On our training registration forms for class or private sessions, the last question is “What are Your Goals for Training?” Some people have very specific items in mind: a dog that comes when called, better walking on leash, getting over his fear of children. Many times though, the goal is “all around good dog” or something like “a very obedient dog.” I get a picture in my head whenever I read one of these of a robot or cartoon military dog marching alongside his master, waiting for his every command. I know this isn’t what people mean (usually!) but it still gets me thinking: what does it mean to have a good, well-trained dog?
It means different things for different people. Some people get into training with their dogs with a long grocery list of behaviors they want and don’t want, and these people tend to get stressed when by the fourth week of class they haven’t achieved even half of them! Training, like most things in life, works a lot better when you prioritize a few top, essential goals and knock those out first. You will be a better trainer by the time these goals are reached, and then you can tackle the next set of priorities on your list.
Tackle the really big stuff first. If your dog has a serious behavior issue such as fear, aggression, leash reactive impulses or resource guarding, these should be dealt with before anything. I would even put those before house training, but that’s up to the owner. The great thing about dealing with these more difficult problems is that a lot of the training to fix them involves stuff we want to teach our dog anyway, like giving us attention, impulse control, leash manners, confidence-building exercises and “the basics” like sit, stay and how to leave things alone.
Focus on rewarding the things that you like! This is huge, and a part of training we tend to ignore. If your dog checks in with you on walks, reward it. Sits in the presence of new people or other dogs? Reward. Calmly lies down on his bed while you are sitting on the couch? Toss him a treat. When a behavior is rewarded, it will increase. You will definitely have a dog that likes to keep near you and come when called if these things are rewarded and never punished. That will make training so much easier throughout your entire relationship.
A dog’s life is too short for us to expect them to be perfect little robots. They are here to make us laugh, get us outside to exercise, and relax with a cuddle. Deal with any heavy stuff right away, or as soon as it emerges, and then you can use training classes or walks for bonding and spending an enjoyable amount of time with your four-legged family member.