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Good dog! How to make dog training a success

Is your dog’s behaviour proving to be a bit of a challenge? The secret to successful training is getting to grips with dog communication and dog body language so that the two of you can really understand what you’re saying to each other.

Dog training is really important as it’s essentially about how humans and canines communicate with each other. Training is how your dog learns to safely and happily negotiate the human world that they reside in. As dog guardians, it’s up to us to help our dogs learn when we’re happy to do certain things and when we’re not – otherwise, how else can they know what we expect from them?

Rehoming charity Dogs Trust says: “Puppies are not born knowing which behaviours are okay from our point of view, and which are not, so although we might not always like the way our dogs are behaving, they can’t misbehave deliberately, and doing things just to spite us is just not possible for dogs.”

However, training is not about issuing commands and expecting your dog to instantly react to them. The secret to successful training is mutual understanding. How can your canine chum do what you ask if he or she doesn’t understand what it is you’re asking?


Learn to speak dog

Zoe Willingham of Best Behaviour Dog Training is a qualified, independently accredited dog trainer and behaviourist. She says: “If you are lucky enough to holiday abroad, you’ll know how tricky it can be to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. More often than not, you’ll resort to body language. Pointing, gesticulating or miming. It’s not easy to manage without the spoken word but luckily most fellow humans understand our body language and, although it’s frustrating at times, we can get by. Imagine though that you couldn’t make yourself understood with either words OR body language. To a dog whose owner doesn’t understand canine communication, life must be challenging at times and would certainly cause frustration and less desirable behaviours to be seen from the dog as a consequence. Learning to ‘speak’ dog will make a huge difference to both of your lives. When you understand what your dog is communicating to you, you can help him or her to live a truly contented life. Your relationship with your pet will be stronger, happier, better.”

She likens the experience to starting a new job without being given any instructions about what you’re supposed to be doing: “Imagine you have started a new job, you are given no training, and yet you get in trouble for every mistake. Will you look forward to the next workplace adventure or the next level of learning? No? Me neither. But that’s what a dog goes through if it is told off – especially if they have no idea how they are ‘supposed’ to behave. Instead of telling you off, wouldn’t it better if your colleagues showed you what you needed to do and praised you when you got it right?”


Reward-based training builds confidence and trust

Canine behavioural experts like Zoe Willingham agree that reward-based training is what works best. She states: “Dogs learn by association. They associate people, places and things with consequences (either good or bad). And they live in the moment. So when you come home to a mess on the floor and you yell at your pup, the puppy doesn’t associate your outburst with the fun they had ripping that cushion. They associate your homecoming with a telling off. It doesn’t take long for them to develop a fear of you coming home.”

What’s more, if a dog is doing something you don’t want them to – whether that’s barking at the front door as the mail drops through the letterbox or jumping up at a delivery driver – it’s far more effective to ask your dog for a different behaviour rather than just telling them off. She reveals: “When you say ‘no’ to a dog it means nothing to them. It’s just a loud noise that means you’re angry. Instead of ‘no’ try asking for a different behaviour. ‘Sit’ will stop a dog jumping up at someone. ‘Come’ will distract them from chasing next door’s cat. Shouting and punishing your dog breeds fear. For a strong, loving relationship with your pet, use reward-based training, management and praise to build his or her confidence in you. Having said that – your dog must be able to understand those alternative cues – and that’s where dog training comes into play.”


MORE TOP TIPS >>

THE VALUE OF REWARD-BASED TRAINING Focusing on and rewarding what your dog can do, rather than what they can’t, makes training a much more positive experience for canines and humans alike.

TAILOR YOUR TRAINING TO YOUR DOG'S PERSONALITY  When it comes to teaching your dog new stuff, it’s never a case of one size fits all. Canine behaviour experts agree that tailoring your approach by understanding the way your dog learns is key to success.


How your dog learns to communicate with you

Communication is a two-way thing and dogs will soon cotton on to communicating in a way that their human understands. Canine behaviour expert Professor Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog and How Dogs Think , shares a story about his well-loved Flat Coated Retriever, Odin, revealing: “He had a ‘request bark’ which he used to ask to be let back into the house after being out in the backyard for a while. It was a single bark which was followed by a long pause of anywhere between 30 seconds to more than a minute, before it was repeated. I rewarded this bark when he was only a few months in age, by quickly responding and letting him back into the house. This was clearly a barking sound that he learned to use for a specific communication purpose. It sounded noticeably different from his other barks.”

Dog training expert Sally Gutteridge of Canine Principles agrees: “Our dogs are talking all the time. Your dog is telling you time and again what they want you to know, how something makes them feel or whether they are happy or worried when you take them somewhere.”

However, to really hear them, she recommends that dog owners try applying something she terms ‘Enlightened Observation’. She advises: “We humans find observation difficult – we are not particularly good listeners. We spend a lot of our time assuming and waiting for our turn to put our point across. We assume we know what our dogs want, are saying, need and it’s usually from a place of love. To observe though, we must stop – empty our mind of things we assume, want to say or do; and just be there to gather information. When your dog realises that you are really seeing them, really understanding them – that’s the magic!”

It's a sentiment that Zoe Willingham wholeheartedly agrees with: “Dogs are not deliberately naughty, no dog wants to resort to growling or biting, and they don’t seek revenge if you get something wrong. Picking up on body language to realise that aggression or other unwanted behaviours are actually symptomatic of anxiety, fear or just poor communication from us humans enables you to solve a problem at its very core. Use your canine communication skills to resolve problems and make them less likely to reoccur. It also seems that when an animal works something out for themself, they remember the lesson for a long time.”


MORE TOP TIPS >>

BECOME A DOG COMMUNICATION EXPERT It’s not difficult to tell if your dog is really happy – that waggy tail and soppy smile is such a giveaway. However, there are lots of other, more subtle signs that reveal how your four-legged pal is feeling and what they’re trying to tell you.


How dogs communicate with each other

To really start to begin understanding the canine mind, it’s essential to play close attention to how dogs communicate and interact with each other.

Dogs Trust says: “Dogs communicate in many ways, and so quickly, that we must learn these signals if we are to understand how they interact. Dogs greet one another with a familiar pattern, circling one another and sniffing each other’s muzzle, then genital area. Ideally this is a calm interaction as the dogs learn about one another through their sense of smell. It might seem odd to us humans, who tend to use what we can see to gather information.

Dogs and other animals have a special ‘scent’ organ known as the Jacobson’s or ‘Vomeronasal’ organ, within their nasal cavity. This allows them to analyse chemicals as they sniff, detecting odours which provide them with information about male or female, breeding availability as well as identification. This subtle and highly sophisticated ability gives dogs ways to communicate in ways that we humans can only imagine.”

Body signals are the next important communication method.

Traditionally, a dog with a wagging tail was always supposed to be friendly, but this is not necessarily true. Dogs Trust advises looking at the whole of a dog’s body to understand how they’re feeling: “A dog can become very tense and wag its tail high over its back, a sign the dog may be alert or defensive. Dogs ears move forward, showing signs of interest or agitation, or they may become pinned tightly back against the dog’s head if the dog is worried or stressed. Their eyes may stare hard when concerned or defensive, or gaze softly and expressively when relaxed. A snarling mouth, with lips drawn back and teeth exposed, can mean that the dog is very upset and may bite next.”

Of course It takes two (or more dogs) to have a ‘conversation’ and watching an interaction can be very revealing.

Dogs Trust suggests what to look out for: “You will see one dog respond to the other, back and forth. A relaxed interaction involves a lot of ‘give and take’ body conversation, with friendly, familiar dogs taking turns to advance, retreat, offer play signals such as front paws pouncing and side to side prancing. An undesirable interaction is one we must learn; dogs that rush in a straight line towards others can be seen as confrontational and they may not engage in gentle interaction. Any kind of force; pinning without allowing the other dog to escape, chasing without taking turns, are examples of a one-sided conversation from a dog that is simply not listening to the other. This can be harmful. Above all, teach yourself the specific signals your dog gives in a variety of situations, so that you can be sure you know what he, or she, is truly ‘saying’.”


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WHEN DOG MEETS DOG – WHAT'S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN? When it comes to a dogs’ meet and greet there are essential rules of canine engagement and dog communication that we humans need to understand to ensure things go smoothly. This is even more important if you have a reactive dog who sees other canines as a potential threat.

WHAT 'SOCIALISATION' FOR YOUR DOG REALLY MEANS If you have a puppy, you want to help them become a well-rounded, confident adult, which is where ‘socialisation’ comes in. Getting it right is an essential, but tricky, process.


Dogs Trust top 10 training tips

“Dogs are never too young, or old, to start training,” advises Dogs Trust. “Because dogs are always learning, teaching a dog that certain behaviour results in good things happening means they’ll be more likely to behave that way again. Training your dog is an important part of being a responsible owner, because it can prevent unwanted behaviour problems developing. Through training, you can make sure your dog is rewarded for good behaviours that will enable them to lead a safe and happy life, including settling during quiet times, coping when alone, walking nicely on lead, coming whenever called, meeting people and other dogs calmly and having great manners around food.”

Dog coach Megana of Dogs Trust's Dog School shares her top training tips for puppies and dogs of all ages...

  1. Perfect Timing

Before the session starts, make sure your puppy's been to the toilet, and isn't really hungry

  1. Plan Ahead

Plan exactly what you're going to teach your puppy, and practise without him first of all. This may sound weird, but if you make sure you know what you're doing, and you've gone through the motions physically first, before bringing in your puppy, you'll be less likely to confuse him, or get confused yourself! Don't do too much at once – keeping it simple means your puppy can be confident and get it right. You can then progress slowly, but surely! 

  1. Location, Location

Start your training sessions in a calm place you're both very familiar with, so you can both concentrate without too many distractions

  1. Motivate and Reward

Always have a reward your puppy will really want and enjoy; this will help to motivate him to find out what he needs to do to earn it, and means he'll always really enjoy the session. Choose something he loves, whether that is food or toys. If you're using food, try cutting your chosen treat into small pieces about the size of a fingernail and count them out into 10s, so you can be sure to give your dog a break after every set of 10 practices.

  1. Weight Watching

If you are worried that your puppy might gain too much weight because of the extra treats, you can use a portion of his daily food ration as part of his training treats.

  1. Ring the Changes

Always use a good variety of treats, as this will keep your dog interested, and means you can use different types of food at different times in your training. In general, treats are useful for calmer, slower exercises, where you want your dog to stay relaxed, and toys/games are useful for more energetic exercises, such as recall, where the dog comes running to you. You can enjoy a great game together, which will really make your dog's effort worthwhile, and encourage him to want to be with you.

  1. Short and Sweet

Keep sessions short, and end with a game – counting out your treats helps as it means you won't just keep doing. I do up to 12 repetitions, then stop and have a game. 

  1. Keep Cool

If you or your puppy are getting confused or frustrated during training, stop the session with a game. Next time you train, go back to the stage where they were getting it right for a little longer, before trying to move on again. Your puppy might just need a little longer to build confidence, or you may need to practise without them again to make sure you're giving clear instructions. 

  1. Have Fun

Only train your puppy if you're both relaxed and in the mood. If you've had a tough day, just enjoy having fun together, and wait until you're feeling more relaxed ­– it means you'll both get the most out of each session, and always enjoy training together!

  1. Make a Record

It can be incredibly useful to film yourself training your dog, as you'll be able to look back and see how you were both doing, what kinds of things he was trying in his attempt to work out how to get the reward, and whether you could have given the reward differently. Plus, it's always nice to look back and see you and your puppy bonding and to be able to record your progress!


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Sources: dogstrust.org.uk, psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/canine-corner, bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk, canineprinciples.com

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