Obedience training your dog

Teaching dog manners: Obedience training your dog


"He steals food from the table."
"She won't come back when she's called."
"He destroyed the living room rug."
"She barked and barked until the neighbors complained."
"He's a wonderful dog, but I wish he wouldn't . . . "

Lots of dogs have no manners, and their owners are at a loss as to how to teach them manners. So these hapless folks frequently end up hollaring at poor Misty or smacking Buster on the butt with an open palm or a newspaper. Even worse, when Rambo doesn't shape up, he's banished to the basement or the backyard to live his days in solitude, or he's taken to the pound because "we just can't deal with him any more."

Obedience training would have prevented many of these problems and can help solve the bad behaviors that exist. Many people think that obedience training is something that is done to a dog to make it perform some artificial activity on command. But if we turn the words around, we'll be closer to a real definition: Obedience training is to train dogs to be obedient, to obey anything and everything they're told to do. It covers a wide range of lessons a dog can learn, including tricks, family manners, show ring exercises, and skills demonstrations. Sniffing dogs, service dogs for handicapped owners, search and rescue dogs, sled and carting dogs, hunting dogs -- all carry their obedience training to the highest degree. They have been trained to obey an unusual set of commands that increase their value as helpers to man.

Training would be a cinch if dogs spoke the same language that people speak. But, alas, 'tis not so. Dogs have their own attitudes,voice and body language, and mindset. They can be stubborn, dominant, submissive, or fearful, characteristics that can make them difficult to train.

Training techniques and equipment

Training can be accomplished at home, in an obedience class, or with a private trainer. It requires patience, a collar, a leash, a sense of humor, patience, and an understanding of dog behavior. That understanding can come from one or more of the many excellent books written about training companion dogs or from an obedience instructor or dog trainer.

Consistency is important in dog training. For example, if Ruffie was allowed to sit on the sofa yesterday and is yelled at for joining Aunt Florence on the sofa today, she'll be confused. It's better to teach her "up" and "off" so she'll climb on the furniture only when invited. If Mom says that Spot gets only dog food and treats, and the kids feed him from the table, he'll learn to beg and ultimately to steal in spite of Mom's efforts. Then, when he feasts on the roast, he's really in the doghouse for doing something he's actually been "trained" to do.

Training should be fun. Every training session should be punctuated with games, praise, and hugging. Buster should look forward to each session, just as he looks forward to his daily exercise. Every exercise should be useful at home. The dog should learn to sit on command and be conditioned to sit before going through a doorway, getting in or out of the car, before getting his dinner or a treat, and before getting petted by strangers or visitors. A sitting dog cannot knock a bowl of food out of your hand, lunge through a narrow opening in the door, jump out of the car before you clip on the leash, and so on.

The dog should learn to lie down so he won't beg at the table or bother the kids at play and will ride quietly in the car, etc. He should learn to stand still so he can be groomed or examined by the veterinarian. He should learn to walk on a leash without pulling; allow his feet, ears, and teeth to be handled; and come when he's called, wherever or whenever.

Add a few tricks to the repertoire for fun and deal with the problems as they arise, and you'll have a well-mannered pet.

How to choose an obedience instructor or club

Most people do not know how to train their dog, especially if the dog's personality and attitude differs from their own. And most dogs present some kind of training problem. Some do not respond to tenderness and coaxing, and others melt at a firm tone of voice. Some are dominant and require strength of muscle as well as strength of will, and others are eager to please. Some are bright and quick, and others are, well, slow learners.

Not all instructors understand the differences either: Here's what happened with a puppy in one obedience class

The puppy lunged at another dog in the class, growling.
The instructor smacked the puppy hard on the muzzle.
The puppy growled and lunged at the next dog, and the instructor smacked it again.

The justification? If your dog lunges at someone, you can get sued. The puppy in question is a fear-biter, a timid dog that is easily provoked to attack. The technique for dealing with a fear biter has nothing to do with smacking the dog in the muzzle.

There's never a reason to hit a dog during training. Slapping a dog in the muzzle --his face-- is not akin to spanking a child for misbehaving.

Don't be fooled

Unfortunately, there is no requirement that instructors at obedience schools or businesses know how to train a dog to be a well-mannered pet, so just about anyone can throw a few mats on the floor, print up some flyers, and claim to be a dog trainer.

When searching for a trainer to help you teach Rover to come when called, not bother the family at mealtimes and not jump on the kids or Aunt Sally, here are some things to keep in mind.

First, some definitions:

Obedience instructor:
A person qualified to teach you to train your dog. An obedience instructor works with people, the people work with their pets.
Dog trainer:
A person who teaches your dog to obey, then teaches you how to get the dog to listen to you.
Behavior consultant:
A person with vast experience in observing, interpreting, and understanding dog behavior and correcting it when appropriate.
The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors: a membership organization that certifies instructors at several levels of competence.
The Association of Pet Dog Trainers: a new organization of trainers specializing in training pets and helping pet owners solve problems.
Training collar:
Any collar that fits around the dog's neck that gives the handler control. The simplest training collar is a buckle collar. The most common is the chain training or "choke" collar. Rising in popularity is the prong or pinch collar, a torturous-looking device that actually provides a milder correction and is quite effective on boisterous dogs when used properly. Also acceptable is the halter or head collar, which fits the dog's whole head and uses the handler's ability to turn the dog's head rather than neck pressure as the control. Acceptable only as a last resort -- as in: "It's electric shock or euthanasia" -- is the electric shock collar.
Leash or lead:
A piece of leather or fabric with one end attached to the dog's collar and the other held in the trainer's hand. Chain or rope leashes are unwieldy and can cause blisters or burns if the dog pulls hard.

Now, some hints:

Decide whether a group class or private lessons fit your situation and your personality.

Ask your veterinarian, your dog's breeder, the animal shelter staff, the groomer, or the folks at the pet supply store for referrals.

Observe at least two or three instructors or classes before making a choice.

Cardinal Rule Number One is to talk to the potential instructor or club or business representative before making a decision on where to train.

Questions to ask an instructor include:

"What are your teaching credentials?" Some instructors are certified by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors,and some may be members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Some may have attended classes at National K-9 Dog Training School in Columbus. Some instructors attend seminars on dog behavior and training methods. Some have competed in obedience trials and may have achieved many titles on their dogs; however, expertise in training for obedience titles is not necessarily the same as skill in helping pet owners teach Sassy to quit begging at the table or encourage Rambo to be less domineering.

"How do you teach the dog to sit?" The answer should be any technique that guides the dog into position instead of forcing him to sit by pushing down on the hind end.

"How do you teach the dog to lie down?" The answer, again, should be any technique that guides the dog into position; unacceptable is any method that uses forcing the dog down by pushing on the withers (top of the shoulders).

"What training equipment do you recommend?" The instructor should be flexible here and allow for personal preference of the dog owner as well as the individual needs of the dog. The appropriate answer is something like, "We generally recommend (type of collar) but evaluate each dog's needs when you come to class."

"Do you recommend or provide a Canine Good Citizen test as part of the class?" The American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test is a minimal evaluation of the dog's potential as a well-mannered pet. Any instructor teaching basic obedience classes should at least be familiar with the test and should encourage pet owners to certify their dogs.

"What is your opinion of Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas, Chows, terriers, hounds or any other breed typically tagged as hard to train or aggressive?" The correct answer is "The breed can be tough for the following reasons, but if you are consistent and persistent in your training and understand your dog's character, you can be successful." Knowledge of individual dog or breed temperament should never be limited to "That's an (aggressive, stupid, stubborn, fearful, whatever) breed; you should get rid of it and start over."

Reliable instructors do not refuse a dog of a particular breed or mix as untrainable or aggressive. If a reliable instructor prefers not to work with certain breeds, he may direct you to another school but if he maligns your breed, cross him off your list.

Observing a class

Weed out those who answer incorrectly and then make plans to observe a class of the level you are considering. If you have a puppy or young dog and know little or nothing about obedience training, be sure to observe a puppy or basic obedience class. Watching an advanced class will not give you a firm grasp of the training techniques or problem-solving tactics used by the club, business, or instructor. If you intend to enroll Misty at training club classes, be sure to observe the instructor who will be teaching your class, for club instructors are volunteers whose skills may vary greatly.

When observing a class, watch for:

An indication that the instructor actually likes dogs and people. This can be judged by, among other things, the willingness of the instructor to give individual attention when necessary for very shy or bold dogs, timid owners, boisterous dogs, etc.

Good, clear advice and instructions. Puppy classes should include some information on typical puppy problems such as housetraining, flea control, chewing, learning curves, and bonding and attention-getting techniques. Basic classes should include problem-solving information.

The method used to teach the dog to sit on command. Acceptable is any technique that coaxes the dog to sit and follows the successful sit with a lots of praise. Some instructors use food or toys held above the dog's head to trick them into a sit on command, then praise. Some instructors "scoop" the dog into a sit position by simultaneously putting backward pressure on the dog's chest and forward pressure on the outside of the hind legs above the hock joint. Unfortunately, some instructors put heavy pressure on the dog's hind end near the tail and force it into a sit.

The method of correction: No dog should ever be corrected until you are sure he understands the command. The corollary to this rule is that every dog should be given every opportunity to be successful. Therefore, until the dog begins to sit on his own as soon as he hears the word "sit," don't expect him to sit without some guidance. Until he begins to go down on the command, don't expect him to lie down without guidance.

The speed with which the class proceeds. Don't expect miracles; each step takes time. A dog that understands the command to sit may or may not be ready to understand the meaning of "sit, stay." If the instructor moves too fast, if the handlers are allowed to expect too much-too soon from their pets, you'll see lots of opportunities for mistakes, lots of corrections, and much frustration from dogs and owners.

The method to teach the "stay" command should proceed something like this: Tell Rover to "sit" by your side. Tell Rover to "Sta-a-a-y" and pivot in front of him close enough that his nose is inches from your leg. Keep the leash in your hand, held above the dog's head with slight pressure to help him keep his backside on the floor. Count to 10, pivot back, say "OK!" and praise the dog.

Once the dog stays in position for a minute while you standing knees-to-nose with him, you can stand three feet away, then six feet away. If the dog moves, go back to the knees-to-nose position. Don't ever give the dog consistent opportunities to break the command. If an instructor allows handlers to go too far-too soon and depends on constant corrections to teach the dog the meaning of "stay," progress will be slow, dogs will be confused, and owners will be disappointed.

Some indication that the instructor knows the difference between different personality types of dogs. There are shy dogs and confident ones, fearful dogs and aggressive ones, submissive dogs and dominant ones. A good instructor is willing and able to tailor training techniques to different dog characters and attitudes. A fearful dog that is corrected through force will become more fearful. A dominant dog that is corrected too softly will take command of any relationship.
[ More on dog personalities and learning styles] and why techniques that work with one may not work with another.

Other things to keep in mind:

Don't do anything to your dog unless it feels right to you. If you don't like the methods being used in the class, find another club or instructor. Most instructors understand that dogs have a dominance hierarchy in their social structure, that that hierarchy is transferred to the human family, and that humans must be dominant or the dog will rule the roost. Some instructors help owners learn to read their dog's behavior, to be the dominant member of the team, and to use minimal discipline to achieve the training goal. Others teach owners to train by intimidation. Still others over-read the dogs and the problems, explaining in great detail the psychology of the dog's mind at the moment of disobedience instead of working out a plan to eliminate or circumvent the bad behavior.

Don't expect the sit-com solution: It's highly unlikely that Fido's problems will be solved with a single eight- or 10-week course of obedience training.

Get what you pay for: Ask questions of the instructors, work hard at home on the lessons, read the recommended material, and enlist the help of the whole family. After all, Blackie is the family dog.

Don't take a puppy to classes until he has had all of his vaccinations. Your veterinarian may recommend keeping the pup home until he's 16-18 weeks old. Listen to your vet, even if obedience instructors insist the pup needs the socialization of a kindergarten class. Socialization is important, but not as important as avoiding exposure to fatal diseases such as parvovirus and distemper.

If money is a big consideration, the training clubs probably offer the best bang for the buck. However, the quality of instruction may be uneven and may not adhere to any particular method of training, for the instructors are volunteers with a variety of philosophical and practical backgrounds. Clubs generally require that all dogs attending classes be up-to-date on all vaccinations, including rabies and Bordatella (kennel cough).

If possible, talk to other dog owners who have taken classes at the school or club you are considering. While a single experience or two does not present the total picture, it will help you ask the right questions before paying the training fee.

Beware of anyone who diagnoses your dog's "problems" and proposes a solution without extensive questioning and observation of you and Rover. For example, some instructors assume that all big dogs and all exuberant dogs need the restraint of a prong collar. Others are sure that all problems arise from the owner's inability to dominate the dog and that dominance and shouting are inseparable.

The ultimate goal...

The goal of dog training is to build a bond between pet and family and to enjoy the process. A training class should be fun, informative, and helpful. If any of these ingredients are missing, if the instructor strikes the dog as correction, if the instructor does anything you consider questionable, ask why and if you're not satisfied with the answers, leave the class. Sticking it out because you already paid the fee could do great damage to your relationship with your pet.

[A more general view of obedience training]

For what can happen if the need for obedience training is ignored see "He didn't like it so we stopped." and Nikki's story

Norma Bennett Woolf

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