Training a dog is not easy. It’s hard work and at times can be frustrating and tiring. We’ve all been there – trying to get your pup to stop chasing the cat, stealing slippers from the shoe rack or jumping up at visitors to your house. Sometimes we say to ourselves ‘will they ever stop and understand’? Well the answer is yes, they will, but only if you’re in control of your own emotions, persevere and arm yourself with some key characteristics and approaches. No species learns well in a stressed environment, not even dogs.
What do I mean when I say key characteristics? Well, I mean:
All the skills and commands I teach are based on a hands-off approach, focusing on positive reinforcement techniques. And one of the first things I tell owners is that when training dogs, we need to be patient. Dogs are a different species, something we shouldn’t ever forget. They learn through reinforcement and they need to be shown what the right way to behave is and what is not acceptable. Training is about teaching those things – not bullying them into it. Some dogs take longer to learn than others but with all dogs we need to give them time - that is why patience is key.
Remaining calm and in control of your own emotions is vital because getting stressed will only make the dog or puppy stressed. The same goes for frustration. A dog will pick up on human emotions – they will know when you are sad, happy, anxious, stressed or frustrated. For example, my dog can’t watch a football match because those in the room are stressed and tense. He just can’t handle all those emotions in a short space of time. Therefore he barks, having no idea what is going on. The biggest tip any trainer can tell an owner is to keep calm. If you find yourself getting stressed, frustrated or angry, remove yourself from the situation and take five.
My next tip – keep focused on what you are trying to achieve. What is it you’re exactly trying to teach your dog? If you’re unsure as to what you want to achieve, how can your dog know what it is you want him to do? With each cue or skill, you have to be consistent. I said earlier, dogs learn through reinforcement but for something to be reinforced, it has to be consistent. You can’t teach your dog to walk nicely on the lead by then letting him pull you to everything he wants to go and sniff and say hello to. He’ll walk nicely on the lead if you are consistent with your approach each time he tries to pull – stopping and changing direction. Reinforcement also works the other way and is why some dogs get so confused. Breaking a house rule once or twice might seem like a nice treat for your dog but in reality you’re just confusing them. Example? Feeding your dog at the table during meal times. Do it once and your dog has learned that hanging around the table gets a reward, do it twice then he’s expecting it again and again. It’s unfair to then chastise your dog for something you have previously reinforced – even if you have done it without thinking.
Being firm but fair is not about shouting at your dog when he has done something wrong and giving the ‘odd treat’ by breaking house rules when he’s been good or looks cute. It’s deciding on what the house rules are, teaching your dog the rules in a positive way and then sticking by them. You’re being firm by setting the boundaries and being fair by not moving the goal posts.
A dog owner and handler needs to have understanding and kindness if they are to succeed. A positive, can do, and confident attitude will also help while always setting your dog up to succeed – not to fail. Don’t jump into something too complicated straight away, build it up and give your dog time to learn. Also, if you know they are likely to do something unwanted in the house, try not to give them the option to do it. A good example is if you know they are partial to stealing shoes, don’t leave shoes in their reach.
My final tip - be prepared to learn yourself and admit when you might have got something wrong. No one is perfect and we’ve all been there when we have realised that we have been accidentally reinforcing something or that we could have better dealt with a certain situation. The best thing to do is learn from it and move on. Owning and training a dog really will teach you a raft of life skills – it’s not easy and you’re more than likely doing really well!