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How to train your dog

By Scott Tibbs, November 25, 2008

No, I'm not the "dog whisperer", but I do have several years of experience, and I own two dogs with very different personalities.

In general, the most effective training is done when the dog is a puppy. If habits and training are in place when the dog is very young, he will likely continue those habits so long as the training is consistently enforced. Some dogs (not unlike children) have more forceful personalities and will require more consistent training than others. That said, here is what I (with help) have discovered works well, and can work with older dogs as well as puppies.

General Principle #1: Try to use positive reinforcement whenever possible. If a dog knows he will get something he wants by following your commends, he will be more willing to obey. Furthermore, he will obey much more quickly. My two dogs are very different, in that Nano will almost always obey a command right away and Tera will not, but if Tera knows she will get a treat she will obey the standard commands. However, the dog needs to know that a command must be followed every time it is uttered, because the owner is the "alpha dog".

Step #1: Mouth training. Puppies are mouthy: they like to chew and play. So the idea is to get the puppy to chew at appropriate times. This is done effectively with positive reinforcement. Hold a treat out for the dog, but hold it securely enough that the dog can't take it. You might need to curl your fingers around it to protect it, depending on how determined the dog is. The dog doesn't get to nibble or lick. The dog learns he gets the treat when he stops trying to take it. Also, force the dog to take it gently, meaning he does not get the treat if he nips fingers.

Step #1.5: Especially with a puppy, you have to be vigilant in teaching your dog what is appropriate as a toy, and what is not. If the dog is playing with something he should not be chewing on, use a sharp and firm "no", take it away, and give the dog one of his toys to play with. Channel that chewing energy into where you want it to go. Nylabones work very well.

Step #2: "Sit" and "Down". Again, using treats as a positive reinforcement works very well here. Holding a treat above the dog's head will naturally put him into a "sit" most of the time. I've rarely encountered a dog that will not sit in response to the "sit" hand gesture if he thinks he's getting a treat, even if that has not been used before. Depending on how well trained the dog is, he can take the treat after more mouth training or can gently take it right away. "Down" works on the same principle, holding the treat in front of the dog and lowering it to the ground. Voice commands should be introduced after the dog learns the hand gestures.

Step #3: "Leave it." Once the dog is in a "down", hold your hand over the treat, until the dog stops licking at it or nudging your hand. Take your hand away, but do not allow the dog to take the treat until you give the command that signifies the dog is allowed to take it. I use "free" with Nano & Tera.

Step #4: "Park time." If you have a new puppy, he should go outside every 15 to 30 minutes. If he does what he is supposed to do in the yard, praise him and pet him. Constantly watch a puppy and if he starts to "park" in the house, immediately take him outside. The most important thing here is consistency, because a dog needs to know through repetition that it is only appropriate to "park" outside, and never inside. Accidents should get less and less frequent until the dog never goes "park" in the house.

General Principle #2: Socialization. This starts on day one. Have your dog get used to being around other dogs and people. Some breeds are more territorial than others and require more socialization. If you have a more territorial breed, he will need to have frequent visitors to the house as well as deal with people and dogs outside. Dogs that are less territorial will not need as much, but still should be socialized with adults, children and dogs as much as possible.

General Principle #3: Do not spoil your dog. Generally, table scraps are a bad idea, especially if you have a dog that is a natural beggar. This is more generally difficult for the owner than for the dog, because that dog is just so cute and it can't hurt to give him something, because he is such a good dog! The problem is that a treat will become an entitlement, and the dog will start to think that human food left unattended is automatically his. Treats made especially for dogs are generally better for behavior.

General Principle #4: Discipline for bad behavior needs to be both firm and consistent. Do not hit your dog. A smaller dog can be disciplined by dangling him by holding him under his front legs. If a dog is a little too heavy to dangle he can be turned on his back, which dogs understand as a form of discipline. If the dog is in the trash, dangle him or turn him on his back. Do the same if your dog starts to get aggressive with another dog. Nano can be afraid of larger dogs, so he often needs to be disciplined if he decides he needs to dominate. Consistent and firm (but not cruel) discipline generally corrects undesirable behavior.