“Set your dog up for success!”
This is my training mantra. I say it in almost every training session at least once, if not many times. It is such a vital element to good dog training that there really isn’t any way for me to stress it enough. But how does “setting your dog up for success” actually play out in real life?
This one is a biggie. If your dog doesn’t have access to the trash while you’re out of the house, they can’t tear it up and decorate your living room with it. Management means that you are creating an environment that allows your dog to make the right decisions instead of the wrong ones. Don’t let them have access to things you don’t want them getting into, don’t put them in situations where you know they’ll mess up, don’t force them into environments where they will be stressed out or scared. And don’t give them a chance to practice (and get reinforced by) unwanted behaviors!
Dogs don’t do something wrong and then sit around feeling guilty about it, waiting for you to get mad. They pee on the carpet and move on, completely onto the next thing as soon as they’ve walked away. So if you have a dog who isn’t housetrained, for example, giving them complete freedom of the house is just asking for them to have an accident. But if you are watching them closely, you can see the signals that they might need to go outside and have a chance to prevent them from making that mistake. Once your dog is reliable, you can gradually give them more freedom and reduce supervision, but keeping a close eye on your dog can prevent a number of problems and create a much more pleasant housemate.
3. Meet Your Dog’s Needs
All dogs need food, exercise (mental and physical) and attention. If you dog is grabbing your remote and waiting for you to get mad and chase them around the room, they’re probably bored and finding ways for you to interact. If they are jumping all over you, mouthing, or barking to get your attention, again, there is probably something missing. Most dogs need at least an hour of good exercise a day (and no, this does not mean running around the yard by themselves). And dogs are social creatures, so they do not do well being isolated all the time – positive attention is vital to their happiness. Play with your dog. Teach them some tricks. Give them some awesome petting while you’re bingeing Netflix. Take them for a walk somewhere new. There are a ton of creative, fun ways to meet your dog’s needs and keep them happier and more successful.
4. Reinforce Good Behavior
One of the biggest differences I see between good dog trainers and the average dog owner is that many dog owners focus on what they DON’T want their dogs to do instead of what they DO want their dogs to do. Most undesirable behaviors can be replaced by an incompatible behavior that we like just by making that good behavior way more reinforcing. You don’t want your dog to jump on people coming in the door? Teach them that sitting when people come in the door gets them instant attention and a whole bunch of treats. Don’t like your dog begging at the table? Teach them to lie on a dog bed in the corner and give them a Kong stuffed with peanut butter to lick while you’re eating, or toss them treats through the meal for staying on their “place.”
5. Work WITH Your Dog Instead of Against Them
Just like people, dogs have many individual differences. They have their own quirks, based on genetics, experience and many other factors. If you have a dog who loves to sniff trees, don’t get upset when they won’t listen on walk – turn it to your advantage by using the opportunity to go sniff a tree as a reward for good behavior. Take advantage of your dog’s individual quirks and make them a power for good instead of training frustration.
6. Don’t Forget: Your Dog is a Dog
All of us humanize our dogs at one point or another. It’s perfectly natural – they’re part of the family for most of us. But it can be dangerous and unfair to your dog to think of them as a person when you put unrealistic expectations on them. There is a lot of debate in the animal behavior community on what emotions dogs share with us, but the general consensus is that cognitively they are about on the level of a toddler. So no, your dog is not sitting around plotting revenge and that’s why they peed on your bed when you left them all day. It’s a lot more likely they were anxious that you were gone, or they just couldn’t hold it and that seemed like a nice soft spot.
7. Patience, Patience, Patience
Again: Your dog is at about the cognitive level of a toddler. If you were trying to teach a small child math, would you get angry and yell every time they messed up? Or would you try to explain it again in a way that was more understandable to them? You and your dog are speaking different languages, and some things are going to get lost in translation. Take your time and move at a training pace where both you and your dog can be comfortable and find success.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.