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Dog Training Basics

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Dog Training

Providing the pets with whom we share our home with a solid training foundation is one of the most important things we can do. This training can establish the relationship that will define both our own interactions with our pets and their interactions with other humans and fellow pets. Whether it is the arrival of a new puppy, a dog just brought home from a pet adoption program, or a dog training refresh for a longtime friend (you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!), a few key dog training tips can help understanding the basics of positive, fear-free training can help you to plan and maintain a strong learning regimen for your pets.  

Learning the Lingo - A Few Basic Keywords

Dog training has changed quite a bit in the past few decades as our understanding of canine cognition and social development has broadened. Gone are the days when trainers recommended rubbing a puppy’s nose in an elimination accident in the house.  As our knowledge has expanded, we have come to recognize that positive, fear-free training has a more powerful, long-lasting impact on pet behavior. AVSAB, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, has published a number of guidelines outlining the current thoughts on animal training. Listed below are a number of terms you will often hear when discussing dog training, either during your veterinary visits or with a qualified dog trainer.  

Positive Reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is only a piece of a larger technique known as operant conditioning, but it is the most commonly discussed side of this exciting box of behavior-shaping tools. The basic definition is that in providing something your dog wants (often called ‘currency’ by trainers) you can strongly influence the chance that a particular behavior will reoccur.  Most of us think first to treats, but this can be anything from a tiny food item to verbal praise, toys, petting, or playtime. In the veterinary clinic, staff will often spend the first puppy visit teaching a puppy to sit, an important staple in learning obedience. This is done not by using a command word, but by simply providing treats and/or attention when the puppy sits and removing it when the puppy stands up or jumps. Because attention is what the puppy is looking for and is awarded with, it learns to sit quickly.

Punishment. AVSAB states the traditional aim of punishment is to add an aversive action or item to a training event to reduce the likelihood of a behavior recurring. The most common method used in earlier decades was to rub a pet’s nose in a urine accident inside the house in an effort to housebreak her. Veterinary Behaviorists caution against this type of dog training method, as it has been shown to lead towards more fearful and potentially aggressive encounters while positive reinforcement is essential to building strong, trusting relationships with your pet.  

Reward. While our first thought concerning reward might be treats, not all pets are so food focused as to make a treat reward powerful enough motivator. Some dogs are more driven by attention, petting, or playtime. When beginning any lesson, it is important to discover what motivates your pet best, and to use that motivator when you train.  

Timing Is Everything - Do Not Wait for Puppy Class

A question often asked by new pet parents is when to begin training.  The answer is: immediately. While this is an essential step for new puppies and adopted pets, this can also be important for older dogs whom pet parents are looking to modify particular behaviors or teach new tricks.

With puppies and newly adopted pets, starting training immediately can help to reduce the development of negative habits that must be trained out of them at a later date. Most puppies aren’t introduced to a ‘puppy class’ until they are past the most formative period of their lives - the first 16 weeks.  This is necessary because dog trainers wish to ensure that all the puppies that come to class are appropriately vaccinated and protected from easily transmitted diseases such as Parvovirus or Bordetella (kennel cough).  Pet parents will often wait to begin any type of behavior training until that first class, allowing ‘puppies to be puppies.’ In doing so, they lose out on teaching them during a stage where young dogs are mentally developing concrete behavior patterns.  

Older pets might lack the lightning speed mental development of a young dog, but they are still capable of learning. It may take longer for them to adjust to a new behavior plan, so starting immediately instead of waiting for that first class can help to develop those lines of communication.  This leads to the most important part of training...

Consistency Is Key

The greatest threat to a good training program is a lack of consistency and regularity. When beginning a new endeavor, like leash training for going on walks, it is vital to either ensure that there is a single trainer who is working with the pet, or make sure that the whole family is on board with training. This includes making sure everyone uses the same cues, commands, and reward system.  When every family member is training the pet to perform the same task, but with different expectations or instructions, the result is a confused pet with unreliable responses to requested behaviors.

A regular training schedule is also essential, especially in the early stages of introducing a new behavior. Just like memorization or learning a new skill, training with your dog regularly can help to keep the new skill or trick fresh in his mind.  The repetition will solidify and strengthen the behavior.

Patience, Persistence, Practice... PERFECT Fun!

As you embark on your next training endeavor, the most important thing to remember is that every single pet is different. Each dog, even within the same breed, will learn differently and at varying speeds. While some pets will pick up new tricks and behaviors quickly and within the first session, others will need more training to finally pick up on what you are trying to teach.  If things seem to be going a little slow, it never hurts to sit back and reevaluate the value of the reward you are offering, and the regularity of the training sessions.

No matter what your training goal might be, make sure you both have fun. When introducing a new training program starting with shorter sessions and ending on a good note can go a long way towards a positive learning experience. Never let a session get to the point of frustration, and always make sure the old trick is solid before moving on to a new one.

Find the Right Professional

Training with your pet can be an exciting way to develop better understanding and communication, as well as modifying or eliminating unwanted behaviors.  These interactions can lead to a higher quality of life for both of you. If you’re unsure where to start, the first place to look would be with your local veterinarian.  Discuss with the veterinary staff who know your pet what methods and plans they might recommend. Some clinics offer after hours classes, while others have established relationships with pet trainers and behaviorists that share their views on training. ACVB, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, also has a checklist of questions and considerations to use when searching for the right trainer.

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