Train Your Dog





Introduction: Train Your Dog

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These are not instructions on teaching any specific trick, just a general summary of the principles which apply to teaching both essential good manners and silly tricks.

Step 1: Rewards and Punishments

To mold behavior you need rewards and punishments. Rewards include food, of course, but also an affectionate scratch or belly rub, a friendly word ("good dog"), throwing a ball, or anything else the dog will enjoy.

Punishment can be as simple as looking away and ignoring the little nudges your dog gives you as it begs for a pat on the head. This is the best way to control a puppy who gets over excited while playing. Removing a favorite toy is another humane punishment, but on occasion harsher treatment is necessary: a sharp "NO!" a loud clap right next to the ears, a time out, or in rare cases a symbolic slap on the nose or rear end. The hit should NEVER hurt -- your goal is to teach, not to extract revenge, which is why many dog training books will refer to punishment as "negative reinforcement." The word punishment sounds too angry.

Reward good behavior and punish the bad. This seems obvious, but very few dog owners obey this rule. Here are a few examples:

Dog aren't allowed in children's playgrounds, so they are often tied up outside the gates to wait while the children play. Some dogs will wine, bark or howl till their masters come back. A few years back I witnessed a terrier with a very well-trained human. The dog would bark, the human would come running. The woman would pet the dog and speak to it in soft, reassuring tones. The dog would wag its tail happily, then start yipping the minute she stepped away. This routine was repeated about a dozen times, till finally she couldn't even turn her head towards her child. She left the playground, her kid crying to stay longer, the dog jauntily trotting by her side. I never saw them again but I had learned my lesson: never reward bad behavior. Some tender-hearted animal lovers might argue that the dog was genuinely anxious (i.e. he wasn't being "bad"), but the facts remain: if you don't want a certain behavior you must discourage it. Rewarding it will just make matters worse.

The first time I tied up my beagle he started to bark. Beagles are very vocal, very expressive, and very loud. Mine can put real pathos into his howls, and that day he treated the whole neighborhood to a heart wrenching performance worthy of "La Tosca." I did go to him, but instead of love and sympathy he got a sharp word, a loud clap near his ear and then the view of my back as I strode off. Body language is important. Pretty soon the sight of me stalking towards him in (mock) anger was enough to make him stop barking. We didn't stay very long -- it was clear from their dirty looks that the other mothers considered me cruel -- but we returned every day and before the week was up my dog was cured. Now he can relax by the fence for hours, enjoying the fresh air and the adoring attention of all the children. I'll check up on him once and a while and give him a reward for being so good.

A barking dog is annoying, but when I was visiting some friends I had to cut our stay short when they were unwittingly training their dogs to attack my children. My friends had two large rescue dogs of indeterminate breed. The dogs would bark when strangers came into their home but would soon settle down -- if the strangers were adults. My two boys, aged seven and nine at the time, looked just like prey. The dogs circled around them barking and growling with their teeth bared as their master tried to reason with them. He explained to the dogs in an kind, reassuring voice that these children were friends. Only after one of the dogs lunged at my younger son, biting the boy's sweater right under his neck did their owner finally agree to lock them up. When their mistress came home she let them out. She had more authority over the dogs and felt sure she could make them behave: her tactic was to call them to her when they growled, where they were rewarded with caresses and the occasional treat. "Stop that!" she gently scolded, whenever her dog showed its teeth if a boy dared tiptoe by. Of course the dogs continued to threaten the children -- the dogs were never sharply and clearly reprimanded, instead they were being rewarded for their behavior with extra attention and affection. Bad behavior should always be followed immediately by negative consequences -- otherwise not only will the bad behavior continue, it will worsen.

There are some cases in which punishment should not be used: when you are training a dog to do a silly parlor trick this is a game you are playing with the dog and it should be fun for everyone. If the dog is slow to understand, chances are the trainer is to blame. Dogs don't mimic: if you stand on all fours and shake, for example, a child might imitate you but a dog will just stare like you've gone out of your mind. A dog won't understand either if you try to push it into a certain position. The dog sees the action -- you moving it around (probably against its will) -- not its final position. To train your dog you must first train yourself -- to communicate in a way the animal can understand.

Step 2: Train Yourself Before Training Your Dog

This step describes a game which will help you understand how hard it is for the dog to understand -- and hopefully it will help you be more patient, and improve your human/dog communication skills. 

The best way to learn to train a dog is to pretend to be one. Two people are needed for this game (which children delight in playing too).

One person is the designated trainer, the other plays the dog. The trainer thinks of an action for the dog to learn: sit down and scratch its head, for example. No miming or physical contact is allowed, no words may be exchanged, not even "yes" or "no." You want to avoid using any cues or hints which a real dog wouldn't be able to understand. Stand facing each other, and wait for the "dog" to try something (with a real dog you will need to give it a few treats to start out, to push it into action). When a desired action is taken, the trainer makes a brief clicking sound, which would be the equivalent of a treat. The dog's goal is to earn these treats, and it will try all sorts of actions to get them.

As dog and trainer face each other in silence, both players will understand that it will be impossible to guess and perform the entire trick. It needs to be taught step by step. If the dog makes a slight movement like it might sit down, click that. Click it again three or four times till the dog is repeating the movement, sure that this is what is expected. Then stop clicking that movement. The dog will understand it needs to do more and will go further: click when it sits. After a half a dozen times clicking a sit, stop clicking and wait for more. Click a hand movement, any movement. Then only click if the hand is moving towards the head. Click when it touches its hair. Finally click when the dog scratches its head, and give it a big kiss.

Then switch roles and play the dog. Smart as we like to think ourselves to be, this game is hard!

Step 3: Clicker Training

Using a clicker (or making another specially designated sound like snapping fingers or clicking your tongue) with a real dog is also very useful. Train the dog to recognize the sound by clicking right before you give it a treat. After doing this a few times your dog will perk up the second it hears the sound. The clicker has several advantages over real treats:
  1. You can click while the dog is making the desired action rather than afterwards which makes it much easier for the dog to make the connection between its action and the reward.
  2. A particularly food obsessed dog might have trouble focusing on the game and might just stare, slobbering, at the hand holding treats.
  3. You can reduce the number of treats because you don't need to give one every time you click. Either make it random, to keep the dog guessing and alert, or use it as an extra cue: almost (click) almost (click) yes! (click & treat).
When playing the training game with a real dog it is also a good idea to keep it silent. Wait until the dog has figured out the complete trick before giving it a name. You don't want your dog to think that the command "roll over" means "lie down." Work exclusively on a single trick over several short sessions spaced over a few days (or even weeks, depending on how hard it is) and only give the trick a name once it is complete. Then use your chosen vocal or hand command for a few sessions before practicing the new trick interspersed with older ones.

At the end of a training session for a new trick, I will usually quickly go through the list of the old ones he's mastered -- to end on a positive note, with easy treats, keep him motivated to learn more, and also to mark the end of the "lesson."



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    13 Discussions

    i understand you love your dog but i have never used negative training towards any animal. I have worked with over 50 rescue pit bulls and over 100 or so rescue dogs and you cannot ever use negative training with these dogs! If you do you will be bitten or worse! PLEASE DO NOT USE NEGATIVE TRAINING ON ANY DOG! It only causes worse behavioral problems down the road.
    The woman with the dog at the park was doing the right thing, her problem was she left the park without addressing the problem.
    What she should have done was ignore the dog completely and with time the dog would except watching her and the child play. You do not need to punish a dog for wanting to join in on the fun!

    1 reply

    I think you misunderstood what I mean by negative reinforcement, because in the example you gave, the training method you suggested IS negative reinforcement. Ignoring the dog completely when it's seeking attention (by barking in this case) is one of the many types of negative reinforcement methods you can use. In this situation I think a slightly more expeditious approach is necessary, not for the dog but the other humans at the park, who should have the right to play without having a loud annoying dog barking and spoiling their afternoon. Clapping hands near the dog and saying "no" firmly is not cruel and it works instantaneously. That said, each dog is different, and I can imagine that with a rescued pit bull who has been abused even approaching it with aggressive body language could be counter-productive. So you adapt your training methods to the dog, but don't toss out the whole concept of negative training, because it's an important tool for teaching all dogs, and it's one which you clearly have been using yourself without realizing it. Ignoring a dog, turning your face away, taking away a ball -- these are all forms of negative reinforcement.

    Thanks for this - it's a good place to start. For further reading, I highly recommend Tamar Geller's book, The Loved Dog. It describes how and why training methods should be used. The only negative (besides body language) she uses is in dangerous or very damaging situations, when she frightens a dog (once) by making herself appear big and loud. Otherwise, nearly all training can be accomplished via positive reinforcement.

    For example, my dog (a rescue) loves soft toys but used to ALWAYS destroy them in a few days. I got tired of stitching them up and/or replacing them, so I learned how to train her. First, I would observe her playing. If she was playing without tearing, I would praise her. But when I saw her starting to tear at the toy, I would say, "No, no," in a low but calm voice, and she would stop. I kept this up for a few days, and I haven't had to replace any soft toys for about two years now (unless they get really old and nasty). I can also get her to stop barking at strangers who enter our backyard (where my neighbor's door is) by saying, "No barking," in a singsong voice. If I act tense or angry, she continues to bark. Once she stops the bad behavior and behaves correctly, I always praise and/or treat her. It's very effective.

    Another good trainer with videos on Youtube is Kikopup. I love her approaches, and the videos are a lot of fun to watch.

    1 reply

    My dogs like to destroy any kind of toy: rubber and stuffed, and more

    I think that instead of negative rienforcement, you should just turn away. If the dog appreciates th attention of you enough, that is the worst possible punishment. In human terms, what hurts more: A person yelling at you or a person ignoring you?

    1 reply

    Yes, in step one (second paragraph) I described that as the most basic form of negative reinforcement, which works really well, particularly when you are playing and interacting with the dog. It won't work as well when the dog is misbehaving and not paying any attention to you (when, for instance, it's barking madly or hiding somewhere to chew something up), so it can't be the only trick in your toolbox.

    I have had some extensive training experience with dogs. I have had two dogs, a miniature Schnauzer and a beagle. My miniature Schnauzer had brain trauma from birth and was overly aggressive. We were able to control some of her aggression, but she, unfortunately, had to be put down; however, I did learn a few things from a professional trainer that worked with my beagle extremely well.

    I don't think noise-making devices are good punishment tools. Dogs ears are super sensitive, so coins clanking in a can are not good for their ears. I think the best punishment tool is a squirt bottle. It doesn't hurt the dog in any way, and it gets their attention off of what they are doing and on to you. It just uses water, and you can adjust the spray to show different kinds of punishment. If your dog does something bad for the first time, you just have to mist them with the bottle to get them to stop, but if they repeatedly do a bad thing more than once, you can adjust the bottle so that the water will penetrate through their fur, giving them a cold sensation.

    Positive techniques work better than negative techniques. If you are trying to get a dog to perform a trick, don't scold them for not knowing the trick. Instead, show them what they need to do by associating a word and hand position with an action, and after they perform the trick, treat them. Using negative techniques will only scare your dog and make it harder to train them.

    DON'T EVER HURT A DOG INTENTIONALLY! If you do, your relationship with your dog will be jeopardized.

    Socialization is key. Every young dog should be exposed to kids, different walking surfaces, other animals, and different environments (home, street, riding in a car). By exposing dogs to different things at a young age, you can often control their bad behavior before it starts.

    4 replies

    Have to agree. Canine hearing is so much more sensitive than ours that loud noises by their ears can be quite painful.

    Your comment worries me a bit, because you are basically repeating much of what I was saying -- or at least what I meant to say. I couldn't agree more that you should never hurt a dog, especially if you're trying to train it, and I hope my instructable can't be interpreted to mean otherwise. I thought I was clear about NOT using punishment of any kind when training for tricks... but perhaps I didn't emphasize that enough. On one point I don't quite agree: I don't think if used properly noisemakers hurt dogs (after using it once or twice you will just need to threaten to use it to get the effect...) but the spray is also a good alternative and I will mention it when I revise my text.

    High-pitched loud noises next to a dog's ear can be harmful. Dog's ears are much more sensitive than humans. It is estimated that some dogs can hear 20x better than humans. If it sounds loud to you, it is gonna sound 20x louder to them. Besides the harmful aspects of sound deterrents, I don't believe that sound is a good deterrent because you may have your dog fearing loud noises, which can be a bad thing in a city environment.

    I don't ever really "symbolically slap" my dog. I feel like that can be hard on smaller breeds of dogs. What you might feel is gentle, a smaller breed of dog might find to be physically hurtful (I had a baby miniature schnauzer, keep this in mind). I prefer the squirt bottle because I can control the amount of force the water has to control all breeds of dogs.

    Showing false exaggerated emotion is a good way to reprimand a dog. I prefer this with a squirt of water rather than rattling a can of coins in a dog's ear. It is quieter, and you don't have to be standing next to the dog to use it. You can reprimand a dog from across a room with a squirt bottle, but a can of coins requires you to be up close to them.

    Overall, I thought the instructable was pretty good. Outside of the sound punishment and symbolic slaps, I agree with what you said. I have never used a clicker to train a dog. I have had success training dogs without a clicker, but I had a friend with MS who had a helper dog. She used the clicker to train her dog with great success.

    I just posted the comment above to give you some things to think about. I understood the instructable, I just have a slightly different training style. One of my big training rules is "No unnecessary physical contact when reprimanding a dog." Sometimes owners can get angry and instead of giving a symbolic slap, they pound their dog. I just prefer the squirt bottle. I think it gives the owner a lesser chance of injuring their dog by accident. I have been raised around smaller breeds of dogs, so this is just my thinking.

    Thanks for the detailed reply... Yes, there are many ways to train a dog, but also, each dog is different and what may work really well with one wouldn't be appropriate with another. What you say about accidentally hurting the small breeds makes perfect sense (the beagle here is the smallest dog I've ever had). Also I agree noise punishment would not be right for a skittish dog, but with a beagle who is baying so loudly that the can is hardly audible, well, it works better than anything else. The sound is not high pitched (if you record it and analyze it you will see that the sound waves are evenly distributed all over the spectrum: it is essentially white noise with volume peaks), so unlike skateboards it won't make him crazy, but it IS annoying. What bothers a dog (well, mine at least) is the high pitch, not high volume. My beagle will happily sleep under the piano while a vigorous duet is being played right above his head, including the fortissimo finale. Besides that his hearing seems fine, he will jump out of a deep sleep and come running at the faint "click" of his food container.
    I totally agree about using oversized body language. Feigning anger is fine, but it the trainer is feeling overly frustrated or real anger then it's time to stop.