As a dog trainer, the two questions I get asked the most are “Is my dog trainable?” and “How long will it take?” Well, I think it’s time for this trainer to reveal her secrets. (Spoiler alert: the real answer is, it’s up to you!)
Trainability has nothing to do with age nor is there a magic bean that makes your dog miraculously and spontaneously know basic obedience. There are three basic tenets you need in order to train your dog. It’s your job to make sure you have:
- The right motivation
- Great timing, and
Once you have these three things, dog training is simple (although not always easy)! Let’s look at what each of these pillars of dog training means for you.
First off, motivation is important because it gives your dog something to work for. I like to compare doggy motivation to our payroll. Would you be really motivated to get up every morning and put in a long day of work for $7.50 an hour? Possibly, if you have a really great work ethic or really love your job. But do you think you’d be more motivated if you were getting paid $15 an hour? Most likely. Another factor to keep in mind: what motivates me can be different than what motivates you. The same goes for our dogs. Luckily for us, most dogs are extremely food-motivated, which means that when you pull out a treat, they’ll try a bunch of behaviors to get it.
But that doesn’t mean there’s consensus amongst our dogs on which treat is the most motivating. Lassie may eagerly work for her dinner kibble, Fido might think freeze-dried liver is the best and Rex might turn his nose up at everything but salami. You need to find what your dog likes! Lay out a mini buffet and see what really makes your pup drool. Get creative! Some interesting things I’ve seen in class are blueberries, Cheetos and brisket tacos. More traditional choices usually include training treats, hot dogs, and cheese.
When discovering what treats to use for training, I recommend having a few different choices ranging from the “Oh, that was tasty” side to the “Hot diggity dog! Gimme more of that!” Use the tasty but not-so-exciting treats for training inside the house or in low-distraction environments. If you can get away with kibble, even better! (But keep in mind that most dogs won’t work super hard for kibble since it’s given to them in abundance 2 or 3 times a day. Borrrring!) Use the treats your dog goes nuts over when you’re training in more stimulating environments – outside, on the walk, at the park, or obedience class.
A word of caution: Be sure to do some research before you start handing your pooch everything from the fridge. Most people know that chocolate is toxic to dogs, but what about other foods? A good rule of thumb is “what’s nutritionally good for us is good for them” but there are a few exceptions such as grapes, onions and macadamia nuts. Who knew?
Now, things can get a bit trickier for you if your pup isn’t highly motivated by food. For dogs who love toys, carry a tug toy in your pocket and offer them a quick tug as a reward instead of a treat. Play motivation is the most difficult kind of motivation to work with. With food treats, you just toss a piece into your dog’s mouth and move on to the next command, but playing even a quick game of fetch takes more time and patience from you. This kind of motivation is easier to work with in a one-on-one setting and really difficult in a group class. Every once in a while I’ll have a dog in a class that just can’t take his eyes off the other dogs because he wants to play so badly. If only we could get a dog at the end of a stick to wave around the pooch’s face to get their attention!
The next ingredient in our dog training recipe is timing. We must immediately, almost simultaneously to the behavior, communicate to our dog if we liked that behavior or not. Dogs live in the moment. Yes, they have a memory and certain stimuli can elicit feelings of fear or excitement, but those emotions never exist in a moment thinking of a past event. If you like (or dislike) the behavior they’re offering, you must let them know immediately! Neurologically, this is the only way their brain can connect the dots between their behavior and your response. Let’s look at two examples of teaching a dog to sit.
Jane has a tasty, motivating treat which she uses to lure her dog into a sit. The instant her dog’s booty touches the ground, Jane says “Good boy!” and gives the treat. She has clearly communicated to her dog that she approves of this behavior. After a few repetitions, he starts to catch on that sitting gets him good stuff, so he’s much more likely to offer a sit in the future.
Peter also has a tasty, motivating treat to lure his dog into a sit. But when Peter’s dog sits, Peter waits for a few seconds before praising him. In the meantime, Peter’s dog has had a chance to look over at the door, lick his lip and sniff a crumb on the floor. So when Peter finally says “good boy” does his dog realize that it was putting his booty on the floor that got him the praise? No! Peter has not communicated effectively. After a few repetitions, Peter’s dog has learned that sometimes sniffing the floor gets him a treat, but other times yawning or glancing over at the door gets him a treat. It will take Peter’s dog much longer to learn that sit = dad gives me love and treats. As you can see, timing is very important in dog training, but don’t worry if you’re struggling a bit – with a little practice, your timing will improve!
The last item on the list is consistency. I believe this is the most important of the three but unfortunately, it’s the one we provide the least of. We’re human, not robots – we weren’t designed for automatic consistency. Learning and training results from consequences of behaviors. If you did something that resulted in a favorable consequence, you’ll likely do that behavior again. On the other hand, if you did not like the consequence, you may think twice before doing that behavior again.
So what does that mean for you and your pooch? Dogs are learning from us whenever they are in our presence, not just during training sessions. In other words, every moment is a learning opportunity for our dogs. Let’s take leash training as an example. You spend 15 minutes working on not allowing your dog to pull. You did everything the training videos said to do and at the end of the session, your pup isn’t pulling as much, so you call it a success and end the session. The next time you go for a walk, you’re already running late for work and oh crap, you just remembered you also need to gas up the car. You don’t have the time or the patience to practice all the walking techniques every time your pup pulls on leash, so you let him drag you around the grass so he can quickly relieve himself and you can do what you need to do. Well guess what? Your inconsistency just taught your dog that he can pull you around sometimes. In a dog’s mind, pulling you around by force to get where he wants to go is much easier than having self-control and walking by your side. So when given the opportunity, the dog is going to take the easy way out because “Hey, it works sometimes, right?”
You have now turned your dog into a professional gambler. In the same way that people put nickel after nickel into a slot machine in hopes of a big payout, your dog will now pull every chance he gets because he might get to go sniff that mailbox that every neighborhood dog has been peeing on. (Trust me, in the dog world, that’s a huge jackpot!) Rewarding a behavior on a variable-ratio schedule (like those used in slot machines) is the most powerful reward schedule for learning. So remember, when teaching your pup the rules of the house, a rule is a rule no matter how your day is going or what kind of mood you’re in. If you can’t follow your own rules, how do you expect your dog?
So enough of the excuses! Dogs can learn pretty much any behavior at any age. If you’re having trouble, it’s not because he’s incapable of learning or stubborn and spiteful, it just means you’re missing one or more of the three ingredients. Take a second and evaluate your situation. Do you know and have what motivates your dog? Are you communicating with effective timing? Are you being consistent with the rules? Once you’ve got all three, it’ll be smooth sailing. If you’re unsure of the specifics or think you need a bit of training yourself, give me a call (210-416-2592). I’d love to show you how to build a great relationship with your dog while teaching him everything he needs to know to live happily ever after in your world!