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Top 10 Pro Trainer Secrets

Image by Daniel Martins

Professional Dog Trainers weren't born with magical dog training powers. Training animals is a skill that can be learned and gets better with practice, like any other skill. The better your skills are, the better your dog's skills will be. Your skills get better with practice.

"If your dog can see, smell, or hear you then you are training them."

Lara Joseph, The Animal Behavior Center


If you don't like it, don't reward it.

We don't get the behavior we want. We get the behavior we train. You train your dog with every interaction, whether you intend to or not. Be completely present and conscious of what you are teaching.

Examples: Don't pet your dog or pick them up when they jump on you if you don't want them to jump. Don't feed your dog from the table if you don't want them to beg while you eat. Don't leave food they can reach on the counters if you don't want them to counter surf.


If you do like it, reward it.

When they do something you asked them to do, tell them "good job". When you tell them to stop doing something and they do, tell them "thank you". Rewards don't always have to be treats, but always tell them when they do something well. Behavior that is rewarded is repeated!

Examples: You tell your dog to Sit (or fill in the blank) and they do, praise them, thank them, pet them, or treat them, but don't do or say nothing at all!


Train in real-time.

Dog Trainers don't train only in scheduled time blocks. We mix in training throughout the day so it looks more like real life. The sooner you start using their skills in everyday situations, the sooner you have a well-mannered dog who listens to you.

Examples: Your dog asks to go outside. Have them practice a behavior (Sit, Down, Wait, etc.) before opening the door. You're waiting on pasta to boil. Practice one of the behaviors for the week. You're taking your dog for a walk. Don't move forward on a tight leash.


Be Clear and Consistent with your cues.

It's hard enough to communicate clearly with other people when words have different meanings. Misunderstandings between people happen all the time. Relationships have ended and Wars started from misunderstandings. Imagine the embarassment if your British friend asked to borrow a rubber, and you gave them a condom instead of an eraser. If humans struggle to communicate with language, imagine a dog who isn't even a verbal species!

Examples: Down can't mean lay on the floor sometimes and get off the furniture other times. Down can only mean one thing. Off is good for telling your dog to get off the furniture (or you). Come can't mean walk with me and come to me. Let's go is a good one for telling your dog you're walking together. It doesn't matter what cues you use. Dogs all over the world learn to understand words in many languages. It's the repetition paired with something that allows them to make the association. Inconsistency makes it harder for them to make the correct associations. 


Use Hand Signals!

Dogs are not a verbal species. They make noises, but they don't speak words. It's much more natural for them to pick up on body language. Your dog will learn the words faster if they are paired with the same body language, or hand signal, every time. Then, you can fade the hand signal and use the verbal cue (Sit, Down, Stay, etc.) only. If your dog is blind, touch signals can be substituted for hand signals.

Examples: Does your dog know what 'Sit' means? Or, are they picking up on your body language cues to decipher what you want? It's easy to test. Stand with your back to your dog and tell them to Sit. If they do, they know what 'Sit' means. If they don't, they're following your body language instead of the word. This means they may not be intentionally ignoring you when you ask them to Sit but don't use the same body language they are used to.


There are two ends to a leash.

It's easier to blame the dog when they aren't getting what we're trying to teach them, but the burden of teaching is on the teacher. If your dog is struggling with something, think about how you might make it easier for them to learn. Dog Trainers use video of themselves to improve their training skills. Nobody else has to see it but you ;) 

Examples: Pulling on leash is often a 'handler error' more than a dog one. If dogs had training classes for humans, stopping them from pulling on leash would be top of the list. We tighten the leash because we want to be sure we're holding on to our dog, to keep them safe and keep others safe from them. But, the natural response to us tightening the leash is to pull against it. "Opposition Reflex" - Make sure you're not the one pulling on the leash.


Keep training sessions short and fun.

If you're not having fun training your dog, neither of you are going to like it very much. It will be more like a chore than a way to bond with your dog and communicate better with them. If you find yourself getting frustrated, go back to the video yourself idea to see where things are going wrong. Skip training if you had a bad day. And, don't train for so long that your dog starts to hate it. Leave them wanting more!

Examples: My first experience with training a dog to follow cues was with a stray dog I found. I taught him to Sit and Beg using sliced cheese. It was exhilarating! How freaking cool is it that this whole other species can understand us?! Then, I took my dog to a trainer who used chain yanks instead of sliced cheese. I hated it. My dog hated it. So, I didn't do it. When it's fun, you WANT to do it. When you hate it, you don't. If you and/or your dog are hating it, try to figure out why. Ask us for help if necessary. 


Be Generous with Treats.

One mistake people new to training with food rewards make is thinking it's better to use as little as possible, you know, so they don't get dependent on them. Ironically, the opposite is true. If you are super generous both with the tastiness of the treats and the quantity in the beginning, it makes your dog excited about training. You can fade the treats faster because they know there's always the possibility of that really super yummy treat. But, if you barely give them anything and use something they don't really like all that much, they won't be motivated. Then, you're left with using treats forever or going back to punishment. 

Examples: It's Pavlov, really. Associations. If your dog associates training and obedience with really really yummy treats, they will love training. If they associate training and obedience with so-so treats they only get here and there, they will feel so-so about training and be harder to motivate. Instead of making them salivate, Pavlov's bell makes them tune out.


Use other things your dog loves for training.

Treats are not the only thing dogs find rewarding. Going for a walk, being let out into the yard, going on a car ride, swimming, playing, sniffing something are all rewarding for dogs. Instead of giving them free access, ask for an obedience behavior first.

Examples: Your dog doesn't want to Sit or Down outside because they want to sniff an interesting spot. Keep asking until they do it, then let them sniff the spot. They want to go for a walk, ask them to Sit and Wait while you put on the leash. No wrestling with a wild dog to clip a leash on. They want you to throw their ball, ask for a Down first, then throw.


 Bring your sense of humor!!

Dogs have good days and bad days same as we do. Even the most polished, highly trained, award-winning competition obedience dog will have an off day. It's a fact that your dog (like children) will embarrass you at least once and probably many times. Nobody is perfect. Don't take it personally. It's not about you. They may not feel well, be over-tired, feel anxious, overly energetic, and so on. Learn to laugh and move on! 

Examples: Demo Dog Farrah has earned the Canine Good Citizen and Trick Dog Novice titles. She still boggles the Wait and Come when called demo almost every time! There are some days when it's clear that Farrah is not into training and we aren't going to get anywhere that day. Sometimes dogs suddenly get a bummy tummy and go to the bathroom in the middle of class. Struggling to catch on to a new behavior, excitement pee, barking... all common things that happen in class. Laugh and move on!

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