Training is Not Only For Trainers
When you have a dog, it is your moral obligation to care for his basic needs. Understanding him and communicating effectively should be as basic as providing food and water. If everyone was to observe a few simple rules in communicating with their dogs, the world would be a much better place, and certainly your life and your dog’s life would be much easier. These are some very rudimental rules I give for my puppy buyers.
- Be proactive. Plan for the most basic, fundamental things in your dog’s everyday life and communicate those to your dog = train him to expect them and how to behave when they happen. Instead of manhandling the dog because you have to give him a bath and he is freaking out, have a plan and habituate to bathing way, way before he rolls in dead worms. Bank on having to bathe your dog, cut his nails, brush his teeth, put his harness on, wipe his feet, wipe his butt. Don’t make me do all the work. Make your own list. There is no excuse for waiting till the dog’s nails are miles long or teeth dark with tartar buildup before taking care of them. Your dog needs to know how to relax for nail cutting. He needs to know how to let you brush his teeth. An ounce of prevention…
- Set realistic goals for each training session. “Training” sounds formal, but in reality you are communicating your expectations to the dog. If there is some behavior you would like to train, like letting you cut his nails, expect your dog to allow you to hold his foot for 2 seconds before pulling back. That’s an absolutely realistic and reachable goal. Set such a reachable goal and pat yourself on the back after the session. Reward the dog. You’re done. After a break ask for 3 seconds, or if he was really great – well… still ask for 3 seconds. Stick to realistic goals and the dog will be offering a paw for his manicure in no time. If your goal is to teach your dog to accept a motorized toothbrush, don’t start with it in his mouth. Set a goal of having a dog accept the brush turned on 5 feet from him for 10 seconds. Reward. Take a break. Decrease the distance, extend the time. Many sessions later the dog will be running to you for tooth brushing.
- Incorporate breaks. We learn during breaks and sleep. This is when the memory of a behavior is formed (see my post on the importance of sleep here).
- Offer motivation and reward. In dog training language motivation is a lure and reward is a reinforcer of behavior. It is an answer to the dog’s question “why should I?” before and after an exercise. Food can be a great motivator and reward but so can a crinkly water bottle or your praise and affection. Never expect your dog to learn something new without answering his question “why” with a motivation and reward. For baby puppies who are too little for food chunks I use squirts of pudding from a syringe delivered right into their little mouths. For my adult dogs in a specifically challenging situation I was known to pull out a dead mouse motivation, but don’t worry there is nothing your dog can’t learn with just a scratch behind his ear or a piece of hotdog as a reinforcer. But the more creative you are, the more fun both of you will have.
- Be very clear. Do not expect the dog to speak your language. Sure, you can add a word to a behavior but don’t teach a dog to sit by saying “sit”. Show him what you mean. Clicker training is a fast and efficient way to communicate with a puppy. You can easily google many fantastic introductions to clicker training. Personally, I tend to use “bridging ” – talking to my dogs through exercises limited to telling them whether they are on the right track or not (a fast repetition of a word “good” or for puppies a high pitched “puppy, puppy”, paused when the dog is not getting it, and culminating in an exclamation “good boy!” if the task was accomplished). Do not add a command until you teach the behavior first.
I don’t care how many toys you bought for your pooch. That’s not what makes you a good dog owner. Your time that you spend with the dog is. No jungle gym is a substitute for active interaction. I strongly believe that people who have no time to spend with their dog should never get one.
Some Puppy Cuteness to Illustrate the Above Points
The boys are 8 weeks old and today I introduced them to a grooming table. Any Norwich Terrier, not just a show dog, will spend a good amount of his time in life being hand stripped on a grooming table. I am proactive in always introducing my puppies to grooming tables and various footing on elevated surfaces.
This is the first few seconds with the new experience. My goal was for the boys to see that they can be lifted high, placed on a small surface, and then they get to go right back down with no ill effects, no big monster ate them.
After just a couple of seconds on the table (where they were not thrilled, as you can see above) the puppies were running back on the grass. My goal of showing them that they can survive the table was accomplished. After a few-minutes break I lifted them up onto the table again, this time motivating them with a piece of chicken and talking them through my expectations. They got “good, good, good, GOOD BOY!” if they as much as resembled a stack. For the very first time on a table, I think they did splendidly well.
This session had nothing to do with any evaluations and was purely training. I will remove the puppies’ guard hair next week and have a formal evaluation of their structure at the beginning of week 10, but aren’t they cute?