How Dogs Learn 101

Dogs think in black and white. If something is okay it must always be okay and if something is not okay then it must never be allowed. For example, it is very hard for dogs to be allowed on the bed but not allowed on the couch. To them it is all furniture. As a result, make sure that the house rules are very clear for the dog and everyone else. Secondly, dogs increase behavior that feels good to them and decrease behavior that doesn’t feel good to them. That is why we will reward them with treats and pets when they are good but also use a FIRM NO when they misbehave.  Remember to be firm enough that you make an impact on the dog. This will teach them that they must listen to you. If you are too soft, they will view it as nagging…and no one likes to be nagged!

Be in the moment

Dogs think in the moment. They do not regret what they did yesterday or worry about tomorrow. All of their thoughts are in the present tense (I am worried. I am scared. I want to eat that leaf). As a result, your feedback to them must also be instantaneous. If the dog is doing somethin g w rong/right IMMEDATLY correct/praise her for it. If you are delayed on your correction/praise it will confuse her because she will associate the feedback with the wrong moment. In other words, your dog picks up something she shouldn’t have but then drops it. After she has started to drop it, you tell her NO. What will she associate the correction with? That’s right…dropping the item.

Keep in mind that this “timing” is a skill and it takes time to develop. You will make mistakes and that is okay…just do the best you can and keep this concept in mind.

Praise the victories

The most important step in training a well behaved dog is to praise the small victories. Often, we get so frustrated with a pup so when she finally sits after being told 10 times we don’t reward her, we just walk away or move onto the next thing that we were trying to do. This is the wrong thing to do. Praise her lavishly each and every time she does something right. Did she come to you? GOOD GIRL! Did she sit? GOOD GIRL and a treat! Did she stay? Wonderful! Remember that dogs increase behavior that feels good. If she sits when you tell her to, and she gets praise, she will be more likely to sit the next time since sitting gave her a positive outcome. However, if she is being resistant to sitting and you tell her to sit 10 times and when she finally does, you simply say “good” and walk away, she will think, “Well sitting got me no where and in fact my owner just stopped paying attention to me. I guess the only way to get attention around here is to act up!” This thought pattern is extremely destructive to dogs and you will grow up with a do g w ho acts out.

Set her up for success

The second puppy pitfall to watch out for is giving the dog too many tasks to do at once when she first starts training. For example; sit then stay then come then stay. Because your dog is just learning these commands, you are almost setting her up to fail since somewhere in the sequence of events she will forget what she is doing and mess up. When she messes up, we have to correct her, thus erasing all of the positive stuff she did before she screwed up. So make sure to praise each and every step. Also, move slowly when advancing a command. Don’t expect her to stay in one spot for 5 minutes one day and 20 minutes the next. She won’t be successful and the repetitive failures will cause her to shut down. You can also think of it this way: Which sounds better to you? Today you must pack your stuff, fly to Nepal and climb Mt. Everest or I want to start training you to climb mountains, lets go out for a short hike around town to get you started? The small step sounds better huh? And as long as you continue to move forward you will still reach the same goal.

Take small steps for big gains

Remember that as your dog learns new commands she may not be very consistent. One day she may know how to sit and the next day she will just stare at you as you yell NO! SIT!! This is totally normal. I equate training puppies to teaching a 5 year old child the alphabet while she is at Chucky Cheese. It’s difficult and many days you will feel like you are making no progress. But if you keep the tasks small and practice consistently, over time the child will learn to ignore the distractions around her and start to truly learn the ABCs. The same is true for your dog. Do not expect her to be an obedience all-star within a few weeks. It is normal and expected that she will make mistakes; that she will have big successes and even larger failures; and that she will crave your approval one day and then will ignore you the next. As you move forward with training, keep this in mind. Strive to push the boundaries of her skill set but make sure to set her up for success. With this supportive learning style she will realize that if she tries hard and ignores the other things that are going on around her, she will get lots of love, treats, and pats and that is the biggest motivator of all.

Praise what you want….CORRECT what you don’t

This is a simple but very important concept. Dogs are constantly reacting to their environment and the feedback that they are receiving from other people/creatures in it. If they start to do something and they receive what they perceive as praise or no correction they will assume this behavior is okay. For example, your dog gently nips you as you are playin g w ith her. You in a pleasant tone, say “You know you shouldn’t bite mommy you silly thing.” She does not understand the words; she only hears the pleasant tone and assumes that nipping is okay. Or your dog barks for the 20 th time and she hears ‘NO, stop that” for the 20 th time. Here you are correcting her but it’s not making an impact on her behavior so in essence it is the same as giving no correction at all. If your dog is doing somethin g w rong, firmly and quickly correct her for it. Remember you don’t have to cause any pain, you just have to be dramatic with the correction. The drama of the moment should be enough for your dog to say to herself “Whoa that really made mom mad! I better not to that again!”

On the other hand, also make sure that you are praising her lavishly when she is being good. This step is just as important as correction because it will show her that certain behaviors are extremely beneficial because she gets lots of love and praise and this is every dog’s ultimate goal.

Treat her like a dog…because she is one!

We tend to treat our dogs like they are children in fur suits. We subscribe all of the same emotions, motivations, and desires to them that we have. This is understandable but it is unfair. We must respect the fact that she is a different creature with different needs. Think of it this way: How would you feel if I walked in your house, patted you on the head and stuffed a dog biscuit in your mouth? You would probably think I was rude or crazy and you would conclude that I had no idea how to interact with a person. So if you wouldn’t like being treated like a dog then don’t treat your dog like a person. Dogs LOVE firm guidelines and rules. They LOVE to know exactly how they should behave so they get rewarded. They LOVE to know that they have a strong leader who will protect them and guide them. To be fair, we must give these things to her. To do this, you MUST be firm. You must set rules. You must correct her if she is doing somethin g w rong. And you must praise her when she is doing something right. Keep in mind though that there is a difference between being firm and being angry. Dogs do not understand anger and it is a counter productive emotion in dog training. If you find yourself getting mad or frustrated, walk away from the situation. To be firm and fair you must stay calm and centered. Remember that your dog isn’t testing you because she is mean spirited, manipulative, or conniving, she is testing you to make sure that you are in fact a strong leader.