How you’re training your dog without even trying

Bark magazine recently published an interview in which Dr. Ian Dunbar said, “…too few prospective owners know that dog training is fun, easy and effortless; it’s actually what living with a dog is all about!”  Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.  It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to teach your dog obedience cues.  Obedience cues are extremely important communication tools.  They help your dog figure out what you’re expecting him to do more quickly, and they give you a way to talk to your dog in a familiar language and gain predictable responses to your requests. But, what about all the things you’re teaching your dog when you aren’t asking him for a specially named behavior?

Your dog is learning something every moment he is awake. If you’re interacting with him, he is figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, and how to make things happen. You’re constantly teaching him something about the way his world operates, even when you’re not actively training him, and you are constantly laying a foundation for his future interactions with you and other people. These daily interactions you have with your dog are what dog training or even just living with your dog, is all about.

In addition to teaching your dog to respond to your formal obedience cues, training your dog can be done simply by thinking carefully about the interactions you have with him. Dog training, especially using positive techniques, is about reinforcing a behavior your dog does today that you’d like to see more of in the future or not reinforcing behaviors you would like to see less of in the future. For example, if your dog wants to play with you, and he walks up to you with a rope toy in his mouth and sits quietly, and you then quickly notice him and lavishly tell him what great dog he is as you grab the rope and start a game of tug, chances are good that when he wants to play in the future, he’ll try this polite way of asking again. “It worked!” he thinks, “That’s exactly what I wanted!”

In this example, you haven’t done anything difficult or even asked for an obedience cue. You simply interacted with your dog at the right time. Paying attention to the things your dog does and teaching him how to get things he wants, in an appropriate way, really pays off. In the example above, you simply interacted with your dog in a way that set him up to do the right thing again in the future.

Many new dog owners look at the incident at hand as if they are wearing blinders, only seeing what has happened and not recognizing that they can change what is going to happen in the future with just a couple of good decisions. They see the dog jumping on a visitor, and they want him to stop. The trick is to be sure to look into the future and say to yourself, “How can I get my dog to stop jumping on people in the future?” Take a step further by asking yourself, “What would I like Fido to do instead of jumping on my visitors?” Often, dogs simply do what has been working in the past until they find something that works better. If sitting nicely to be petted causes humans to worship and swoon Fido, while jumping up and pawing at them causes them to all walk away and ignore him, you can bet he will begin to show off his great ability to sit while simultaneously wagging his tail.

Spend some time today getting in tune with your dog and choose three things he does you’d like to see him do more of. Be sure he gets something great when you see him do each of the behaviors you’ve chosen, and you’ll soon be able to watch those polite behaviors multiply! Hint: this works nicely on human family members as well.

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