Training is important to your relationship with your dog. Most dogs want to please but because they speak a different language, they often don’t understand what we want. Training gives us a language in which we can communicate with our dog in a way we both can understand. Training can be introduced to dogs of any age, contrary to the belief that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Most obedience classes will start accepting puppies as soon as they have finished their full set of puppy shots. It is not wise to start puppies in class sooner because they will not be protected from the many diseases they will encounter in the outside environment until the entire series of shots is complete. You can, however, start with some basic obedience at home. There are many good books on the subject; one we recommend is The Art of Raising a Puppy by The Monks of New Skete.
- Crate Training/Housebreaking
- Exercise and Socialization
- Excessive Barking
- Biting and Chewing
The training suggestions made below are all examples of preventive training. This simply means that you try to prevent your dog from exhibiting inappropriate behavior by keeping an eye on him when he is with you, or by keeping him in his crate or puppy-proofed area when you cannot keep an eye on him. We believe this is much easier than trying to modify undesirable behavior once it is learned. This type of training requires more participation from the owner as far as constant supervision and consistency, but in the long run it is far less stressful on both owner and dog.
Crate training is the best method we have found for housebreaking a dog or puppy. It is NOT putting your dog in jail, and you are NOT being cruel if you follow these tips. Dogs feel secure in small, enclosed spaces, like a den. Dog crates make excellent dens and can provide a safe place for your dog to stay when you’re away or when you cannot watch him.
If you’ve watched dogs, you’ve probably noticed them sleeping most soundly under a table, desk or chair–somewhere out of the traffic pattern where they have a roof overhead and a little privacy. A crate offers security, a den with a roof, and a place for dogs to call their very own where they can go to get away from it all. Owners who have crate trained their dogs but then leave the crate doors open report that their dogs go into the crate on their own when they’re ready for bed or just want a little snooze.
Crate training is not difficult if you are consistent and follow a few basic steps:
- Choose a crate that is just large enough for your dog to have room to stand up, turn around and lie down. He is not going to live in his crate, so it does not need to be huge. In fact, if you get too big a crate it will defeat your purpose. The reason crate training works is that dogs do not like to eliminate where they sleep or eat. If the crate is too big, the dog can eliminate in one end and sleep in the other. If you have a puppy, you should buy a crate large enough to accommodate him when he is full grown. You can use a crate divider or box (something chew resistant) to fill the extra space until he grows.
- Use a single word command such as “kennel” to ask your dog to enter his crate, throw in a treat or piece of dog food, and when your dog enters, praise him and close the crate door. Start by leaving him in the crate only a short time and gradually increase the time he spends in his crate. If he cries, ignore it! Do not let him out until he has been quiet for five minutes. If you do, you will teach him that crying is how he gets his way, and you will have a dog with a new bad behavior.
Dogs should not live in their crates, and if you leave them too long they will have to make a mess whether they want to or not. Puppies can only last a couple of hours between potty breaks, and adult dogs should not be left in their crate more than 6 to 8 hours. Always take your dog outside to the same place in the yard right before crating him and immediately after you take him out of his crate. Give him a simple command like “Do your business”, and when he does, LAVISH praise on him. Act like your dog has just won the Nobel Prize for Dogs. You can give him verbal praise, petting, treats or playtime, or all of the above. The greater the praise, the greater the incentive to do it again. If your dog won’t do his business and wants to play, take him back in and put him in his crate. He has to learn that the potty spot is for business only. Try again in 15-30 minutes until you have success.
Once business is done outside, the dog can be allowed some freedom in the house, but remember you must be able to watch him. If you don’t watch him, you cannot catch him in the act. If you don’t catch him in the act, you can’t teach him not to do it. Dogs only remember things they’ve done for about 3-5 minutes, so rubbing his nose in it later will do no good. Your dog may look “guilty” when you start yelling, but that is because he knows you are upset about something–tho’ he doesn’t have the vaguest idea about what. If you see your dog start to squat in the house, give a firm NO and take him immediately to his potty spot. Give him his command and praise him lavishly if he complies.
One of the most common errors in housebreaking is going too fast. We want to give our dogs freedom, so we may give them too much too soon. Try to give freedom gradually. Start with the crate during periods when you can’t watch your dog. When you’re satisfied that he’s going outside and not soiling the crate, then try giving him freedom in one room. Keep expanding his “area” until his area is the whole house. If he has an accident or two, it means you’re moving a little too fast, and you will have to back up and slow down. No big deal–he’ll get it, it’s just going to take a little more time.
Speaking of time, this is a time consuming process, but it will be well worth the time spent once the training is complete. The more consistent and conscientious you are about this training, the quicker your dog will learn. Keeping him on a regular feeding, drinking and elimination schedule will help. Dogs need to go out 15-30 minutes after eating, and puppies need to go out after eating, playing or waking up. Avoid late night snacks to avoid early morning surprises. If your dog does not seem to be learning despite your best efforts, see your vet to be sure there isn’t a medical reason. Bladder infections and changes in diet are just a couple of the things which could be causing your dog to have accidents despite his best efforts.
Exercise and proper socialization of your dog will have a big effect on how your dog behaves. We have our jobs, our friends, our hobbies to keep us entertained. Our dogs have only us. If we don’t provide them with some form of entertainment, they are going to get bored, and that boredom will lead to chewing, barking, digging and other forms of undesirable behavior. If we don’t spend enough time with them, they are going to go wild when they see us, jumping up and maybe even knocking us over in their excitement. This is not their fault. It is ours. We all have busy lives, but we have made a commitment to our dog and we should honor that commitment by spending time with him.
Spending time with our dog doesn’t have to mean an enormous time commitment. A 15-20 minute walk daily can make a big difference. Taking a training class, throwing the frisbee or ball, wrestling on the floor, etc. all are ways of bonding with our dog. Any kind of exercise where your dog can burn off some excess energy is good for his behavior and his health. If your dog isn’t enjoyable to spend time with because he’s had no training, we recommend a training class as the place to start.
Training classes are also good places to work on socialization of your dog. Your dog needs to see other people and other dogs regularly to become properly socialized. And obedience isn’t the only kind of training available–there are agility and other types of classes that many dogs and owners find extremely fun. If classes aren’t for you, try regular trips to the park, store or other public place where your dog can interact with children, adults and other dogs. Always properly supervise your dog, and if your dog shows signs of aggression seek the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist right away before he has too much time to practice that behavior.
Barking is your dog’s method of communication–he’s telling you he’s bored, he’s lonely, he needs to go out, he’s scared of something or he’s alerting you to the presence of another animal or person. Barking is not bad behavior, but if we want to reduce the amount of it we need to get the message our dog is sending. Ask yourself what you think he’s telling you. If he’s been confined for a while or has not had much exercise, he’s probably bored and needs some playtime or he needs to go out to do his business. If he barks while you are gone, he’s probably lonely. Try leaving the radio or tv on so that he will be comforted by human voices, and don’t make a scene saying goodbye when you leave. If he still barks too much, see your trainer, behaviorist or veterinarian. They now have drugs for “separation anxiety” which can be very effective when used with behavior modification. If your dog is scared of something, show him through positive reinforcements and a cheerful attitude and tone of voice that it is really not that scary. If your dog is telling you about the presence of another animal, person or object, try praising him for doing his job, then give a command like “enough” or “quiet”. Praise him and/or give him a treat if he obeys. If he does not, there are various training techniques you can employ, but the basic philosophy is that you must make yourself more interesting and reinforcing to your dog than the distraction so that he will turn his attention to you and stop barking when you command him to do so.
Dogs need to chew to relieve stress and excess energy. In fact, puppy teething is a natural part of development. Our job is to make sure that they have appropriate things on which to chew. Just as you baby proof your home before bringing home a new baby, you must puppy proof your home before bringing home a new dog or puppy. Look at your house from the vantage point of the dog–it will be a pretty neat new playground for him and everything within reach is fair game. It’s simple– if you don’t want something chewed up, don’t leave it within reach. If you do, don’t blame the dog, blame yourself when he shreds it.
As your dog learns the rules, over time he can be trusted with more and more things which are accessible to him, but just like with housebreaking, your dog needs to earn his freedom step by step. If you can’t watch your dog and there are things he could chew, he should be crated or restricted to an area with no temptations. When you can watch him, if he starts to chew on something that is off-limits, say “no” or “drop” and immediately give him a safe chew toy. If he turns his attention to the chew toy, praise him like crazy! It’s a good idea to have a few favorite toys in reserve for this purpose. If you restrict his access to these toys, it will make them more special and a more enticing substitute for things like your shoes. When choosing substitutes, do not use old shoes or other items that should not be chewed when new. Even toys resembling these items can confuse your dog. Stick to things like chew bones and doggie toys.
Speaking of bones, we recommend that you do not give rawhide bones, especially if your dog is unattended. These bones can cause them to choke. Nylabones or edible bones like the Roarhide bones are better choices in our experience. NEVER give your dog chicken bones as these can splinter and puncture internal organs. In fact, we recommend never giving your dog actual bones of any type. If you have questions about the best chew bones or toys for your dog, see your veterinarian.
Some dogs want to bite and chew on people from a very early age. While this may be natural, it is not good and should be discouraged. People are not their chew toys, and such biting and chewing should be diverted to an appropriate object. Some trainers think that uncorrected biting and chewing can lead to aggressive behavior later, and most trainers suggest that there is also a link between aggressive behavior and rough play and tug-of-war games.
Our dogs want to please us. If we can communicate what we want clearly to them, they will almost always do it. Most trainers think that dogs understand tone of voice, body language and eye contact, so we need to learn to use these tools effectively to talk to our dogs in a way they can understand.
Tone of Voice
Dogs are thought to understand three tones of voice:
- High-pitched, excitable tones. These can be used to motivate your dog to come or heel and to praise for a job well done.
- Matter-of-fact tones. These are excellent for giving commands–they are calm and direct.
- Lowered tones which would simulate a growl from mom. These mean “stop it now.”
Body language can also communicate volumes to a dog. We are so much taller than they are that we can be intimidating without meaning to be. We need to be aware of that and make accommodation for dogs that are timid. How quickly you move and how you approach a dog are crucial. Approaching at a reasonable pace or encouraging the dog to come to you, allowing the dog to sniff and get comfortable with you before trying to pet him, squatting down to his level, talking to him in a friendly tone of voice, offering him a treat or toy are all ways to increase the dogs’s comfort level. Some dogs must get to know you on their own timetable, and the more you try to force yourself on them, the longer that timetable will be. Do not try to console your dog when he shows fear because this will send the message that it is okay to be afraid. Instead, if you adopt a positive attitude about the fearful circumstance by laughing and talking in cheerful happy tones, your dog is more likely to pick up on your mood.
Use eye contact with your dog like you do with humans to emphasize your words. Looking directly into your dog’s eyes with love says one thing. Looking directly into your dog’s eyes with intensity after he has just disobeyed you says something completely different. We know the difference, and they know the difference. Use it to your advantage.
If your dog won’t look at you, you might try developing eye contact with the “watch me” game. Command your dog to “watch me” and simultaneously raise a treat to the bridge of your nose. The instant he looks at you, praise and give him the treat. Doing this regularly will teach him to look at you on command.
Dogs and puppies do not understand being hit. While it may be a natural impulse to bop your dog when he is acting in a way you don’t like, it is really counterproductive. It will confuse him, cause him to mistrust you, and can actually reinforce bad behavior. Many trainers believe that a dog would rather be yelled at than ignored. They compellingly argue that, just like a child, a dog who is not getting enough positive attention will misbehave to get negative attention. If you ignore the bad behavior (to the extent you can without endangering the dog or others), your dog will look for other ways to behave which will get your attention. If you reward the desired behavior and ignore the undesired behavior, sooner or later (it doesn’t happen overnight) you will get only the desired behavior.