Over the years of making DogCast Radio I have been privileged to interview many training and behavioural experts. Even an amateur like me can't fail to take in some pearls of wisdom when bombarded with them like that. I thought you might enjoy some of the gems I've picked up along the way, and if you have some I've missed let me know.
Relax – stress is the enemy of good training
Okay, I know that as soon as someone tells you to relax it seems impossible, but this is important. If you are stressed your dog knows it. You can't fool a dog with a relaxed tone of voice because your body language will give you away. So you have to work at relaxing. You won't get it right every time, and there will be setbacks, but the important thing is to learn what you did wrong and do it better next time.
I was doing a simple recall with Buddy while my fellow trainees watched. He came back perfectly and I treated him without issuing another command to getting hold of his collar. The message to him was that he had completed the task which was now over. So he ran off to have fun and explore the training field. I had to eventually go and get him. I was amazed to realise that I wasn't cross with him - or myself! - because I knew immediately what I had done wrong, so I knew how to put it right. I returned to the rest of the group, made a joke and got on with the rest of the session.
I haven't achieved a Zen-like state of training calm or anything, but I am better at not getting stressed out. This helps my dog relax and our training is better and more enjoyable for us both.
Don’t take it personally
If I could have one of any currency you care to name for every time I've heard a trainer say this, I'd be a rich woman. It's really easy when your dog is misbehaving to wail (at least inwardly), "Why are you doing this to me?" Straight away it's personal. Your dog is doing this to you. He's not just following his instincts, or having fun, he's deliberately winding you up.
Well, the truth is he's not. Something has distracted him, or he's just too young, or he hasn't understood what you want, or one of countless other reasons, and he is off on an adventure. He has probably temporarily forgotten you. The import nat thing is to get him back on track and praise him when he gets it right.
Bear in mind the history of your dog's breed. Gun dogs want things in their mouths, and they don't care if it's a toy or your best shoe. Scent hounds are going to find interesting smells intoxicating. Sight hounds are going to want to chase things that move. Terriers are feisty and will want to dig, chew and shake, defend their territory and all the other things their wonderful "dynamic" temperament includes.
Mostly they want us to love them though. They don't really want to annoy us, they want to please us. We just need to find a way to harness that desire.
Have a release word
How do you tell your dog that he has successfully completed a task and can do something else now? Let's relate this to every day routine. It's really useful to have a release word to tell your dog he can move forward after waiting at the kerbside when you cross a road. Without a release word, how does he know how long to do the thing you're asking him to do?
Just a word of warning, don't use "good dog" as a release, as this means you can never praise him without telling him he's free to carry onto something else.
There are other pitfalls. My release word is "ok". When we're walking on a path used by cyclists, as soon as I become aware of a bike approaching, I will call the dogs to me and put them into a sit. Initially I was caught out so many times as the cyclist rode past and called, "Thanks!" and I would answer, "That's ok!" and straight away both dogs would be off. I have now learned to say "That's alright."
Reward & Motivate – treats/toys etc
Would you get up out of bed and drag yourself into work if you knew you weren't getting paid at the end? Well maybe some days you would, but the majority you probably wouldn't, and it's the same for dogs. Having said they want to please us, sometimes there are such interesting distractions around that they can't help but be distracted. A great reward gets them right back on track. The hard part is working out what motivates your dog.
Some dogs love food, some go for toys, while some just love a good fuss. My daughter's dog isn't very interested in treats, but loves to lick my daughter's chin better than anything else in the world! It does take all sorts. So don't be afraid to experiment. I would have bet big money that Buddy my Labrador would only work for food. However agility expert Lee Gibson got him leaping over jumps, through tyres and up and down a frames just to play tug-of-war with a rope toy.
Get expert advice
They're called the experts for a reason; they know what they're doing. So many times in training I've run up against a problem that my trainer has fixed in five minutes. These people have spent a lot of time learning and thinking about their craft, so don't reinvent the wheel, get help. So many problems seem insurmountable, but consult someone who really understands dogs, they see to the heart of the matter and can help you take steps to put it right.
Getting help isn't giving in, it;s being sensible. Do you feel defeated that you have to take you car to a mechanic? Of course not, and you shouldn't feel that about consulting a trainer or behaviourist. In serious situations the help of a good professional can mean the difference between life and death for a dog, and it can definitely mean an improvement in their - and your - quality of life.
Do make sure that whoever you consult is properly qualified and affiliated to a relevant authority.
Dog training is like comedy - timing is vital. So for example if you've been working on a recall, don't start calling your dog back to you just as he's started to investigate a wonderful scent. You're setting him to fail, and you'll be frustrated. Wait until his head is up and then he's more likely to come back to you.
Sometimes you just have to wait for time to pass. Puppies can often lack the concentration to achieve some tasks. When Buddy was younger I would tell him to sit, which he would do, but as soon as his rear end had hit the floor it would be up in the air again as he wanted to do something else. "I've done that," he seemed to be saying, "What can I do now?" Teenage or adolescence can be a time when dogs really test you. Again, they are not doing this to antagonise you, they are just reacting to the hormonal changes in their body, and trying to establish where their boundaries really are. In either of these cases, keep training, don't give up. It may feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall, but persevere and you will see results. Honest.
Little and often
Although it varies from breed to breed and even dog to dog, dogs don't have very long concentration spans. The right motivation can help, but the best thing it to train little and often. Practice five minutes two, three or more times a day, rather than one big session. End on something your dog does well, so that he has a positive association.
Any time I get my clicker and "allyoop" out Buddy is wagging his tail and eager to get going. That's partly because I've never bored him with it, and his attitude when I put it all away is usually, "Oh can't we do just a bit more?"
All training helps to “switch on” that brain
I found when I was trying out lots of different disciplines recently that any training we did assisted the other training we were doing. So for example, if I didn't do any ringcraft (training for dog shows) for a while but concentrated on agility, when we returned to ringcraft he seemed a little better. Similarly when we did mainly heelwork-to-music, it seemed to sharpen his responses in obedience work.
I don't know for sure if it gets your dog used to responding to you, fine tunes you relationship and bond, or just gets that canine brain working, but any training helps all the training you're doing, so what more encouragement could you need to try new things?
Investigate training aids – clicker, discs, etc
There are tons of training aids to investigate. Their are clickers and discs, target sticks and so on. If you already know what works for you great, but that's not to say that one day you won't have a dog that needs a different regime, so it's worth finding out what's on offer.
Even when you're not there you can train your dog to be happy while home alone, with the range of distraction toys there are - kongs, treat balls and so on. They're all designed to make training easier, so what's the harm in trying them?
Just one plea - don't resort to using a shock collar. There are so many ways this can backfire, and it's just not the way to train a dog.
Make dog sit/lie/stand before food
I'll finish with a really useful tip - make your dog sit, lie or stand for his dinner. In our house our dogs have to sit while their food bowl is placed on the floor, and can only approach their food when the release word of "Ok" is said. This is such a good habit to get into. It teaches your dog that you are in control of resources, and he will have to earn them. It teaches a measure of self control. If nothing else, it shows your dog there are times when he must do as he is told.
As time passes, you can vary the behaviour you asked for. I have used it to train a stand, but you could ask for a spin or twist, a bow or even play dead! And of course the promise of dinner is a great motivator.