Training Tuesday: Good Dog!

Stephanie in Real-Life

If you know me in real life, you know I’m really bad about cleaning out my car. In general, I’m a neat-freak and an organizational nut, but there is something about my relationship with my car (her name is Dallas. Don’t ask…) that makes me feel as though my cleaning preferences do. not. apply. I’m usually so busy trying to get from Point A to Point B and making 27 stops in between, that even though it would be simple to unload my car on the way into the house, what is the point?

Anyway, the other day I totally broke character and took the time (all of about an hour. Woah.) to clean out my car. When J got home from work, I proudly showed him the fruits of my labor. Instead of the respect and admiration I was expecting, J looked at me with an amused smile on his face and said, “Steph, we don’t get rewarded for the things we are supposed to do.”

Oh. Uhhh…. Hmm. Well that’s not the way it works in dog training, is it? So why should my life be any different? He didn’t buy into my argument, but he also didn’t comment when I served myself an extra helping of ice cream that night, so I guess that’s sort of the same thing. Whatever.

Dogs in Real-Life

Of course, like everything else in my life, I began to relate the experience to dogs. This got me to thinking about dog training. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes made by the average dog owners I encounter, is that they fail to use every opportunity to reward positive behavior elicited by their pet.

Of course, during a focused training session, most conscientious owners would typically be prepared with treats or other reinforcements. However, I think that it is important to remember that even daily behaviors that have not been offered in response to a request, should be rewarded. For example, if you have a dog that is always underfoot in the kitchen, it will be to your benefit if you offer him food whenever he chooses to lay on his bed in the living room as opposed to being in the kitchen with you.


 Remember, we want to approach issues with our pups by asking “What behavior do I want to see?” as opposed to “How do I make my dog stop this negative behavior?” Dogs are practical creatures, and so they repeat what works. They do not choose to be stubborn or vindictive… because those things don’t serve them! Because of this logical canine approach, it is so much easier to reinforce behavior than it is to eliminate it. If we take this approach to dog training, not only are we going to see positive results, but we are also going to improve our relationships with our dogs. If training is consistently about rewarding our dogs for good behavior, we will be molding dogs who are that much more willing to figure out what they can do to elicit a favorable response from us. Training becomes fun and relationship-building!

The only way to discourage a behavior you don’t want, aside from being forceful (which, remember, we will never advocate!) is to ignore it. While ignoring the behavior and thereby removing attention can be an effective technique, it is not as instantaneous and does require repetition. If we instead focus on reinforcing the behavior that we do want, it becomes increasingly clear to the dog what behavior earns them the reward that they desire.  Remember, dogs are practical creatures… they will repeat what works!


Thank goodness dogs are not like people, because I can promise you that offering myself an extra bowl of ice cream did not equate to a cleaner car the rest of the week. (Darn it, J and your wisdom.) But I can also verify that regularly offering our dogs rewards for staying out of the kitchen, or getting along amicably, or respecting our space, or waiting before going through the door, or staying quiet when visitors come to the door, results in appropriate behavior when those situations arise in the future. I guess you could say that my dogs are smarter (or at least, more trainable) than am I. 😉

Training Tuesday: Building Relationships

My approach to dog training is not altogether different from my approach to my human relationships. Because that is what my interactions with dogs are… relationships. You must give love (or kindness, or respect, etc), to receive it in return, and you must be more focused on what you put in than you are on what you receive. This approach largely explains why I believe that force-free dog training is the best way.

Tonka loves to learn!

Tonka loves to learn!

Relationship Reinforcing

I fully recognize that a more heavy-handed approach is still very much prevalent in our society. Why? Because of Caesar Milan. Because it works. A dog is afraid of punishment, afraid of pain, afraid of the one in charge, so they operate in whatever way necessary to avoid these things. Science has proven that these approaches do not work long-term in real-life, but they do produce results of indeterminate length or consistency. Using punishment to stop behaviors is nothing new. But notice, I use the word ‘stop‘, as opposed to the word ‘teach‘. We can stop any behavior, but I am more interested in teaching my dogs to choose the behavior I seek. If we utilize intimidation and physical punishment, have we truly stopped the underlying behavior issue, or simply made our dog fearful of our reactions to their instincts? I never force, but I always give my dogs a choice, or at least the illusion of such. They make the right choice because they trust me, because I do not hurt them, because I keep them safe, because I make it easier than the wrong, and because the outcome is enjoyable. They make this choice because while training, we establish a relationship and a partnership. They do not just aim to avoid pain… they aim to please.

Even a game of fetch should have fun rules... consider them bargaining points!

Even a game of fetch should have fun rules… consider them bargaining points!

Training Across the Species

Some of you may know that I am as active in horse training as I am in dog training. One thing that is important to remember is that appropriate training practices should be able to be applied successfully to any species, at least as far as your approach and methodology. Do we want to have to rely on disciplining a large or dangerous animal when they have displayed a poor behavior? Of course not, because it might be too late! It might also result in frustration on the part of the animal, which can lead to aggression. Instead, we as the trainer need to be managing the situation and environment during our training sessions in order to avoid the occurrence of the bad behavior in the first place. When in doubt, ask yourself… would I want to tell my horse “No”? What about my elephant or my tiger?!

Awesome infographic from

Awesome infographic from

Pets as Robots?

Punishment-based methods can work. In the right settings and with uniquely tempered dogs, they can produce animals that respond quickly and correctly. In effect, they produce animals that perform. If we train our dogs like machines, with cold punishment and little reward, they will operate in like fashion… with detachment and avoidance. What those methods cannot do, is contribute to building relationships. And why do dogs exist in our lives, if not to be our family members and friends, guardians and partners, cuddlers and playmates?  Rather, if we embrace the natural abilities and traits of our dogs as individuals or as a species, we will create a partnership with a free-willed and independent animal who chooses to do anything in its power to please us. And that is more powerful to me than any other force.

No Effort Dog Training… What?!

While food can be a fantastic motivator to many dogs, it is certainly not the only one. My favorite reward to use with my own dogs are non-food reinforcers, or functional rewards. This allows the dog to tell us what their preferred reward would be. Have a reactive dog who likes to approach other dogs rudely while on a walk? (Provided that the reactivity is not fear-based…) Don’t allow the dog to move toward their trigger unless they are calm and quiet. This approach is used commonly as a parenting practice: you want your teenager to clean their room, and it is a regular battle. Once you find their functional reward (they want to go to the movies with their friends) you prevent them from achieving their reward (movie) until they have performed the desired behavior (cleaning). Make sense? This type of functional training is especially effective, because it doesn’t require you setting aside time for obedience, getting out the clicker and treats, setting up the environment, etc. While that is productive, it isn’t something that the average owner makes time for each day. Functional training is something that is simple to apply in your daily life and schedule, and will directly equate to a dog who is a more compatible addition to your family’s lifestyle, because you use everyday scenarios to improve your dog’s behavior.

By recognizing and utilizing your dogs’ natural behaviors, traits, and preferences, you can be a step ahead in your training. Exploit the fact that your dog’s life is full of rewards! Think of all the pleasurable activities you control access to, and use them to help your dog earn his rewards by displaying good behavior. For example, have a dog who loves to play fetch? Require every session to be a training opportunity. Before the ball is thrown, they must sit, and before it is taken, they must come when called and ‘drop it’ on command. If they fail to respond appropriately, the play session ends. Proper obedience doesn’t always have to take place in formal classes or structured sessions… it can (and should!) be as simple as incorporating cues and rewards into your everyday routines.

Georgia has learned to 'offer' a sit when she is in doubt as to what is expected of her

Georgia has learned to ‘offer’ a sit when she is in doubt as to what is expected of her

Offering Behavior

Think about traditional dog training. The handler verbalizes a ‘command,’ perhaps coupled with a a hand motion. The dog is then supposed to reply with the corresponding behavior. The problem with this, is these training sessions do not always automatically relay to our everyday lives. For example, we want our dogs to sit for attention when guests come into our home, but how do we ‘train’ this in a traditional obedience session? As you are greeting your guests, do you want to also have to command your dog to sit amidst the confusion? To your dog, these are two entirely different scenarios, and the application may not be evident. If we teach our dogs through everyday interactions to ‘offer’ behaviors without a command, and withhold their functional reward until they do so, we are more likely to see these behaviors relayed in everyday events. Remember, dogs are functional beings, and they repeat what works. The dog has learned that jumping and barking = being ignored, while sitting quietly = praise and attention, and so they will repeat it, even in the presence of guests (just make sure your guests are ‘trained’ as well!)

Have confidence in the cognitive abilities of your pup… once you have successfully requested the desired behavior a few times, approach the next session with the goal that you will try to let them figure it out before jumping in and making commands. This gives your dog a chance to demonstrate what you’ve taught them, and teaches them to use their brains to solve the puzzle, by independent figuring out how to appropriately get whatever it is that they desire.

It is important to remember that if we punish our dogs for inappropriate behavior, they are going to be less likely to want to try to offer a behavior on their own. This technique requires a dog who is balanced and confident in his or her relationship with you as the owner or handler, and will never work in conjunction with forceful training practices.


Today’s challenge is to focus on one area of your dog’s behavior that is particularly frustrating. Instead of correcting them when they display an inappropriate behavior, make a choice not to allow them the opportunity to act poorly in the first place, and then focus on the reward. Try to allow them to offer the behavior without making the request. Have a dog that rushes past you through doors, or is pushy during feeding time? Their reward is as simple as the thing that they seek, which makes your job very easy! Withhold the ‘reward’ until they have offered an appropriate behavior, such as a sit. Having a dog with good manners is as easy as making them a habit throughout your daily life.


Training Tuesday: Dog Training for Dummies

Seriously friends? It doesn’t have to be so hard…

I am all about sharing knowledge on the internet (obviously, or this blog would cease to exist). It is no secret that the world wide interwebz are an amazing gift given to our generations, where no piece of information or opinion is out of our reach. But it is also important to remember that not all of the information we come across is reputable or reliable.

With that being said, the companion animal industry (and yes, it is an industry, one that grossed over $53 BILLION last year alone, up from $28.5 billion in 2001) is one of the most lucrative and dynamic. According to the APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 68% of US households own at least one pet, which equates to 82.5 million homes. Because of this exponential growth, it is no surprise that many of these owners, plenty of whom are new to pet ownership, are turning to the internet as a resource for advice.

An interesting (yet depressing) study shared by Petfinder and directed by the National Council on Pet Population, showed that of the 4 million+ dogs surrendered to shelters in 2012, 96% had received NO obedience training. Of those, between 2-3 million will never make it out of the shelters alive. So statistically, we can reasonably assume that a large percentage of owners who surrender their dogs to shelters may do so because of training and behavior issues. If we make training so complex and nearly elitist, who are we really helping? Rather, if we make it straightforward and approachable and even (gasp!) fun, how many lives could be saved? Even if it’s just a handful, wouldn’t that be worth it?


So let’s stop it. As much as us dog-nerds enjoy delving into the nitty-gritty of animal behavior and the learning process, what purpose does that serve? Instead, let’s remember why we do what we do. Instead of approaching animal behavior as behaviorists or veterinarians or scientists or dog trainers (even if you are one of those!), let’s start approaching it as the average dog owner.

In honor of this approach, I am going to devote one day a week to talking about training tips in a fun, simple way! I am not a professional or certified dog trainer, and I don’t pretend to be. There are lots of amazing blogs and websites out there written by brilliant dog trainers and animal behavior experts that cover those bases… but I believe that some of them leave a lot to be desired in terms of approachability and usability. I have developed (and will continue to!) some tools in my experiences as an owner, dog sitter, and foster, and why shouldn’t I share that with all of you?


So stay-tuned for Training Tuesdays!