Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Training related questions are the most common questions that I get asked by my puppy buyers.

One mistake that I find many pet owners make is to ignore good behavior and correct for bad behavior. While this may seem to be the obvious route to take, doing this will inhibit your dog's ability to learn quickly and happily.

Dogs do not learn without being reinforced for their good behaviors. How else are they to know what we want from them? We can teach what we do not want with a negative voice and response, but it takes a huge amount of time to shape a correct behavior using negative responses to incorrect behavior. Dogs work for praise/games or food. Most people do not use praise correctly as it requires much more than a monotone "good girl" to be a high level positive reinforcement. This is why cookies are generally more effective, but both work if used correctly. If you want your English Cocker to work for praise, "have a party" with her when she has done something great and have a short play session with a toy. Alternate food and praise as rewards. A dog who already knows something well can receive very low level rewards (such as verbal praise) and be happy. A much higher level of reward is required with a young dog. When I am doing obedience training with a novice dog, I use tons and tons of treat. With a higher level dog, like my six year old Sophie, a stick of cheese can go a very, very long way.
Another thing to remember is that if a puppy or novice dog does something wrong twice, go back to an easier step where she can be successful. It is important for your dog to be successful more often than she is wrong. This will build her desire to please. It may not seem like it, but she is learning more when she does something correctly and is praised than she learns if she is corrected for the wrong behavior. So, if I am working downs, I put the puppy in a down wait, wait one second, say good down wait, and feed (happy voice). I try again, waiting five seconds. If the puppy waits, it is good down wait and feed, if not, I lure the puppy in to a down or gently push her down (depending on the puppy as some resist being pushed) and say, no, gotta down, gotta wait (still a happy voice.) You can pull gently down on the collar while saying this. Give the command again, if she is wrong again, go back to one second so that you can praise and feed for the correct behavior.

The other mistake that pet owners often make is to faze out food too quickly. Question: When do I stop using treats?? Answer: Never!

Once your dog understands a behavior and reliably offers it to you when asked, you can switch to intermittently offered treats. However, if you completely stop rewarding the behavior, your dog will eventually stop giving you that behavior (-: When I visit the dog park with my dogs, I always have my pockets full of cookies. I call my dogs and feed cookies for their recalls. I often get asked how my dogs have such nice recalls even around so much distraction. My answer is that my dogs are continually rewarded for coming to me. They are just waiting until the moment I say their names to start running to me as fast as they can.

My dog doesn't know how to (?)

I suggest that you take a class with your dog. The majority of dog owners (myself included) learn much better when receiving feedback from an experienced trainer who is watching you work with your dog. You may not have the correct timing for your rewards or commands and may need help before your dog will completely understand the behaviors you are asking for. I know quite a bit about training my own dogs and I still take classes. Every time I take a class I learn something new or remember something that I have forgotten. Also, classes provide an environment full of distractions to train around and a structured training schedule.

When you are taking classes DO YOUR HOMEWORK. It is not enough to take a class and not work your dog in between classes. In order to get the most from your class, train your dog at least 2-3 times in between classes. Your training sessions can be short and sweet. Set a kitchen timer for the length of time you want to train for (I recommend under a half hour) and work until the timer goes off. Keep it positive and make sure you end on a successful note. If you get stuck on something, make a mental note to ask your instructor to work with you on that in class, and move on to something else. Never work the same command unsuccessfully. If you are unsuccessful, you need outside help before you and your dog become frustrated.

One other comment I commonly get is: My dog is too wild when I train with food!

This means that your dog is highly motivated by food. Please do not stop using food, which may be your initial response. If your dog or puppy becomes a little crazed when you bring out the cookies, you need to take the time to work through this. Continue using food and continue training. Eventually, your puppy will concentrate more on learning and working to get the cookie. It may take a bit of time for your puppy to understand that the point of training is not to leap for food, but to work for it. If your puppy is highly motivated by food, it is a blessing and not a curse. Continue working through it and continue building the association between food and training. A highly food motivated dog who understands that certain behaviors will be rewarded with food will eventually be very reliable about offering those behaviors (-: I love to work with an energetic, food motivated puppy myself (-:

I can't seem to get motivated to train (or) I don't have time to train my dog.

Neither of these are a very good excuse for not training your dog. Training time provides mental and physical exercise for your dog as well as time for the two of you to bond. An obedience class is just 1 hour a week. If you are lacking motivation, sign up for a class as the structure will be good for you. If you are lacking time, try to train for just ten minutes every night. Short training sessions are great for your dog, and ten minutes a night becomes 70 minutes of training a week.

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