My life pretty much revolves around my dogs, as do the lives of many of my friends. And if you're a dog person, training discussions are endless. Training methods vary wildly, so much so that people have come to blows over training methods. Friendships have been lost, feelings have been hurt. Clicker trainers get called clickeroos and dismissed as "cookie pushers"; traditional trainers are called brutal thugs and dog abusers. And even among trainers who have like-minded methodologies, there are just so many things to train that we sometimes get bogged down. Stays, recalls, front crosses, contacts. Collected jumping, shoulder dropping, voice and hand signals, about turns.
In spite of this swirling tower of Babel, I really think there are three, and only three, things all trainers *must* do to effectively train their dogs. If you have these three elements, you will be able to go as far as you want in training. Do these things right and your dog will want to learn, want to please, and actively seek to help you train him. Do them wrong and you're headed down the road to frustration and maybe even danger.
Commandment 1. Thou Shalt Be A Benevolent Leader
If you want a dog who wants to work with you, then you have to be a leader. You and your dog are a team. Somebody has to be team captain, and that somebody has to be you. There is no choice here. You provide the kibble, you drive the car, you take care of the boo-boos. Dogs evolved to see and depend on us as leaders. If you are not a leader, this throws the dog into confusion and shakes his foundations of understanding of how his world works. If you don't lead him, he'll be forced to try to lead himself and maybe you too—a task he is unsuited for, and one which will cause a range of issues from ignoring you to outright aggression.
But there's another word in that commandment besides "Leader." It's "Benevolent." Some trainers (and television personalities) would have us alpha rolling our dogs, asserting our dominance with tough tactics. Show them who is boss. Make them sorry if they even think about getting out of line. Exercise them till they drop. Let them know that they better do what you want because if they don't well, by golly it's going to be pretty unpleasant.
That's not leadership. That's dictatorship. And certainly it can work. The truth is, dogs can and do put up with an incredible amount of mental and physical abuse from us, and they can even learn how to do things through the abuse. But I do not want to establish leadership through fear and intimidation followed up with physical pain. The thing is, I don't have to, and neither do you. You can be a leader without ever alpha rolling your dog. To be a good leader, a dog owner and trainer must be clear and consistent. He must also respect the dog. Respect is not a one way street. Want your dog to respect you? Respect him back. Don't expect him to be a human in fur clothing. Don't expect him to think and reason like you do. DO take the time to understand him and figure out how he thinks so you can communicate your wishes to him easily. Do not punish him for being a dog. Put as much time and effort into him as you expect him to put into you. Be calm and positive. Show him what you want and invite him to learn. Don't shove it down his throat. A dog who is benevolently lead rather than crushed under the rule of a dictator will be ready and eager to learn anything you want to teach, any time you want to teach it.
Commandment 2: Play With Thy Dog
That's right. Play. And I mean just that, play. I don't mean throwing a ball or fetching the paper, though those are both great trained behaviors. I mean get down on the floor and wrestle and play. Be stupid and silly. Make play growly noises. Let him jump on your head and growl back. Let him bark and spin. Squeal and run away, inviting him to chase. Play for play's sake. Play because it's fun and your dog loves it and you do too.
Play teaches your dog that you're more than a leader, you're FUN. Being with you is exciting! You just might do something silly any time.
Play increases confidence and attention. Play enhances the dog-human bond. Play lets your dog know that he's fun too, that you like playing with HIM. Play lets the dog know that it's okay to get amped up and excited in your presence. And that in turn feeds into a dog who does more than accept training, he attacks it with verve and vigor.
Commandment 3: Let Thy Dog Know He Is Loved
Some trainers caution against giving your dog too much affection. It makes them take you for granted they say. Spoils them. Undermines your leadership. I mean, how dare the dog solicit a pat from you, they should be punished for that. You should be some sort of distant idol, doling out affection only on your own schedule and only after they've done something for you.
What a load of crap.
If you are a benevolent leader, there is no such thing as giving your dog too much attention or affection. Your dog already understands and respects you as his leader, and you already understand and respect your dog. So if he comes up to you wanting some affection, give it to him. To NOT give your dog affection when he solicits it undermines your relationship. If your dog didn't love you and want to please you, if your dog didn't want to interact with you, he would not be soliciting attention. And isn't getting attention and inspiring your dog to want to please you and work with you the very foundation of all training? So do you really want to shut that off? I don't. I never have. I've always given my dogs all the attention and affection they could stand. I even solicit attention from them. Yet my dogs have all done very well in training, obtaining multiple titles and even more importantly, being superb companions that are a joy to live with.
Certainly some dogs can get obnoxious about soliciting attention, and sometimes you will need to say no. But if there's no pressing reason to say no, then say yes. You'll find your training will be better for it.
Follow those three commandments and learned behaviors become not just easy to teach, but fun too. How fun it is to teach a dog who can't wait to get to work, who actively works with you to learn, who revels in being with you. How difficult it is to teach the dog who isn't sure what you'll do that might hurt or scare him, who doesn't know his role, and who approaches all training with trepidation. I know which dog I want.