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Dog training :: Teaching and training

There are as many different training methods in the world as their are handlers (or dogs). This is fine, because each dog is an individual, and you can't teach them all by using the same methods. Also note that I am no professional trainer: I just do this for fun. The methods I have described here have worked for the dogs that I have worked with, but there haven't been that many of them. Anyway, I am a strong believer in the 'soft' method of dog training, and I believe that it is important that both you and your dog are having fun when you are doing this.


These instructions focus on training a dog to perform tricks mainly for fun, but in principle you can use the same basic ideas for training a dog for obedience competition etc.

Philosophy

Dogs learn awfully fast if they are motivated, i.e. if they really want to learn. In order to teach your dog to perform some tricks, it's a good idea to choose a trick that you at least think your dog might enjoy doing. This often means that if your dog has never carried anything in his mouth, you should not start by trying to teach him to retrieve or carry things. It will be possible to teach almost any dog to retrieve, but maybe you should start with something easier or completely different, like 'shake hands', play hide and seek, etc.

In order to learn the desired trick, the dog needs to know when he is doing the right things. If you toss a tennis ball from your hand and say 'retrieve!', many dogs run after the ball as desired, but it's unfair to excpect the dog to know that you want the ball brought back to you, unless you can clearly 'tell' him that. In order to 'tell' him when he is doing right, you should praise him the exact moment when he is starting to do the right thing. For example, when the dog grabs the tennis ball into his mouth and takes a step towards you, you say 'good boy!!'. If he drops the ball or runs away from you, you give the command again. And again, when he takes even one step towards you, you praise him. This way the dog gradually realizes what you want him to do, and when he has realized that, you can also demand more.

Use the kind of reward that your dog appreciates. Some dogs love treats, some dogs don't care about food that much but may prefer to play with their favourite toy for a while as a reward. However, always use your voice as a reward: use your happiest voice to tell your dog how smart and good he is when he is doing the right thing. This way you will not have to use treats/toys every time you train your dog -- he will soon understand that the vocal praise (and sometimes pats and hugs) mean that he has done what was expected of him.

I always prefer using much more praise than 'NO!s'. In the beginning it's unnecessary to tell your dog that he has not done what you expected of him, if you are consistent in praising him when he does the right thing. Besides, teaching tricks should be fun for both of you, and I can't imagine either of you enjoying very much if you end up screaming 'NO!' all the time. Of course there are some exceptions -- If your dog starts to chase a rabbit in the middle of your training session, you naturally shout 'NO!' to him and get him back.

If the trick is relatively complicated (like teaching your dog to bring his own toys into a box, or similar) you have to split the trick into several substeps that you teach one at a time and then try to combine them. For example, if you try to teach the fore mentioned trick, first teach your dog to carry his toy, then to put it into a box, then to find the toy and bring it into the box, and then to do this with all of his toys. It is very important that you realize when a trick is too complicated to learn in only one step. It's better to proceed too slowly than too fast.

Don't practise too much at any one time; practise often (you can practise as often as 1-3 times a day if you wish) but only for short times. The dog learns best when you quit each session when he still would like to go on -- this way he will be motivated to continue the next time. If your dog seems to be bored by the trick, take a break from training, or teach him something else that he might enjoy more.

Preparation

Decide what you would like to teach. Start with simpler tricks (shake hands, dance, retrieve something, etc.) and proceed to more difficult ones if your dog learns fast. It's a good idea to start with only one trick at a time, but later you can work on a few different new tricks parallel, if you wish.

When you have decided what you want your dog to learn, think of a command to use for that particular trick. The command can be anything you wish, as long as you will be consistent with the use (eg. not use the same command for something else) and as long as the command doesn't too much resemble some other command that your dog already knows. It's usually a good idea to choose relatively short words. Unlike some other people, I prefer using nouns as commands instead of verbs, because there are always more nouns to choose from, and also because it's often much more confusing to use verbs. For example, you can teach your dog to retrieve a thrown object by using the command 'retrieve', but if you want him to bring you a desired object that you have hidden (or lost), there's no point in saying 'retrieve ball!', 'retrieve keys!', when simply 'ball!' or 'keys!' would be enough.

Some tricks

Here are some examples of tricks to teach to your dog, and my suggestions for how to proceed. Once your dog will have learnt some/all of these, you probably have an idea how to proceed with other tricks from the 'Belgian Games' list.

Sit and shake hands

This is one of the easiest tricks to teach to a dog. First you must teach your dog to sit on command. Probably the easiest way to teach a dog to sit on command is to have a treat (dog biscuit, piece of cheese, etc.) on your hand, lift it up above the dog's nose and say 'sit!'. If the dog is standing and tries to grab the treat, don't let him get it, but repeat the same maneuver again. When he sits, immediately give him the treat and praise him. Repeat the trick a few times.

Another way to teach a dog to sit on command is very simple but takes a little more time: each time you see that your dog is going to sit, tell him to 'sit!' and praise him when he does that (+ give a treat). It doesn't take very many repetitions for the dog to realize what the command is for, but this still takes longer than the above mentioned method.

Some poeple suggest you to teach a dog to sit on command by pressing his butt on the ground while saying 'sit!'. I suggest you first try the other two methods though, just to see how easy it is to teach a dog even without using force. Later, once he has clearly understood the meaning of the command 'sit!' you can use this method if he doesn't obey you. Try to be gentle though, there's no point in causing the dog pain when teaching him tricks.

Once your dog has learned to sit on command, you can proceed to 'shaking hands'. Give him the command ('say hello!' or whatever), and gently hold his paw with your hand and give him a treat with another hand. Repeat this a couple of times -- most dogs learn this very fast, if your timing (the command + the praise and treat) is right.

Dance

This trick is easiest to teach to a dog that jumps against people. The advantage of teaching this trick is that once the dog 'dances' on command, he doesn't put as much weight (maybe none at all) on people as when jumping against them, thus it is a very good replacement behaviour for a dog who jumps too easily.

When the dog is excited and jumping around you, tell him to 'dance!' and gently hold his front legs and lift them up so that he stands on his hind legs. Then praise him and give him a treat and gently put him back on the ground.

Once he knows how to do this, you can see if he can do it without your help. Small dogs seem to be able to balance themselves better than large dogs -- with my Belgian Sheepdog I just hold his front paws and we dance together, because he doesn't seem to be able to stand up on his hind legs very well without help.

Find/retrieve something

This is easiest to teach if your dog already enjoys carrying things in his mouth, but you can also try to teach a dog to bring his toys to you even if he doesn't like to retrieve a ball/stick thrown by you. It would be easiest to teach this trick if your dog already can sit on command and stays that way until you give him the permission to go -- this way you can hide a toy etc. while he sits and waits.

Bring your dog's toy a few steps away from where he is sitting, so that he can see it, and ask him to find it. (Here you can use the command 'find!', or the name of the toy, or just 'toy!' etc. for any object that you hide and want him to bring to you). Once he goes to the toy, praise him immediately, even if he doesn't touch it. Repeat this each time he is close to the toy and thus try to encourage him to take it into his mouth. The first time he takes the toy into his mouth, praise him and give him a treat, and give him back the toy and play with him for a while. (This is important, otherwise he will think that you always take the toy away from him and thus he won't want to bring it to you).

When he has learned to take the desired object into his mouth, try to make your dog bring it all the way to you. First praise him when he comes running with his toy in his mouth, then praise him only when he brings it to your hand (you can trade the toy for a treat). When he has learnt all this, you can start hiding the toy to more difficult places (in another room, or behind a tree on a walk, etc..).

There are two versions of the advanced object search game, and it's possible to teach your dog both versions if you wish. In the first version you hide an object (toy or whatever) somewhere outside (where there are not many other objects to be found), and your dog doesn't need to know what the object is. You just tell him to 'find!' or look for a 'toy!', and he is supposed to bring to you any object that he can find with some human smell on it. This can be really useful if you e.g. drop your glove, car keys, etc. (Practice a lot with various objects, but start with some easy ones, like his favourite toys.) In the other version of the game the dog has to know the name of the desired object and bring it to you, so you must teach him one object at a time (for example, 'ball', 'kong', 'bone', etc.). You can play this game in your house, and the better your dog can distinguish the various objects by their names, the more you can try to confuse him by also hiding some other objects.

Related Articles:
Training Your New Puppy or Dog
Training Collars
How to Teach Your Dog to "Sit"
Puppy house training
12 General Rules for Training Dogs

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