How to Train a Dog

By: Dr. William Fortney

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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