Sunday, June 7, 2009

Basic training helps solve dog behavior problems

When I worked at the Academy of Canine Behavior in Bothell, WA, every problem dog that came in started with basic obedience training. At this board-and-train facility only the most difficult dogs were left with us for training. If you could teach him yourself by attending a basic obedience class, you would have, right?

If you are not training your dog, he is still learning. Some people don’t have time to train their dog thoroughly. A half-trained dog learns very quickly what he can get away with. Then he has a bunch of bad habits you have to un-train. It is well worth spending 6-8 weeks teaching him what you want in the beginning. You’ll have a dog you can enjoy for the next 10-15 years.

A trained dog doesn’t automatically stay trained. Just like children, a dog will test you to see if you really mean it. “No begging,” “stay off the couch,” “don’t jump on me,” and other rules are made to be broken in the canine mind. But once trained, an occasional reminder is all that should be needed.

Basic training

So why start with “sit” and “down”? How does that keep Bowser off the dining room table? Dogs don’t speak English. Verbal commands must be learned, and as you teach the dog, he learns to communicate with you. He learns to learn. He learns you mean it (or not) when you tell him to do something. He starts to accept your leadership. He learns that everyone in the family is his leader. And he becomes comfortable with his place in the family pack.

Most dogs want to please you. They thrive on praise. Rewarded behavior will be repeated. If he’s not getting any attention, bad behavior will get him the attention he wants. In his eyes, it is better than nothing.

Use the basic commands as an opportunity to praise him. Have him sit when you hook on his leash. “Sit” before you feed him. “Stay” before you go out the door. “Off” when he’s jumping on visitors. When he does it, ALWAYS praise him. He needs some way of knowing what pleases you and what doesn’t. Don’t assume he knows! When first training, you can use treats, but gradually wean him off them. An enthusiastic “yes” or “good dog” is music to his ears.

How long?

After a few weeks of training, maybe one or two 15 minute sessions a day, you’ll notice your dog will settle down and start to look to you for guidance. He’ll offer a sit when he wants something. He’s learning!

About 4-5 weeks into training, experts say that new behaviors start to become a habit. As the information the dog has learned converts from short-term memory into long-term memory, he will go through a learning plateau stage, where you think he’s forgotten everything. Keep working through it and you’ll come out on the other end with a dog that has developed new and positive behaviors.


Once the dog passes the plateau period, daily drilling will not be necessary. But don’t slack off and let him get away with bad behaviors. Think of a slot machine. Just once, you win a bunch of money. Now you will keep playing, hoping for another jackpot.

Just once, you let Bowser jump on the couch. He’s going to keep trying, hoping for another jackpot where it will be rewarded and he gets to stay. Teach him he can only get up on the couch when invited, not when HE decides he wants up there. 

Extinguishing Bad Behaviors

In hopes of a jackpot, a dog will get ever more frantic in efforts to get away with hopping on the couch. Just before he finally gives up, you’ll see a frenzied effort. This is called an extinction burst—the last gasp before quitting for good. Don’t give in!

Need help?

Should you take your dog to obedience classes, private obedience lessons, or a board–and-train facility? I’ll talk about how to decide which is best for you in my next post. 

Photo above: Lincoln the Cocker Spaniel has some boundary issues!

1 comment:

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