This is a little out of left field for this blog, but I want to share some things I learned from Duke about dog training. This first started because I wanted to make a list of all the commands and tricks Duke knew (just for my sake), but then I realized that I had a lot of advice that I wanted to share (I guess that's the teacher in me). He was such a smart dog, able to quickly learn new things. Some breeds are known for being easier to train than others. My theory is that Duke learned quickly, not so much because he was unusually smart or an Australian Shepherd, because he was so motivated for treats! Here is a list of all the commands and tricks that Duke knew: Sit, down, off, shake, come, stay, drop, gentle, roll over, leave it, beg, bow, belly, crawl, stand, full belly stretch, rampage, speak, ring your bell, spin, under the bridge, say hello, figure eight, high five, circle, look, get on your rug, crate, kitty cat, someone here?, up, jump, ball, find it, hide and go seek, sneeze, dry off, kisses, cuddle, woof, come around, back, little bit, make it count, go to bed.
These are my top recommendations for dog owners who want to train their dogs:
1. Sign up for Obedience Classes. With Duke, we started with obedience training as a puppy -- which I recommend to every dog owner. There are classes for dogs of all ages. The training is not so much for the dog, but for the owner. It will teach you to understand and communicate with your furry friend. The training should begin as a puppy, but it shouldn't stop there. Many breeds require mental exercise just as much as physical exercise. For Duke it came from doing his tricks and from his favorite game, hide-and-go-seek. By the end of his life, he was able to find nearly 20 tennis balls well hidden throughout the house with most of the lights off. The obedience class didn't teach Duke how to do this -- but it gave me the knowledge as to how to teach my dog new tricks! Besides teaching you how to teach your dog, a good class will give your dog lots of opportunities to socialize with other dogs and people -- this is essential to developing well-adjusted canine citizens.
2. Be Consistent. It takes a great deal of consistency and patience to train a dog. It does little good for one family member to work with the dog while the rest of the family is inconsistent in their interactions with the dog. It takes each member of the household reiterating the training, the hand signals, the commands and the corrections in a consistent manner. For this reason, every family member should attend the obedience classes.
3. Be Realistic. People think obedience classes will 'fix' their dog. That's ridiculous. If your dog is acting out then it will take time to correct the unwanted behavior. And chances are the class won't 'fix' your dog. That's not its purpose. The purpose of the class is to give you the training and tools needed to begin to change in your dog. It's unfair to expect your dog to learn fifty commands right away. Work on one, one at a time. It might take a week or more before your dog will consistently respond to a given command. Even then, you'll have to continually reinforce the command over a period of weeks. Be willing to put in the time.
4. Keep it Fun. For the training to be effective, it has to be fun for the dog. If you create a stressful situation where the dog is scolded at -- you'll quickly teach the dog to shut down. Celebrate every success, no matter how small the progress. And never let your training sessions last over ten minutes.
5. Praise, not Punishment. This is where many if not most dog owners get it wrong. Training is about teaching the dog to respond consistently to your commands -- and this is best done by positive reinforcement. That isn't to say that a strong "NO" is never in order. But if that's your main approach to training, you're in for some frustration and disappointment. Just as children thrive and respond best to positive reinforcement, so do dogs.
6. Use Rewards. It takes very, very little to reward a dog. The key is to find something that really motivates your dog. If it's hot dogs, then cut up a couple hot dogs into dozens of little pieces and keep them in a small bag in the fridge. Soft treats work best, because the dogs are able to instantly swallow them without taking five minutes to lick up the crumbs. For Duke, I would buy Pup-Peroni and cut it up with scissors into very small (eraser sized) pieces. Eventually, it took less and less treats and time to teach him as he and I got the hang of it.
7. Learn Sign Language. Believe it or not, your dog's native language is not English. It's sad to see people yelling commands at a puppy and getting infuriated because the somehow the 8 week old puppy has yet to master English. Your pup will learn the hand signal for each command much sooner than the spoken command. So if you're consistent with the sign used for each requested action, your dog will learn the command much sooner. So it's important to make sure each family member knows what hand signals to use for each command. Eventually the spoken word will become associated with the action, but that comes later.
8. Start with the Basics. The most important commands your dog needs to master are sit, down, off, drop, gentle, come, stay and leave it. These basic commands are necessary for your sanity and your dog's protection. I think all are obvious except for the 'gentle' command -- this is teaching the dog to gently take treats from your hand without chomping down on your fingers!
Hope this helps someone out there! What really got me going on this today is that I went to the dog shelter this afternoon - which was very helpful - although it was very sad walking by the cage where we first saw Duke. But it also got me thinking about someday welcoming another dog into my home. I miss his gentle presence in this house and his companionship every day. I appreciate all of your notes and encouragement this past month.
(My thanks to Lee for taking and sharing the above photo of Duke and I!)