Get simple, easy to follow tips to help you train your dog
Download A4 handouts for quick and simple training tips:
Q – I’ve been working on the ‘Red Light’ (stop when the lead goes tight) and ‘Green Light’ (walk forward when lead is loose) and rewarding my dog with a treat when she’s walking nicely next to me. But she just quickly grabs the treat, then immediately dashes forward and starts pulling again. What can I do?
A – Have her ‘Sit’ frequently. When you’ve asked her to come back to you after the lead went tight and she’s back in position next to you, ask for a ‘Sit’ and reward the ‘Sit’. Stay with the ‘Sit’ for a moment (vary the duration) and you can sometimes give her another treat or two while she’s sitting. Then use your ‘Let’s Go’ cue to start moving again. Also frequently stop while walking, ask for a ‘Sit’, and reward that. This will help your dog to want to stick with you more rather than pull ahead.
Canine body language
When it comes to any training you do with your dog, it's important that you can read your dog's body language so you know what your dog is feeling and communicating.
How fluent are you in dog-speak? Would you recognise if a dog is feeling relaxed or showing signs of stress? When two dogs meet, would you know from their body language if they are about to play or have a fight? Is it safe to approach a dog? Check out a series of photos and select from multiple-choice answers.
Take the canine body language quiz to find out!
The proper use of food in training
We love to use food in training. We use it to reinforce the correct behaviour. But there’s a bit more to it than just dishing out the treats. We need to know how to use food correctly. One common question is how to avoid ‘bribing’ our dogs. When starting out training a puppy or a dog who hasn’t had any previous training experience, we sometimes use the food to lure (holding the treat under the dog’s nose) to show him what behaviour or movement we’d like him to do. However, the food lure must be phased out quickly so that your dog doesn’t become reliant on it (my dog only listens to me when I have a piece of hot-dog in my hand). Find out why you should use food when training your dog, and how to use food without your dog getting fat. Another common question is “Do I have to use food when working with my dog forever?” The answer is “No you don’t”, but you need to learn at what point you can stop using the food to train.
A client recently asked “How to I teach my dog to shake hands? We’ve tried everything – I even picked up his paw and held it, but he still doesn’t get it.” While some dogs shake hands naturally, this training question is a good example of how to train by shaping.
In simple terms, shaping means breaking down a behaviour into tiny increments, and reinforcing the dog at each incremental step until you’ve achieved the full behaviour.
Once your dog gets a certain level of the behaviour, hold off for a second or two to see if your dog offers an improved behaviour so you can advance to the next level. It’s a little like the children’s game ‘Hot and Cold’ – you mark and reward the ‘hot’ and ignore the ‘cold’. If your dog can’t get to the next level yet, go back and reinforce what he can do for a while so he doesn’t get frustrated and gives up on the ‘game’.
In the example of the ‘Shake hands’, you could break the behaviour into small steps such as:
- Just shift paw slightly. To begin with you could either wait it out until your dog shifts his paw by himself, or you could prompt it by using your hand palm facing up to touch your dog’s paw briefly and gently. This could later become your hand signal.
- Then work on small improvements, e.g. dog lifts paw a millimeter off the floor
- Dog lifts paw 1 cm off the floor and so on (increase by small increments until paw comes all the way up)
- Then place your hand under the paw so it touches your hand, and
- Finally work towards your dog putting his paw into your hand.
Throughout the process, use your marker word (e.g., ‘Yes’ or ‘Good job’) or your clicker to mark the moment when your dog gets it right and follow up immediately with a treat.
Read a great article on Shaping by internationally renowned dog trainer Pat Miller
When training your dog, rewards don’t just have to be treats or play. It can be anything your dog loves or really wants at the time – we call it ‘Life Rewards’.
For example, you’re out on a walk and your dog pulls on lead. You know for sure he just wants to get to the next tree for a sniff and pee.
Stop, ask your dog to move back and sit next to you. Then quickly use your release command such as “Free’ or “OK” and run to the tree with your dog (making sure the lead doesn’t go tight, because remember, you don’t want your dog to learn that pulling gets him where he wants to get to).
So here, your dog's reward for coming back to you and sitting nicely was to get to sniff the tree, which is what he really wanted in this instance.
Establish a No-Reward-Marker
A ‘No Reward Marker’ (NRM) is a verbal cue such as “A-ahh” or “Too bad”. It simply predicts “No treats for this behaviour!” - It’s not a verbal punishment or threat. Your dog will quickly pick up on the fact that after you say your reinforcing marker word such as “Yes” or “Good job”, a treat may be forthcoming and after you say your NRM, all treats are withdrawn.
For example, you could use the NRM when you’re working with your dog on the ‘Sit Stay’ and your dog makes a move to get up before you released him.
The NRM tells your dog that getting up isn't going to get him a treat. If your dog stays sitting or quickly settles again, treat. If he walks away, simply ask him to move back to where he was sitting and ask for another 'Sit Stay'.
By the way, when your dog does break the ‘Sit Stay’, you know that you’ve pushed too far. Next time, stay closer than before or ask for a shorter ‘Sit Stay’ or make sure there are less distractions. Reward successful attempts.
Get the treat to your dog’s mouth within a second of the correct behaviour.
Treat your dog where you want him to be, e.g. teaching your dog to walk at your side, deliver the treat at your leg (not in front of you or behind you).
Your body posture
Have your arms bent with your hands (holding a treat) at your belly button, so your dog will look up at your face. Avoid leaning over to give the treat or holding the treat too high because you can accidentally solicit your dog to jump up.
Deliver rewards quickly
Timing is key! You need to deliver your reward (e.g., food or toy) within a second of your dog performing the correct or desired behaviour. If you leave it too long after the fact, your dog won’t know what she is getting a treat for. In addition, you're likely reinforcing something different to what you've asked for.
E.g. you've asked your dog to sit, she does it, but you take time to fish a treat from your pocket. Meanwhile, your dog stood up before you finally got the treat to her. Presto - you just reinforced the ‘getting up’ action, not the ‘sit’, and you'll get more of the 'getting up'. So be quick with your rewards!
Consistency, consistency, consistency!
Dogs don’t understand when rules vary or only apply some of the time, for example when sometimes it’s ok to beg for food at the dinner table, but at other times (perhaps when you have guests) he gets scolded for doing so.
It makes it even harder for your dog to stick with the rules if the unwanted behaviour gets reinforced sometimes (e.g. someone gives your dog food from the dinner plate). He’ll be likely to beg again in the future because it has worked well for him in the past.
Set your dog up for success: Consistency is the key to making sure your dog knows the ‘house rules’ and can follow them.
Make a list of what behaviour you are happy with (e.g. dog on the bed) and what you won’t allow (e.g. dog jumping up on people). Then get everybody in your household to adhere to these rules and brief your visitors about them too.
Using high value treats
High value treats are something special your dog really loves but doesn’t normally get, for example Frankfurters, luncheon or chicken.
Test it - put a selection of treats out in front of your dog and see which one she eats first.
High value treats increase your dog’s motivation to learn. Use high value treats when you’re teaching your dog a new behaviour or skill. Use a portion of your dog’s normal food to reward any good behaviours you spot during the day and behaviours your dog already knows well.
Motivation is key
Find what motivates your dog! There is no such thing as a 'stubborn' or 'untrainable' dog – you just have to find the right motivation.
So many breeds are labelled stubborn, like my Alaskan Malamute, but it's really just a matter of finding the right motivation.
My girl is food-crazy and eager to do anything for a treat. Other dogs might be more keen on a ball. To test what motivates your dog, place a selection of treats and toys in front of your dog and see what he takes first. Use that for your training.
You know when your dog really likes something, he will come back for more. Check if your dog wants more of the vigorous head rub you give him as a 'reward' or if he moves away.