Introduction: Train Your Dog
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
- 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.
- A particularly food obsessed dog might have trouble focusing on the game and might just stare, slobbering, at the hand holding treats.
- 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).
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."