I have been training horses for the past 10 years or so. In that time, I have also helped train dogs for basic obedience and various jobs like cattle heeling,avalanche rescue, and emotional support. I have spent a lot of time around animals of all kinds have learned a bit about listening to them, communicating with them effectively, and understanding them.
Clear communication with our animals is a difficult thing to explain—often more art than science, more intuition than something that can be codified. In my years as a horse and dog trainer, I have regularly observed people misreading their animals or unintentionally sending them mixed and confusing signals. Indeed, many dog trainers will tell you that their job often requires them to train the human more than the dog.
I want to share with you four fundamental principles that I believe are key in the effective training of dogs (or horses). Rather than get into the specifics of various training techniques (positive vs. negative reinforcement, whether to use treats or not, etc.), the focus of this article is instead to convey four key elements that will help improve communication and understanding with your dog.
In my experience working with animals, I have found these four principles are indispensable.
Training, at its foundation, is based on a simple formula. The animal’s correct response to a certain stimulus earns him a reward, and an incorrect reaction causes either negative or neutral (lack of positive) reinforcement. First the animal is conditioned, and from this conditioning, the animal begins to learn the intention behind the command.
With that in mind, remember that training is an ongoing process that takes time and patience.
Horse trainers often like to think of it like you’re asking the animal a question rather than issuing a command. At the beginning, you have to keep in mind that your dog does not yet know these sounds/signals nor what they mean. It will take time and multiple (consistent) iterations repeating a command/signal (stimulus) before your dog begins to associate his reaction with the command given, thereby starting his learning process. That is why we say it is more like asking a question in the beginning, and the animal is trying to guess the correct answer. The animal will always give you what he thinks is the “correct” answer, which means if you are not getting the response you want, you might have to change your question. Always be thinking about the best way to phrase your question in order to set your dog up for success.
On to the list:
It is hard to say any of these traits are more important than the others because they are all important and work together in conjunction. However, I would say it all begins with Consistency. It is extremely important that you are consistent with your commands/signals. Once you have figured out the right “question” and your dog is beginning to learn what the signal means, it is important that you also remain consistent in both the reward your dog receives for “answering” correctly, and the punishment (or lack of reward) he receives for either disobeying, ignoring, or answering incorrectly. Consistency is crucial in the early stages of training. That means you need to do your best to issue the same positive and negative reinforcement to a command EVERY SINGLE TIME. If you ask your dog to sit and he sits sometimes, but sometimes you let him get away with not sitting until the third or fourth time you tell him to, it becomes very confusing to the dog. He is not learning that sit ALWAYS means sit. He is learning that there is this weird grey area where SOMETIMES sit means sit and other times it seems to mean something else. We want to make it as BLACK and WHITE as possible in the dog’s mind. They do not have the cognitive agility to discern vague nuances—it is our job to make the distinction as black and white as possible in their minds. Whatever training method you use, you need to be consistent. Use the same signals/commands and especially early on, do not let wrong responses go unchecked. Do not stop until they get the answer right, and always end on a positive note. It is worth noting that dogs, especially puppies, have shorter attention spans so keep your initial training sessions relatively short, which ties into our next principle.
In conjunction with consistency, it is also critical that your method of reinforcement is fair and proportional. If you use too severe a form of negative reinforcement, you will scare or harm your dog. Very bad. If you do not praise him enough for a correct answer, you might leave him wondering whether he did answer correctly or not. Your method of reinforcement should be stern enough to hold the attention of your dog and make him WANT to get the correct answer, and it should be throttled enough not to scare or harm him—in other words, it should be FAIR. There are some commands that you might use in a life-or-death emergency situation, a command that your dog MUST ALWAYS and IMMEDIATELY respond to. You might use this command if your dog is about to chase a squirrel across a busy road, or starts chasing after a bear (looking at you, Thunder). While your method of reinforcement might be stricter for those commands, it still needs to be fair and proportional in order to be effective. They also need to be delivered in a way that convinces your dog that you are in charge, which brings us to:
This is probably the one people struggle with the most, maybe because it is subjective and hard to define. You know when it’s there, and you know when it’s not there, but you might not know exactly why. Often, confidence is earned through experience, which is a catch-22 because where do you get experience if it is your first or second or third dog? Nevertheless, it remains just as crucial as the other traits, and often determines whether or not you will assume the Alpha position in your little pack. In order to be confident, you need to be consistent and you need to know your method is fair and effective. You need to be able to deliver your commands or signals assertively, to separate yourself from any negative emotions like frustration or anger, and you need to reinforce consistently and fairly. It is a fact of life that some personalities are just naturally better at assuming this kind of leadership role than others. Many people would rather not bear the responsibilities of being the leader. Consider this then: if not all people want to be leaders, it is likely that not all dogs are born with the desire to assume the responsibilities of the Alpha position. In fact, it is likely that your dog is NOT an Alpha type dog. Yet, in the dog’s mind, the pack MUST have a leader, and that means if your dog cannot trust you to effectively be pack leader, he will have to assume the role, and that dynamic often puts undue stress and pressure on the dog, leading to issues like anxiety or fear aggression. In many cases, these issues could have been resolved from the start if the person had been more confident. There is something psychological about being confident—we pick up on it in people, and you can be sure your dog (or horse) picks up on it in you too. While it can be tedious to study all the nuances of body language and positioning and how dogs interpret it, much of the tedium can be distilled into one word: confidence. When you are confident, your body often assumes the correct position. If you are timid, hesitant, or questioning your own methods, you can be sure your dog is also questioning whether he can trust you to lead or not. You will make mistakes, but do not let that keep you from remaining confident. Which brings us to our next point:
Confident does not mean aggressive, it does not mean abusive, it does not require yelling or anger, frustration, panic. It requires Respect, and that goes both ways. It is important for you to respect your dog as a being. If you can be confident while being respectful, you will in turn earn your dog’s respect. Your dog will feel more comfortable to trust in your judgement and leadership abilities, and you will unburden your dog from the responsibility of assuming that Alpha position, often helping to prevent certain behavioral issues that could arise otherwise.
As you can see, each of these four principles ties into the others, and I maintain that all four are indispensable for effectively training your pup. I will finish by saying that properly training your dog will open up so many more opportunities for you and mitigate the many headaches of dealing with a poorly behaved dog. In turn, you have the potential to build an even deeper, truly beautiful connection with your dog. My dog Thunder and I have been all over the world together from one adventure to the next for the last 12 years, and none of that would have been remotely feasible if he weren’t well-trained.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. It is a learning process both for you and your dog. You will get upset, you will get frustrated, but try to keep emotion out of it. It is an exercise in patience, training a puppy, but put the time and effort in now and it will pay so many wonderful dividends in the future. Once you have basic obedience covered, consider some of these less common commands that I have found immensely helpful while hiking or backpacking with my pup: 5 Less Common Commands for Hiking with Your Dog.
Good luck and as always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments.