The Association of Pet Dog Trainers hopes that “train my dog this year” is on every dog owner’s list of New Year’s resolution. In an effort to encourage pet owners in this direction, January has been established as National Train Your Dog month.
The APDT offers a couple of great contests (one for professionals, one for everyone!) this month to promote dog training as a way to build and improve relationships between dogs and their people. If you’d be interested in entering. click here for details.
This month, I will try to provide our readers with great resources that can help them start training today. Blog contributions from leading industry professionals, some of my favorite tutorials to give you ideas on what to work on at home, questions and answers based on your training goals and concerns.
You can get started for under $20 – all you need is a bait pouch or bag (which does not have to be manufactured for dog treats, get creative! Nail aprons, vests with pockets, or a “fanny pouch”), some treats and toys your dog loves, and perhaps a clicker (usually available for under $3). The clicker is optional – if you’re not sure of how to use it, you can just use a verbal word “yes!” or other verbal marker.
YOUR FIRST TASK, SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT
Good training relies on a few critical skills. Some of them are mechanical or physical skills, like how and when you deliver treats to your dog. But perhaps the most important skill of all for any trainer is observation – knowing what behaviors are worthy of reinforcement and seeing them as they occur. The task that I’m giving you is the first task I ask of my students; simply, spend some time watching your dog.
For this task you will need materials you already have in your home, a pen or pencil and a notebook.
The first exercise is to write down all the things your dog naturally does that you like. These behaviors do not (yet) have to be on cue, just things that your dog does on her own without prompting. The behaviors can be cute or useful, but do not have to be both. Your list may include lying down, sitting, voluntarily getting into a crate, giving eye contact, coming to check in with you when you are in another room of the house, walking politely by your side, lying down on a favorite mat, chair, or blanket, a cute tilt of the head, a paw lift, quietly relaxing with a favorite chew toy, or taking tension off the leash on a walk, even for an instant.
For the next three days, you will have your list available when you are with your dog. Each time you see the behavior in question, make a check mark next to the item. After three days, review your list. How frequently did you see each behavior? Which behaviors were offered most frequently? If you have been looking carefully, you will see hundreds of great behaviors your dog offers every day.
Now that you have some starter data, you can start “armchair training.” Instead of feeding your dog his meal from a food dish, split his kibble into portions for use as “training treats.” You will keep kibble in your pocket, but should also have some sealed Tupperware type containers throughout the house so that it is always easy to get to a treat if your pockets happen to be empty. For the next few days, simply give your dog a piece of his kibble for those behaviors which earned checkmarks. If he lies down, give him a treat. If he sits, give him a treat. If you are upstairs folding laundry and he comes up to investigate and see what you’re doing, give him a treat.
Soon your dog will learn two critical factors: a) that you are interesting and b) that his behavior can earn reinforcement. These are the first steps of great training.
After a few days of reinforcing your dog for his desirable behaviors, make a clean copy of your list and repeat your observation trials – are you seeing the behaviors you want more frequently? You should already see an increase in the behaviors you have been reinforcing already, all without a single structured training session! See how easy it can be to fit training into your life?