Written for The Pet Gazette (Summer 2016) by Panorama resident, Becky Johnson.
I was asked to write an article about dog training. . . . Everyone I’ve run into at Panorama who has a dog or two has engaged in dog training to one degree or another. So I’m simply offering some thoughts for approaches I’ve found helpful over my close to fifty years of training and competing with my own dogs, as well as teaching obedience to others over many of those years.
To start, dogs don’t speak English! What a surprise! But they can learn many words and your expected behavior for those words, as long as the words are used CONSISTENTLY in a given situation. If “Down” means to not jump up on someone, then “Get Off”, “Quit it” or “Off” are not alternatives. Multiple commands for the same action create confusion and the dog’s response will be as inconsistent as the command.
Responses to commands taught to the dog can be reinforced by rewarding the correct response. The simplest reward (and often the most effective) is your praise. It could also be food goodies or a special toy. Initially, rewards should immediately follow the correct response since dogs aren’t too good at connecting reward to action if there is a time lapse involved. As the dog’s response becomes more consistent, making the reward less consistent will strengthen the behavior as the dog anticipates the reward.
It is also worth noting that once your dog understands the command and is consistently performing it, give it once, expect the response and reward it when it occurs. If you repeat the same command over and over while waiting for the proper action, you have just taught the dog to count. Don’t reward the correct response to the fifteenth command. Instead, go back to basics and reward when the proper response occurs on the first command.
Your voice is one of the best tools you have in training. Praise is important, but your tone of voice should be light and happy and not your usual every-day tone. Ladies are lots better at “happy voice” than fellows (who often have to work at it). Use praise whenever you get the response you are after and be sure the dog knows he’s done what you wanted. Actually teaching the word “Good” or “Yes” can help clarify that you’re very happy with him. By the same token, when correcting negative behavior, teach “No” or “Leave it”, and cultivate your “bad dog” voice. This is much easier for fellows than for the ladies, but it’s important to differentiate from a normal voice or a praising voice.
One owner behavior frequently observed is inadvertently praising and thus reinforcing a negative behavior. For example, the dog who lunges at another dog while on leash, or who displays shy or anxious behavior, and is then soothed, petted, and told “it’s OK” in a nice soft voice by the owner, has now received reinforcement for that negative behavior. The lunging dog should receive a sharp “No” or “Leave it”. The dog hiding behind Mom’s legs should be spoken to in a matter-of-fact voice so that the situation is more apt to be interpreted as a normal one rather than a scary one. In both situations, the soft “it’s OK” response will certainly reinforce the unwanted behavior, not resolve it.
All of us here at Panorama who have dogs also walk dogs. Having a dog who walks nicely on a leash is a real plus to all concerned. The dog needs to learn to walk within a space you define for him close to you, and you need to be able to reinforce that space, correcting the dog if it moves outside of it, unless you allow it (with a release word like “OK”). That is why I always walk my dogs on a collar rather than a halter. I can make a leash correction if the dogs move outside their space. Most halters don’t allow effective correction, so it is harder to explain your expectations to the dog with a halter than to a dog with a collar. (The neck muscles of a dog are very strong – he has to hold up his head for his entire life – so collars properly used very seldom cause injury.)
There is much discussion about Flexi-Lead retractable leashes. Many folks like to use them because the dog has “more freedom”. There are major downsides to them, though. From my perspective, the greatest disadvantage is that the handler has only poor control of the dog. If the dog is out on the extended leash and lunges at a squirrel or goes visiting another dog, getting him/her stopped and back to you can’t be done quickly. Your extended arm has much less strength or control than if your elbow is bent and you’re working closer to your body. Flexis can also cause injury to the dog, the handler, or another dog if the thin cord becomes wrapped around a dog’s or person’s leg. For these reasons, I’m a strong proponent of a four- to six-foot leash. And with more than one dog, you have even less control with a Flexi, since you must hold a handle in each hand, thus minimizing your ability to easily maneuver one dog or the other with any degree of dexterity.
That said, Flexi-Leads can be great training aids. Most basic commands – “Sit”, “Stay”, “Down”, “Come” – should initially be taught in close on a short leash, with time, then distance, being added as the dog becomes dependable. But when training at a distance, using a Flexi can halt the dog which gets up, leaves, or doesn’t come when called. Calling the dog to you with dependability should definitely be taught (or reinforced) while you can control the response, ie, the dog is on leash. Use a Flexi, call the dog (giving a little pop if needed to get him started), and then bring him in. Reward him with lots of praise and goodies (if you wish) when he has come to you. Hopefully, that will help to develop a consistent and dependable recall from the dog.
Perhaps the most important outcome of training your dog – to whatever level you wish – is that the more you successfully communicate to your dog and he understands and responds to that communication, the more you and your dog will enjoy one another. And as a secondary result, you and your dog will be more enjoyed and appreciated by the other dogs and people you encounter together.
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Becky Johnson, an owner of Standard Schnauzers for about 40 years, joined the Panorama community with Gunner and Daisy May in 2015. Following in the footsteps (or “paw prints”) of all of her predecessors, Daisy is pursuing a Utility title in obedience, the highest level of obedience competition recognized by AKC