - Remember that all dogs are different.  Some abilities, like retrieving, may come easier to a Labrador while other abilities, like sprinting, come more naturally to a Greyhound.  The pace at which your dog learns a command does not matter.  All that matters is the end result, which should always be the mastered command. 

4.       Consistency - The key to successful training is consistency, consistency, consistency!  All too often owners get frustrated and give up on their dog’s training.   Either they stop training completely or they accept mediocrity.  This is setting your dog up for failure.  When you reward a partial sit rather than a full sit you are telling your dog that he is doing what you want.  Now you have a dog that does not give you a consistent sit on command, but you can’t blame the dog (even though you want to), because he has been taught (and reinforced with rewards) that what he is giving you is what you want.  Inconsistency is most apparent in multiple person homes.  If no one is on the same page with training then the dog is constantly receiving mixed signals about what behavior is acceptable.  If you want to turn your dog into a model citizen you must follow through and make sure everyone in the household (including guests who visit) is expecting the same behavior from the dog.  If jumping is not allowed, no one should encourage or allow jumping.  If dogs are not allowed on the couch, then they should never be allowed on the couch regardless of who is sitting with them.

Try this exercise with your dog:  Take your dog for a car ride around the block.  When you get home, pretend you just adopted him.  He has no past that you know of but you were told of a couple personality traits such as he doesn’t like cats, and he tends to bark (of course, your dog may have different habits). You took a couple of What to Expect When Expecting a Dog classes and you feel pretty confident about being the pack leader to this dog (since you made so many mistakes with the last one).  
  • When you reach the front door of the house you enter first and invite him in.  You can ask (or make) him sit at the door first before you invite him in but the important thing is to show him that it is your home.  
  • Keep him on a leash and have him follow you around for the rest of the day.  Do not let him on the couch, or bed, or in any room you don’t want him to be in (such as the kitchen).  Even if you are ok with him on the couch or bed, he must learn that it isn’t his right to sit wherever he pleases but that he must earn his place in the pack.  

The point of this exercise is to teach him that you are the pack leader and you control what he can and cannot do in your home. 

This is not an easy exercise, especially for those who let the dog run the house.  It is hard to watch your dog be unable to do what he wants or play when he wants, but this psychological shift has to happen in order for you to regain control in your home.  Once you have your symbolic fresh start underway, you can start resetting the foundation of successful training.  That means going back and perfecting the basic commands that are often taken for granted; Come, Sit, Stay.

So now that you have a different perspective on your dog, try retraining the basic commands, and don’t give up until you have a model canine citizen.