Dog training is a very controversial topic.
Dog owners, dog lovers, and professional dog trainers alike, all have different opinions. If one were to put two dog owners in a room, you can be certain that there’s one major factor of the aspect of dog training they cannot agree upon.
During my master’s dissertation, I interviewed twelve established and well-known Dutch dog trainers. It quickly became clear, that there are various ways to successfully teach a dog one specific behavior. Similarly, there is an array of solutions to one unwanted behavior and numerous ways to deal with difficult situations.
There were a few things that most dog trainers had in common, and in which I can really find myself and that I can agree upon.
Today, I’d like to talk about a few things that I feel are important to remember or to focus on when raising and training a dog of any age.
Every dog is different
From a young age, we’re taught that every human being is unique, and that we have to respect that. Well, every individual dog will have different preferences, too.
A dog’s character can be based on their breed, their parents, their experiences during puppyhood, and et cetera. A variety of aspects determine a dog’s likes and dislikes, and with it their preferences for certain items and events over others.
Use whatever motivates your dog
Anyone that owns a cat, dog, ferret, rat, or other vertebrate pet will be able to name one thing that their animal loves, and one thing they hate.
Having said this, you can probably imagine that one specific reward might not work as well for every individual.
There are several ways to reward your dog. The four methods most commonly used are:
- treats (we prefer using dehydrated meat)
- toys (we use West Paw dog toys)
- verbal praise
- petting and cuddling
Several methods for one dog – depending on the situation
When we first acquired Mojo, we used food to reward her whenever she’d perform a command. This was the way in which we taught her most tricks she knows today.
It worked. Mojo knows quite a few commands – some more useful than others – and loves to work for food. The most useful commands (sit, down, paw, and stay) were taught in just a few days after we got her.
Now that she’s older, we use toys to teach tricks whenever we are playing on a field. Instead of feeding treats, we choose to ask for specific tricks and reward by throwing a ball or frisbee.
Using a ball or other toy gets our dog excited, but that is perfect in some occasions. The tricks we teach on the field are hence different to ones that we teach using food in other situations.
So, depending on the behavior you want to teach, or the type of work that your dog has to perform at a given moment, one type of reward will work better than another. Even within one individual, you can choose to use an array of rewards, switching them out as needed.
Some methods don’t work for a dog or their owner
Sadly, some rewards also come with disadvantages.
In a recent podcast episode of Stuff You Should Know, we heard that in the USA service dogs are never rewarded with food. Why? Because this can cause a food obsession, causing the dog to be focused on food rather than their owner – the person they are working for. Rather, they are rewarded with praise, to build a strong connection to the person with whom they spend most of their time.
Another reason not to use food could be that your dog is overweight, or that they simply aren’t interested in food. We can’t use toys to reward calm behaviors, because they make Mojo playful. You may not be able to play fetch with your dog because of a physical impairment.
There are numerous reasons not to use a specific reward, and it’s important to keep that in mind!
Set up for success
Setting up for success is another very useful aspect in dog training. This can apply to many different areas of training, but it is easily overlooked.
Suppose that your dog shows aggression towards other people. It’s clever to cross the street whenever you see another person approaching, rather than allowing the situation to get out of hand. Removing your dog from a situation and preventing unwanted behavior is always better than putting your dog in an uncomfortabe situation (potentially scaring or harming others) and correcting them afterwards.
But what about using treats to reward your dog, during a morning walk? If your dog has just eaten breakfast, they might not be too interested in the treats you have to offer. The motivation to focus on you will hence decrease, and you might have more difficulty keeping things.
If you see the postman approaching your house, you can ask for your dog’s attention before they start barking, and you might prevent some unnecesarry chaos.
Let’s take a look at the following example
When we are outdoors, we frequently see people struggling to walk their dogs. I have to be honest here, our dog’s behavior towards dogs and people (and any moving object in the environment) wasn’t to my liking either.
Mojo was raised in a city center, and we allowed every type of contact with people and other dogs, whenever it was offered. As a result, our dog showed excitable behavior, leash pulling, and basically a loss of focus whenever we would encounter a dog, a person, or a cat. Not just on the same street but even 100 meters away (30 ft). Using rewards to distract her wasn’t effective, neither were corrections (which we avoid anyways). We had to find a different solution, and to be honest, it was easier than expected.
We went back to basics and solely went on walks in areas where the surroundings were calm, without too many distractions. I used food to reward Mojo’s calm behavior. Whether she walked behind, next to, or in front of me, she was rewarded whenever she did not show excitable behavior for a short amount of time.
Slowly but surely, we increased the distractions. We walked alongside roads of which we knew they would be relatively calm, and slowly decreased the distance towards distractions. We are now able to walk in crowded city centers and Mojo will not lose focus. She rarely focuses on other people or dogs (unless people unwantedly ask for her attention), and we have no issues walking her anywhere.
Tip: If you’re scared to increase the distractions, there’s always the option to ask a friend or family member (and their dogs) to function as a controlled distraction and help you train your dog!
Share your knowledge!
Do you know a general tip that people often seem to overlook? Something important that other dog owners have to keep in mind? Share your knowledge in the comments below! 🙂