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Doing It All: Steps for Success

training a dog

Years ago, when I was still brave enough to mount a horse, we were living in Germany where I took riding lessons at a German stable. I did not speak German very well nor did my instructor speak English. That was quite an experience, as my instructor shouted directions at me that I did not understand. I knew “Frau McMillan!” but that was it. So, thinking I was clever, I shifted something such as my feet forward or back, etc. Each move I tried always got another stern response. It didn’t take me long to give up that adventure as a hopeless one until I learned the language.

That lesson has served me well in the dog training world, as I can empathize with our dogs in training who do not know our language but are treated and expected to understand what we are telling them to do. Step one in training for any performance event is to TEACH our dogs the language. No matter which performance event one is training for, a standard training flow chart can be used. Let’s look at the steps needed to help our dogs learn and love it.


Step One

Step One is Luring, as it engages the dog or puppy and establishes that training is fun and rewarding. Key here is to use a lure that the dog values. If one notices that the trainee shows little interest in the offered treat, one needs to find something more to the dog’s liking. I have Labrador Retrievers who love everything, but other breeds I’ve had are not as food driven, so those dogs need something special. That special item could be anything from a smellier treat to a favorite toy. A good trainer will find the high-value item appropriate for each dog. In basic training I use food to lure dogs into positions, e.g., sits or downs using simple one-word cues and a happy voice. As soon as the position is taken, I praise and give the dog the treat or toy I used to lure him.


Step Two

Step Two: Rewarding. There is something magical about “three” in dog training, and although dogs vary, I can usually switch from luring to rewarding a dog after three training sessions. The difference between luring and rewarding is simply withholding the treat until the dog has followed the command instead of sticking the treat in its face to guide him into the position I want. Again, I keep it fun and happy. Some dogs have trouble with this transition, but by persisting and maybe luring a little, most dogs transition well. For those who struggle, any attempt to comply should be rewarded.

Perfection comes in stages and can be molded over time. Too much insistence on perfection early in training may yield a dog who doesn’t understand the difference between “Sit” and “Sit Straight,” gets frustrated, thinks training isn’t fun, and wants to quit. When a dog’s behavior demonstrates frustration or lack of interest, the trainer needs to help the dog succeed and, when he does, “jackpot” him and then quit. Let the dog think about the lesson and resume training another day. I often see a big improvement the next time we work. Plowing through and getting angry with the dog does not help and often makes a dog dislike training and try to avoid training sessions.


Step Three

Step Three: Weaning. This is the step some people skip. Many get away with skipping, but many do not. This step helps build the dog’s expectation because he learns to anticipate a treat reward, but he doesn’t know when it’s coming. When this step is complete, dogs work anticipating a treat as if they were being treated throughout the exercises they are performing. Any time attention wanes, I work to reengage the dog, then praise and treat. Timing is important such that you are reinforcing the desired behavior.

For instance, I have seen people sit their dogs, tell them to stay, and then treat the dogs when they release them. Timing here encourages the dog to think he gets treated when he gets up after his sit-stay, which only creates a problem with staying until released. Dogs think, “As soon as I get up, I get a treat, so the sooner the better.” Always reward as the dog is performing the desired behavior.


Step Four

Step Four: Corrections. This step is often necessary for dogs who understand commands but choose not to obey them. To be fair to the dog, one must analyze the situation before implementing corrections. Are you sure the dog heard you? Was there a difficult distraction? Are you sure the dog understands the exercise? If the answers to these questions are Yes, No, and Yes, it is time to correct.

Corrections range from soft verbal reminders (“Ah! Ah!”) to aversive physical ones. Before implementing a correction, a good trainer has determined the sensitivity of the dog to help him choose the right method. I prefer to start with the mildest correction and escalate until I get the response I want. In the field, attrition works well for many dogs. If my dog does not sit to the whistle, my first step is to verbally correct, “No, Sit.” Often, that’s all that is needed. I think it’s important to follow with praise, especially the next time the dog sits to the whistle. If the verbal correction doesn’t change behavior, the next step I take is a mild physical one.

In the field example here, my next step, if the dog continues to ignore my sit whistle, is to surprise him by going out to him, take him by his collar, walk him back to the spot where he failed to sit, blow the whistle again, and tell him “Sit” while I pull up on his collar. Hopefully that response will help the dog to understand what’s expected each time the sit whistle is blown. Again, the “rule of threes” comes into play. Whatever correction is selected, I find that if it doesn’t change behavior after three successive uses, I need to analyze the situation and consider a different approach.

training dogs
The anticipation created by Weaning.

Does the dog truly understand the command? If you aren’t sure or think he doesn’t, it’s time to back up, simplify, and reteach the basics behind this behavior. If the trainer is sure that the dog understands the command and still chooses to ignore the handler, the correction used was not the right correction for that situation and dog. I would advocate the introduction of other physical corrections at this point. Collar corrections using a collar pop are common in obedience in heeling.

Tapping a dog on his rump for not sitting is a mild form of physical correction. This may be all that is needed, but not all dogs are going to respond to these mild forms of corrections. So, other options should be explored. For instance, is it possible that this dog is a poor candidate for the performance event one is training for? Too young? Too distractable? Too independent? Sometimes finding a sport more suitable for that dog is an option one should consider. In another case, the dog may be perfectly suited for the chosen sport but is an insensitive one with high drive and lots of excitability.

Many very talented dogs not only need to learn the desired skills but also how to focus and concentrate on their job. These dogs often need a correction plan that is variable in intensity and manageable from a distance, such as in field training. An electronic collar serves this need well. The electronic collar has been demonized not because it is a nasty tool but because many people do not know how to use it correctly. Used wisely, it can protect a dog and help a dog to learn more quickly than other methods. Since many canine sports call for a handler to manage his dog from a distance (herding, hunting, etc.), the collar suffices well.

Modern electronic collars offer many features, including tone, vibrate, and electrical stimulation ranging from a low intensity that I can’t feel to a high one. Anyone who thinks an electronic collar would be a good option for himself should consult an experienced electronic collar trainer before beginning a collar program. It is not the answer for all dogs, but it can be a great help with many strong, confident, high-drive, high-energy dogs.

In conclusion, training is a step-by-step process. Luring helps the dog understand what you want and helps match a word to a behavior. Rewarding removes the need to lure and lets dogs anticipate that a good thing is coming. Weaning the reward to random rewards keeps the dog engaged and guessing when the next reward might appear. And Corrections should help solidify performance, making the dog more reliable and ring-ready. Remember, corrections should be as minimal as possible and used only when the dog absolutely understands what you are asking him to do. Be sure to keep a training log so that you know where your dog is along the training process. And most of all, have fun training!