How to Train a Dog

Among the many important responsibilities dog owners have, training a dog is among the most important. Well-trained pets are easier to care for and love, cause less damage to your home (and theirs), and live happier lives. In this article, we cover many of the basics of dog training. But we also cover some important facets of dogs themselves -- which you need to be familiar with in order to communicate with your pooch.These include how dogs communicate to you through body language and noises. Dogs send myriad messages with their bodies and their voices -- this is one reason why they're so fascinating and beloved. The more you understand their messages, the more you understand them and how your own messages are being understood. Read this entire article carefully -- there are three sections after this one -- and then put the wisdom into practice. Here's what we'll cover:

Understanding a Dog's Body Language


Dogs use their entire body to communicate. Their eyes and ears are especially dynamic, and they give sure-fire clues to dogs' emotions and impulses. How dogs tilt their heads, move their legs and torsos, wag (or raise or drop) their tails -- all these things contribute to the messages being sent. In this section, we cover many of the silent messages your pooch will give you, from his nose to his tail.

Interpreting Dog Barks and Noises

Dogs are probably the most "verbally" expressive of all domesticated animals, and this only adds to their charm. From the whine of a puppy to the angry growl of an adult, dogs mean what they say. The more you understand these signals, the happier you and your dog will be. At the same time, it's important to know which noises constitute an annoyance, and how to train your dog to stop making them. We'll offer suggestions on teaching a dog to stop barking in this section.

Dog-Training Tips

It's important to know not only how to train a dog, but what to train it to do. Puppies have no sense of correct behavior, so they offer a million things you could correct; which should you address? In this section, we'll cover what to correct as well as how to train a pooch. We'll also discuss dog obediences classes -- also known as puppy kindergarten -- and specific thing you can teach your dog if you plan on traveling with it. Life tosses up myriad challenges to a dog's sense of obedience, and the more he's trained to understand, the happier you both will be. Finally, for fun and practical benefit, we'll cover a few basic tricks you can teach your dog. They're a wonderful way to bond with your pet and to entertain the both of you, while teaching it how to behave and react to your commands. Everybody wins!


Understanding a Dog's Body Language

Okay, we all know a wagging tail means a dog is friendly, right? Not necessarily. Dogs say lots of things with their tails -- and not all of them are nice. A dog who is wagging her tail might be happy, interested, or confident, but she also may be scared, confused, or ready for a fight. In this section, we'll tell you how to understand a dog's body language. If you learn this skill, it will make communicating with a dog much easier. And that, in turn, will make training a dog much easier.

When you see a dog whose tail is wagging wide and fast, the message is almost always, "Glad to see you!" This is a happy, excited dog. On the other hand, a dog holding her tail loosely but horizontally wants to know a bit more about you. She might not be ready to welcome you with a big lick, but she's not going to challenge you either. The same is true of a dog whose tail is wagging slowly. She's still deciding whether you are a friend or foe. Watch out, though, for a dog whose tail is bristling or is held high and stiff, wagging fast. This dog is agitated and probably aggressive -- and boy, does she mean business.


The position of a dog's tail tells a lot about her, too. A dog with her tail erect is confident and in control. The exact opposite is the dog with her tail tucked between her legs. Whether she's talking to you or to another dog, the message is the same: "I give up!" Just because a dog's tail is down doesn't mean she's frightened, though. A relaxed dog may keep her tail lowered, although not between her legs.

Dogs communicate with both ends of their bodies. A cock of the head or twitch of the ears indicates interest or alertness but sometimes fear. When a dog hears or sees something new or exciting, her ears will go up or forward. Because the canine sense of hearing is so sharp, your dog often knows about the approach of a person or car long before you do. That's what makes her such a great alarm system. Her ears are built in such a way that they can be pointed in different directions, allowing the dog to quickly figure out where a sound is coming from.

Is a dog's head down and her ears back? She's scared or submissive. Sometimes, the fur along the neck and back of a frightened or submissive dog will bristle, too. Be especially careful approaching a dog in this mood. She might be timid or shy, but if she feels cornered, she's capable of launching an attack in self-defense.

A dog's pack instinct makes her a good observer who pays close attention to everybody and everything around her. You might not realize it, but your dog watches and listens to you all the time and learns your patterns of behavior. Sometimes it seems as if she can read your mind, but her ability to predict your every move is really just good observation skills at work.

Watch your dog's facial expression for more clues on how she's feeling. You might even catch her smiling -- pulling the corners of her mouth back to show the teeth. Don't confuse this look with the snarl, a raised upper lip and bared teeth. A snarl is a definite threat gesture, but dogs probably smile for the same reason we do: to let folks -- or other dogs -- know they don't mean any harm.

Sometimes a dog uses her entire body to deliver her message. Rolling belly-up, exposing her neck and genitals, means "You're the boss!" An especially submissive dog may also urinate to express her deference to you or to another dog. The play bow is the classic canine invitation to fun and games: down on the front paws, rear end in the air, tail wagging. She may even paw the ground or bark in the attempt to lure you or another dog into play. The best response is to play bow back and then pull out her favorite toy or ball.

Body language is one thing. A dog's barks, yelps, growls, and other noises are yet another -- full of meaningful messages for dog owners. We explain what these messages mean in the next section.


Interpreting Dog Barks and Noise

Body language is generally a silent method of communication (with the exception of the play bow), but dogs use their voices, too. They bark, whine, growl, and howl to get their point across. Barking is probably the most familiar sound dogs make. In the wild, only young wolves, coyotes, and foxes bark, but when dogs were domesticated, barking was one of the puppylike characteristics people liked and looked for when they were choosing which dogs to keep.

Now dogs bark to say, "howdy," "pay attention to me," or to warn of trouble ahead. Some dogs bark when they're bored or lonely. Be careful how you respond to a dog's bark, or you might never get her to stop. Excited dogs love to bark, and if you yell at them to stop, they might just think you're barking back. You'll actually be teaching them barking is okay -- just the opposite of the lesson you want them to learn!


One of the first sounds a young dog makes is a whine or a whimper to get her mother's attention. Mom feeds or comforts her when she whines, and soon the puppy learns people respond to that sound, too -- especially when she wants to eat dinner or go for a walk. Dogs may also whine if they're frightened by loud noises, such as thunderstorms or fireworks.

Whining is cute when a puppy does it, but sometimes it gets to be too much. If your dog's whining becomes annoying, remember what you learned about how to stop barking. Instead of petting or comforting a whining dog, ignore her until she's quiet. Then reward her silence with praise or petting.

A growl is probably the easiest canine sound to understand. Growling dogs are giving notice that their ready to attack if you don't back off. Growling is a serious sign of aggression that shouldn't be ignored or laughed off. Don't let your dog get away with growling at you or anyone else, such as your veterinarian or groomer. Call in a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you evaluate the situation and get things under control.

Everyone is familiar with the universal image of a canine -- wild or pet -- howling at the moon. The howl communicates excitement, warning, loneliness, or desire. Hounds howl when they have cornered their prey. Lonely dogs howl just to see if anyone else is out there. Howling in dogs is also as contagious as yawning in humans: When one dog howls, any other dog within earshot is likely to join in.

Now it's time to consider some of your own messages -- those used to train your dog. We'll present dog-training tips in the next section.


Dog-Training Tips

A puppy's mother and litter mates taught her basic social skills. Now, it's your turn to further her education with the fine points, including housetraining, household manners, basic obedience, travel etiquette, and even a few fun tricks.

Dog-training classes begin the day you bring your puppy home. Forget that old wives' tale about not training dogs until they're six months old. By that time, it may be too late. A young puppy learns things -- some that you want her to know and some that you don't -- every minute of every day, so you don't have an instant to lose.


But before you jump into training, be sure you understand the best ways to teach your dog. Dogs aren't born knowing what we expect of them. There are a million wrong or bad behaviors you could correct, or you can take the easy -- and most effective -- way of enthusiastically reinforcing the behavior you want. Puppies are smart, and sometimes it's a struggle to keep one step ahead of them, but by using positive reinforcement techniques -- as simple as praise and petting -- combined with limited humane corrections when needed, you can have a more-or-less model canine citizen.

The number one rule of dog training is don't hit -- ever! Not only is it unfair (and inhumane) as a correction, it can actually backfire on you -- sometimes with tragic results. Dogs don't hit each other, so they don't understand what getting hit is supposed to mean. They just know it's a physical threat and may eventually respond with their own physical violence in what they see as self-defense. The second most important rule is timing is everything. Positive reinforcement or corrections must happen immediately -- in fact, almost simultaneous with the behavior -- or your dog won't make the connection with her actions. Your secret ingredients for a well-trained pup are really no mystery at all. The secret is good old-fashioned patience and consistency.

Everything your puppy does is an opportunity to teach her. Praise her when she eliminates outside; that's the only way she'll learn the outside is the proper place. Praise her when she chews on a toy; that's the only way she'll learn to chew on toys, not shoes. If you find her chewing on your shoe, don't yell at her. Take the shoe away and immediately replace it with an appropriate toy, then praise her for being such a good dog and chewing on the toy. Instead of trying to catch your puppy doing something wrong, make every effort to catch her doing something right. It doesn't take a puppy long to catch on that she gets attention from you for doing certain things and that you ignore her when she does other things. A dog will do anything for attention, so your goal is to teach her which actions are socially acceptable and rewarded with your attention and which ones get her ignored.

Too often, dog owners fall into the trap of thinking dogs know exactly what's expected of them. The fact is dogs don't know the rules of your household, but they're eager to learn. Imagine it from the dog's perspective: You've just been picked for a team for an exciting new sport; however, nobody explains the rules to you. Of course, you have one major advantage over your dog: You can ask for clarification. Dogs can't, so it's up to you to make sure you're communicating all the rules to her consistently and in a way she'll be sure to understand. So instead of tossing your puppy into a situation where she doesn't know the rules, create an environment in which she can't help but succeed.

Puppy Kindergarten

Kindergarten for kids is a combination of structured teaching, informal learning, educational play, and free play -- all of which give their rapidly developing minds an important head start in life. By the time first grade rolls around, they're already into the habit of going to school, and they have the basic skills for learning more complex concepts like reading and math. Puppy kindergarten works the same way: It gives young dogs a chance to get out of the house, meet other dogs and people, pick up some basic skills, and have a little fun along the way. The best time to enroll your puppy in class is after her vaccination series is complete, which should be at about four months of age.

Talk to your veterinarian, breeder, or local humane society about puppy kindergarten classes in your area, or ask friends or neighbors with well-trained dogs for their recommendations. As in any obedience training program, the first session of puppy kindergarten is usually held without dogs. This gives the trainer a chance to explain the methods to be used and answer any questions you might have. Expect the trainer to use positive methods, and avoid one who is harsh toward canine students.

Socialization is also an important part of puppy kindergarten. You'll play games like "Pass the Puppy," where everyone passes her dog to the next person. This teaches puppies to accept attention and handling from lots of different people, something your veterinarian and groomer will be grateful for! And always be sure to practice what you learn at home. Repetition is the key to learning in dogs.

Basic Obedience for Puppies and Adult Dogs

After your puppy has graduated from kindergarten, the two of you can continue your education in a basic obedience training class. This is a must if you plan to compete in obedience trials but highly recommended even if you just want to reinforce what your puppy has already learned. After all, completing a single six-week class doesn't make your dog trained for life. Unless the two of you practice her skills at home on a regular basis -- daily, at first -- she'll lose them.

A basic obedience course should cover walking on a leash, sitting, lying down, and coming when called. The trainer may also include at-home care, such as brushing and nail trimming; practice exams to accustom the pups to having their mouths, ears, and feet handled; and advice on housetraining. It is also helpful to learn the psychology behind dog training, including timing, rewards, and corrections.

On the Road

A dog is one of the best traveling companions you can have. She doesn't whine about the length of the trip or insist on taking a short cut sending you 100 miles out of your way -- and she's never a backseat driver. She is, however, a great listener who hangs on your every word and a powerful deterrent to people with less-than-honorable intentions. To ensure you and your dog make the most of your road time, teach your pooch early about the joys of car travel.

Start off by taking her on brief errands, particularly ones that do not require you to get out of the car: the curbside drop-off box at the post office, drive-up bank teller, or the drive-through window at a fast-food restaurant. The bumps, turns, and sudden shifts of weight from a car ride are confusing to dogs, so keep your dog safe by keeping her in her crate or anchored to the seatbelt with a specially designed pet harness. Running errands with your dog in the car is also a good way to teach her every car ride doesn't have to end up at the veterinarian, groomer, or boarding kennel.

To prepare for a long trip -- longer than a half day or more -- pack a separate bag for your dog. It should contain a supply of food; bottled water (or whatever water your dog is accustomed to drinking) to be mixed with water along the way (to prevent stomach upset); dishes; bedding; a favorite toy or two; any necessary medication; heartworm preventative; and flea or tick products. Prepare a special spot in the car for your dog. If it's just the two of you, she may enjoy riding in the front seat. A large dog will probably be more comfortable stretched out in the backseat. Keep an eye on the sun's position in the car. It may be necessary to provide shade, especially if you're traveling through the hot Southwest or humid Midwest.

Stop every couple of hours so the two of you can stretch, take a potty break, and get a drink. Having a dog along is a good excuse to take a break and reduces the monotony of the drive, which can cause you to become sleepy or less alert.

Always snap the leash on your dog's collar and get a good grip on it before you open the car door. One glimpse of a passing rabbit or another dog at a rest stop, and Rover will be out of your control -- and possibly into traffic -- before you realize what's happening. Before you start your trip, always make sure your dog is wearing a collar and tags marked with your home address and phone number and with a number where you can be reached on the road. Special write-on tags are available for temporary use.

Rules of the road. Unless a pooch knows how to be a polite car passenger, her presence can be annoying -- and even downright dangerous. Teaching your dog manners for the car calls for the same approach as teaching her manners for the home: Positively reinforce acceptable behavior and correct unwanted behavior by ignoring, interrupting, or redirecting. If your dog really loves car rides, you can also use the old parents' dodge of "I'll turn this car around and go right home if you don't stop that," but be sure you actually do it. If nothing else seems to be settling your dog down, cut the trip short and bring her back home.

Teach your dog to wait until you give the okay before jumping into the car. This not only allows you to arrange your belongings -- or the dog's -- in the car, it also teaches your dog to respect your leadership, a must for compatible car travel.

As classic of a dog thing as it may be, don't let your pooch hang her head out the car window. The wind and dust can cause her eyes to become dry, and flying debris can cause serious -- or even fatal -- injury. Instead, your dog should ride in a sitting or lying position, inside the car, safely strapped in by her harness or riding inside her crate.

Two Easy Dog-Training Tricks

All work and no play makes Ginger a dull dog. Teaching her a few tricks brightens her day and gives her a job to do. The more a dog learns, the less likely she is to be bored -- and boredom is a major cause of destructive behavior. To learn these tricks, your dog must already know two commands: down and come.

Crawl across enemy lines. All the famous TV and movie dogs know this trick. They use it when they have to sneak up on the bad guys, get messages past enemy sentries, or heroically drag themselves back to their beloved masters, despite their injuries. The only props you need are some bite-size treats such as kibble, bits of hot dog, or cheese cubes. This trick will link a command your dog knows (come) with a new one (crawl).

To start, give your dog the down command. Once she's in position, back up a few feet and kneel down with a treat in your hand. As you call your dog saying, "Ginger, come -- crawl," show her the treat and slowly pull it toward you along the ground. If Ginger stands up to get the treat, put her back in position and start over. If she crawls, even if it's only for a short distance, give her the treat and praise her. When she starts to get the hang of the trick, start making her crawl farther before you give her the treat.

Roll over, Ginger. Once your dog knows this trick, you can build on it to create more elaborate tricks, such as playing dead. As with the crawl trick, you need a supply of treats to teach your dog to roll over. Your dog will learn two new words for this trick: side and roll.

To start, your dog should be in the down position. Kneel in front of her with a treat in your hand. With an open palm moving in the direction you want your dog to lie (choose either left or right), encourage her to lie on her side. (If you want the dog to lie on her left side, use your right hand and vice versa.) As she moves into position, say, "Side." Practice this step several times until your dog has it down pat, rewarding her with a treat when she's successful.

The next step is to teach the dog to roll. With a treat in your hand, make a slow, complete circle as you say, "Roll." As your dog follows the motion of your hand, help her roll over, and give her the treat. Repeat this step until your dog can roll over without help. The roll should bring her back to the down position. When you are sure your dog knows the routine by heart, you can teach her to roll in the opposite direction.

We've covered the basics of how to train your dog. If you work on them consistently, you should have a charming, well-behaved pet.

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