There are so many ways to train dogs. With 15 years experience and after working with in excess of 10,000 dogs during this time I believe that the best way to train our dogs is to make sure we understand how they work. Dogs are mammals, they have emotions and they are an intelligent species. They are not unlike children when it comes to what they need. They need to be and feel safe, they need food, they need comfort, they need company, they need to communicate and usually need affection. They have an amazing ability to learn and we would be doing dogs an injustice if we did not understand this. Many of the problems we have with dogs today is because we have failed to understand what they need and how they learn. In a society which expects everything this instant, we appear to have forgotten that the best things come to those who wait. Training your dog to be a good citizen is very like raising your child; it takes time, understanding, clear instructions, repetition and patience. It also takes skill and this is something that we, as dog owners, need to learn with patience. Below we try to show you how we approach dog training.
I am safe
The first goal is for puppies to learn their world is safe, quickly followed by a goal of the puppy learning that he can be calm and settled. These two goals are linked. If a puppy doesn't feel safe, then the puppy can appear rather excitable and erratic. This is often the result of stress. Puppies can only feel safe and calm if we train the kind way. The second we start to get our pup to do something they are not comfortable with, we set them up for failure. So our focus is helping pups learn how to make good choices and how to get out of situations with which they are uncomfortable. If we enable them to learn this there should never be need for a dog to show aggression. However, if we are unable to recognise that our pup is not coping and we continue to push the puppy into something with which he isn't comfortable, we start to store up trouble for the future. Puppies rarely show aggression, this behavioural response usually manifests around maturity. The age of maturity varies from breed to breed and between individuals and occurs from about 8 months to three and a half years. At this time the dog has his adult tool kit and behavioural options now include the use of aggression. However, if taught as a puppy how to avoid trouble, the dog should continue to use this strategy so aggression is not necessary.
I am calm
When the puppy feels safe, then he tends to be calmer. Responses become more measured rather than instinctive. We show you that calm behaviour can be reinforced and that, when we do this, calm behaviour is more frequent. I mean GENUINELY CALM, not closed down. There is a really big difference and some methods make it look like the dog is calm, but actually he is afraid to do anything, or has learned that nothing works so gives up. This is not a good calm and is prone to dramatic outbursts when the dog matures. Or, when dogs have no means to express how unhappy they are, this leaves them prone to illness and disease as a result of long term stress; just like humans. Genuinely calm behaviour is only possible when the methods used do not cause stress and do not inhibit behaviour. The dog is free to express himself and chooses to express himself in a relaxed way because he feels safe and confident.
I understand what you want me to do
When dogs get it wrong it is nearly always because they didn't understand what we wanted of them. This is why we favour choice based training combined with some instructional training. By teaching your puppy some really useful behaviours the puppy can start to make good choices based on what he has learned is rewarded/rewarding. However, we also find letting pups experiment with behaviours is useful. This creates confidence and builds on intelligence. It also helps pups to feel more secure. For example, dogs which rely on their owner to tell them how to behave all the time may find adapting to being home alone difficult as there is no one to tell him how to behave. This can lead to separation related distress. So it is desirable to allow our puppies to experiment with behaviour and for us to guide the puppy. We actively reward behaviours we would like to see more of, and we ensure the puppy doesn't receive the reward for those behaviours we do not want to see. We need to set the environment so that the pup has the best chances of success. This might mean limiting access to certain areas unless supervised until the pup understands which behaviours are acceptable. For us to achieve this, we simply must be there with our puppy at the time puppy is experimenting with behaviours, otherwise we cannot educate the pup.
We use methods which enable the pup to learn these rules. This might include treats, toys, play, access to something the puppy wants. These methods are gentle, calm and guiding. We do not use force. It is amazing how we can unwittingly put our dog into a difficult situation and not realise it simply because we cannot read their body language. We are constantly observing the puppy. Some clues to look out for during training:
- Watch what the puppy does. If you were doing something and he moves away from you, or looks away, he feels uncomfortable. If he chooses to calmly stay with you then he is most likely happy. However, gaining proximity to you is not always a happy sign, it can be appeasement. To know if this is the case, you need to look further at body language.
- Watch the ears and eyes. Are the eyes showing the whites around them? If so (except for a few breeds) this is likely to indicate the pup is a bit scared. Are the ears relaxed or are they pressed right back clamping the insides of the ears to the head? If so, this dog is likely feeling anxious/stressed. For dogs with upright ears, are they pinned backwards or forwards? Are they very stiff ears? Again, this can indicate anxiety/stress.
- If eyes are relaxed, not showing the whites and not bulging, and the ears are relaxed and loose this would indicate a dog which is fairly relaxed.
- Body posture should be relaxed and the front legs should be held at 90 degrees to the body. If a dog is in conflict, the front legs and back legs can move into a parallelogram shape (legs at at less than 90 degrees angle to the body).
- The back should be relatively straight (depending on breed conformation, or past injury). If the dog's back is hunched, it is likely that he is feeling uncomfortable, possibly trying to make himself look smaller, or carrying tension.
- The tail should be held neutrally. A low tail can indicate the dog is very fearful and trying to avoid conflict. A high tail can indicate the dog is not happy and is inclined to meet this situation with conflict if necessary. However, we should note that when dogs' bodies change posture in this way, they do so TO AVOID conflict. This is the dog saying "Don't do this or I might have to bite you". In other words, they are telling you this so they do not have to follow through. A tail hung low is a sign of discomfort. A happy dog holds his tail at half mast (with the exception of some breeds with naturally high set tail conformation, "screw" tails or short docked tails) and wags it with a wide sweeping wag, not short staccato wags. Rapid "jaggedy wags" are not a good sign. Just because a tail is wagging does not mean the dog is happy. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings humans have with dogs. Of course, there are different tail sets for different breeds, but as a general rule, a tail that is set higher or lower than the normal position is a dog in some form of emotional upset. It is the neutral position tail with wide sweeping wag that is usually a sign of a happy dog.
- Mouth shape. If the mouth is drawn back into a "smile" with folds at the corners, this can be a sign of stress. Some dogs can even smile, this is often appeasement (trying to signal conflict avoidance). If the mouth is clamped shut this also shows tension and often precedes a growl/snap or lunge. All these signals, including growling and snapping re being shown to avoid serious aggression.
We use motivational methods when training dogs. Dogs have to eat so we feel using food rewards is an easy way to train and we suggest making sure you use some of your dog's daily food ration when training, this way your dog can even earn some of his food. For some reason some people don't want to use food in training their dogs. Some dog trainers won't use food in training dogs. Before deciding not to use rewards in dog training, ask yourself this. Would you do a job of work for nothing? If your trainer believes dogs should not have food in training and should just do it to please you, don't pay them at the end of the session; presumably if they expect the dog to do it for you for nothing, then they are also happy to train you for nothing. There are very few people who do something for nothing, and those that do, for example; volunteers, are motivated by the way this makes them feel. It is unlikely that dogs feel this form of intrinsic reward as they may not have the same capacity to think or feel in such a complex way as we do. However it is known that they do have primary emotions (fear, anger etc).
Apart from food, we also use toys, scent, praise, fuss, social access (e.g. the dog learns he can greet people whilst on a slack lead, but not on a tight lead or when jumping up) as reinforcers. We use our imagination when using reinforcers. Not all dogs are the same (just like humans) and while one values being fussed as a reinforcer, another might not and would prefer something else. The skill in helping people to train their dogs is in understanding what motivates both the owner and the dog. It is our job to help owners figure this out so that they can build a relationship with their dog built on trust and kindness. Look at amazing dogs like the medical detection dogs that can sniff out cancers, or seizure alert trained dogs that can alert to impending seizures, or other assistance dogs that guide and help their owners; it simply would not be possible to train these dogs without using positive methods of training.
You can train your dog to do anything! But to do this your dog must trust you and he must know what you want of him. How do you know if he trusts you? Look at the behaviours listed above as this will give you a good idea. If you want an intelligent dog, you need to let him learn to explore behaviours and guide him which ones are acceptable. Dogs which learn this way are keener to try to learn new things.
Try training your dog the kind way.