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?

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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?

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So stay-tuned for Training Tuesdays!

Hey, Get Outta My Way!

From a reader: “I would like some suggestions with our having a dog that herds me down the hall or is always right under my feet. I am always telling her , “I can’t walk when you are walking on my shoes”. Thanks!”

This is a great topic! I think it is so important for our dogs to respect our space, as much for their safety as for our own! 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 him stop doing this?” There are two commands that I think work really well for these types of issues.

Go Lay Down

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This is a cue that we use any time our dogs are under feet or being little pests (who, them? never!) and also if they are begging. It works especially well when I am cooking or cleaning, and need to do something without the dogs ‘helping’ me every step of the way. We have dog beds in many of the rooms they frequent (our bedroom, the living room, and the basement). We began by simply rewarding the pups with treats and praise anytime they chose to lay on their beds themselves. “Good lay down!” Then, we would start at short distances. Say that we were sitting on the couch, and the dogs wanted to join us, but we wanted some human-only cuddle time… we would point to their beds and say “Go lay down!” If they didn’t quite grasp it right away, we would lead them to their beds, and put them into a ‘down’. Of course, they would receive treats for responding appropriately. Then we worked on their stay. If the dogs tried to get up before we released them, we would repeat the process all over, and ask them to ‘stay’. Of course, this cue works best if your dogs have already mastered some other basic commands, but I think that even if they don’t specifically know ‘stay’ they can still figure this out pretty quickly. We slowly but surely would increase the distance from where they were underfoot, to where we wanted them (the bed), always being sure to praise and reward them for understanding our requests.

Back up!

"Am I doing it right, Mom?"

“Am I doing it right, Mom?”

This is one of my favorite ‘tricks’ our dogs know… first, because it is adorable, and second, because it is also incredibly useful! We ask our dogs to back up when they are underfoot in the kitchen, but also for example, if we need to get in or out of the car, move safely through a doorway, or if we are throwing a toy and don’t want them jumping up at us. I am always surprised that more people don’t teach this trick, because it comes in so handy in a variety of circumstances.

To start, you can have your dog sitting, standing, or laying down, but they should be focused and facing you. Walk directly towards them, into their space, and say ‘back up’. You should also use a hand signal, such as pointing over their heads, or waving your hands towards them, palms up. (Note: You should not be scaring or startling them to move, but you want to invade their space just enough so that their natural inclination is to scoot backwards.) Once they take even a few steps straight backward (not turning around or to the side) give them a treat. Clicker-training works really well in an instance such as this, because you can instantly reward them so that they associate the specific behavior with the praise. Repeat this successfully three times, so that each time you say ‘back up,’ step into their space and signal, they are moving backwards. Once they seem to understand your request, you should start making the verbal and hand signal without moving your feet. It may take a few minutes, but try to refrain from moving your feet… give your pup a chance to use their brain to figure out what they have to do to earn that treat! As always, use their body language to determine how quickly you proceed… every dog learns at their own pace, so if your pup requires a little bit more assistance, that’s ok! Just try to get to the point where they are offering behaviors on their own, rather than needing you to walk them through each and every step.

Tonka is the master of this command… while laying down, he will scoot backward, then crawl forward, scoot backward, etc etc. It is a crowd-pleaser 😉