So You Want to Train Your Dog
We work with a lot of clients that are new to pet ownership either because they bought a puppy or adopted a dog from a shelter or local rescue. Training and socialization are some of the most important first steps a new pet owner should take, but there are a lot of different trainers and knowing the right one to choose can be difficult. We refer people to Andre Singer of Doggy Decorum but if you don't want to accept our referral then what type of training method do we suggest.
First I'd like to say that we aren't trainers but everyone that works with your dog will train them. The style of learning dogs exhibit is called operant conditioning. You have most likely heard of Pavlov's Dogs and how they began to salivate at the sound of a bell because they associated it with feeding time. The same holds true for getting a dog to associate sitting, staying, heeling, being house broken or any other desirable behaviors with getting a reward. As dogs are traditionally opportunity eaters and food motivated treats work best. Dogs are also visual learners and will take a visual cue from you whether you mean to give one or not. Andrea Singer's hand signal for sit is absolute genius as it is the position your hand naturally ends up in when pulling it from a treat bag.
One of the reasons we refer to Andre Singer is we are familiar with her training methods, but not all dog owners have their dog trained by Doggy Decorum and therefor we have to be flexible to many different training styles but the essence of dog learning doesn't change. Dogs are excellent capitalists. They will complete any task you ask of them as long as they deem the reward sufficient. Dogs have been trained to do amazing things. Think about all the dogs that help law enforcement and first responders. Dogs are intelligent creatures capable of complex problem solving. It has recently been proven that dogs and cats have emotions which isn't so hard to believe as most of our emotions are hormonal responses and dogs have an endocrine system. Those hormonal responses are at the center of how dogs learn. Think about your own learned behavior. We, as humans, do things because they make us feel good. Dogs do things for much the same reason. They sit, they get a treat and praise, and a hormonal release. Now they have associated sitting with a treat, your affection, and the good feelings brought about by the hormones. At the end of the day we're all very basic and simple creatures.
I've only brushed the surface of what we understand about dog's learning but I've given you enough of the basics to now explain the type of training you should seek for your dog. The training should be science based. Your dog trainer should understand how dogs learn and not go off of fancy sounding theories from TV hucksters. While it is true that wild dogs and wolves run in packs and learn from alphas and if you have an older dog in your home they will help train a new dog the theory that dogs view us as a pack leader or an alpha is ridiculous. It has been disproved by scientists and animal professionals time and time again. You might think you're the alpha of your household but if you view your pet dog as a companion and well respected friend your training will be much more successful. If you find a trainer and they tell you they will help you earn your dog's respect and become the pack leader do not work with that person. Would you want you're child's teacher to tell you they had to dominate your child that day because he or she couldn't figure out long division?
Another theory of training to avoid is avoidance training mostly because it isn't training. Dogs will learn and become conditioned to avoid negative stimulus while seeking out positive ones but avoidance training is a mask. You might remember the news story of the 90 year old woman who was mauled to death by a pit bull in our area. What exactly went wrong may never be fully known but the dog was trained using a shock collar. It learned to act in an acceptable way by avoiding negative stimulus. As soon as the shock collar was removed and the negative stimulus no longer a threat the dog turned deadly. I would imagine it's recent interactions with humans being nothing but a series of shocks unless it behaved had something to do with it, but we will never know for certain.
The big thing to look for in a trainer is that they understand dog behavior and how dogs learn. It is also important to understand that no dog trainer can fully train your dog for you. Dog trainers only do lessons with the dogs. The homework is far more important and that is where the owners come in. Dogs learn best from consistency and dog trainers don't only train dogs they also train dog owners. The trainer's lessons will have little to no effect if they are not repeated by the owners.