Training: What Does Your Dog Need?
Adopting a dog carries the responsibility of keeping that dog from getting hurt unnecessarily, or from injuring people or other animals. Some dogs don’t require a lot of training to keep them out of trouble, but others need homes where training is a way of life. If you have a dog now, which kind of dog do you have? If you’re thinking of getting a dog, which kind is right for your home?
The Basics The term obedience training used to be synonymous with basic dog training, and implied that training a dog and military boot camp had a lot in common! Military dog training did influence early training techniques for family dogs. When obedience trials became a popular sport with dogs, classes continued to use the term obedience. Dog training has advanced due to the generations of trainers refining their techniques more and more. People still train their dogs for obedience trials, but they also train for other purposes such as hunting, search and rescue, police work, assistance to people with disabilities, therapy work and much more. Along with the refinement of other dog training have come specific classes for family dogs. These classes may provide you and your dog with the skills you need to live successfully in your community, or you and your particular dog may need to go further with training. Other types of classes as well as private trainers and behavior specialists are available. When you and your dog train together, you deepen your ability to communicate. Instead of trying to control your dog physically, you’ll be able to tell the dog what you need. This is less stressful and safer for you both. Here are some of the skills a trained dog needs in order to live successfully with a typical family:
- Come when called. Like all other training, this skill must be practiced in your life with your dog at home and everywhere you go together. Having a dog who comes when called doesn’t mean you’ll let your dog run loose, but it’s life insurance when your dog accidentally gets out. It’s also important in day-to-day as well as emergency handling.
- Sit and/or down. Many things you need to do with your dog start by having the dog get still in a seated or lying-down position. A sit gets the dog anchored in one place, and a down lets the dog relax there. The sit is not comfortable for dogs to do for very long, and some find it painful. You don’t want to require your dog to do anything that is going to cause the dog pain, so you may at times need to have your dog do a down instead, or remain standing.
- Stay. Practicing stays with your dog helps your dog learn composure and the ability to remain calm. Too many dogs lack this ability, and it makes their lives harder for them as well as for their families. The stay exercise is also a way to become your dog’s leader without making a fight of it.
- Walk on a loose lead. Trainers argue about what collars are most effective and most humane. Actually, keeping tension on the leash makes any collar both less effective and less humane. If the leash is loose, the collar (or head halter or harness) is putting less pressure on the dog, most of the time no pressure at all. A dog conditioned to work with the leash loose is easier to handle and easier to train. Instead of being dragged around by the leash, the dog learns to pay attention to the handler. Keeping the leash loose spares the dog potential injuries from training devices that can rub off hair and abrade skin.
- Housetraining. Lack of reliable housetraining is a major cause of small dogs losing their homes. Possibly you don’t care whether or not your dog is housetrained, but think about how you’ll feel in the future and what the dog’s chances will be in the world without housetraining. The habits a dog forms while someone is too busy to worry about housetraining can be powerful habits to change later, especially if they’ve been formed during puppyhood.
- The ability to rest calmly in a safe, confined area. A dog crate is the logical confinement area for many situations, but it’s possible for some dogs to do well in other confinement. One way or another, you need to be able to leave your dog alone someplace safe without the dog stressing.
- Not to bite humans. For family dogs, your best bet is to teach the dog not to put teeth on human skin. If the dog will work in some protection capacity that involves biting, you’ll need to do management, handling, and training to keep innocent people safe.
For More Serious Dogs
If your dog is large, rowdy, or has powerful drives, you’ll both be happier with further training. The following trained skills will help:
- Greet people with four feet on the ground. Jumping up on people sometimes seems like a minor problem, considering the friendliness of the typical jumping dog. The whole idea from the dog’s point of view is to get closer to the face and hands for greeting, but people don’t want to be knocked over or get their clothing torn or dirty.
- Chew on dog toys. If a dog has a concept of property, it’s not the same as a human concept. A dog can’t understand that something of yours would be difficult to replace, or costs money. Even without understanding why, a dog can learn—with your help over time as the dog gains maturity—to focus chewing on specific items. For a power-chewer, this is an important skill!
- Refrain from chasing vehicles and children. Dogs bred to have high drives for following moving objects (herding, hunting, etc.) may fall into dangerous habits without your guidance. Your best bet is to get good training help with this sort of dog early, before the chasing habit has a chance to start. To do their jobs properly, these dogs are carefully trained. Untrained, the instincts essential to their work can be turned in destructive directions.
- Retrieve. The best game to play with a dog is also the foundation for much advanced dog training as well as a great solution to quite a few dog problems: retrieving. Ideally you’ll want to start shaping it in your dog soon after the dog comes to live with you, no matter what age the dog is at that time. Work on it a little every day.
Training Doesn’t Count until It’s Reliable
Many people will tell you their dogs are “trained” to certain behaviors, and yet the dog will not perform the behavior in the face of excitement or distraction. Sometimes when a dog shows some understanding to put rear down and head up on hearing the word "sit," maybe four times out of ten, the person considers the dog trained." This is a dangerous assumption.
Training needs to be reliable where it is needed most often, around distractions and stress, and in emergencies. Not only does your dog need to reliably come when called to dinner, but also to come in from the backyard when the dog is out there barking at a teasing child on the other side of the fence. If you had an accident away from the house with your dog and the dog was running, frightened, near a busy street, your dog would need to be able to reliably come when you call in spite of the fear. In case there is a car coming, the dog also needs to be able to stop and wait on your cue, until it’s safe to continue. Much of this depends on your learning how to handle the dog, so that you will react correctly in an emergency. That takes training for you both, and lots of practice. Training happens when you practice properly, repeating the practice until the proper behaviors become deeply established habits. The most important behaviors such as coming when called need to be so strongly conditioned that the dog’s first impulse will be to just do it, not stop and think first. Your role as handler also needs to be thoroughly practiced so that you will automatically use the tone of voice your dog will recognize as the cue to carry out that behavior. This can require an incredible amount of self-control from you, but most of all it requires plenty of practice.
Training is Discipline at Its Best
When people hear the word discipline, they often think of a cruel overseer administering a beating. Have you ever been in a marching band, drill team, team sport, or any other unit that requires unified action? That’s real discipline, and there’s nothing cruel about it. Disciplined activities build self-esteem. Dogs are quite capable of taking pride in doing a good job. Training builds your bond with your dog, and gives your dog a better chance at a long and happy life.