Monday, April 30, 2012

Training Techniques

The best time to learn about dog behavior is before you're in the thick of things and your dog is jumping all over your guests or redecorating the house with the contents of your trash can. There are several ways of "training" your dog. It's important to understand that when deciding what you need to do with your dog.

First, there is "behavior training." This is the kind of training in which a dog is taught to be a "good citizen." Typically this includes housetraining, good behavior around other people and dogs, reasonable leash manners and other small things that make a dog a much more pleasant companion. A well behaved dog attracts no special notice from the public (aside from amazing some with their good manners).  This also includes rehabilitating a dog who has forgotten what being a dog is all about, who can't negotiate the human world without stress reactions and aggression or is so afraid of this alien place they hide.

Then there is "obedience training," which is generally teaching the dog how to perform specific activities on cue. This can include traditional "obedience" exercises such as sit, stay, come, down and heeling. The emphasis here is on prompt and precise performance. While there can be many overall benefits to such training, the training is usually for the training's sake and not necessarily to improve the dog's behavior. Dogs that have been obedience trained will perform specific tasks when their owners ask them to do so. (And as a matter of fact, some obedience trained dogs may behave poorly otherwise.)

"Activity or sport training" refers to training for specific activities -- this includes hunting, herding, Search and Rescue, lure coursing -- any of a myriad number of activities designed to showcase the abilities of the dog and his handler, particularly in activities a the dog has been bred to do. These days, such activity also includes "sports" such as frisbee, flyball, agility and so on. Sports type of training is basically obedience training on steroids as the dog is still being asked to do un-dog like things.

Of course the lines tend to blur between all of these distinctions. A certain amount of obedience training will help with behaviors and a behaviorist will teach certain obedience commands to assist with getting a dog under control. For example a dog that is heeling will not pull on the leash. Still you want to keep this in mind when selecting a training class so that it best matches your needs. For many pet owners, the behavior oriented classes are the best way to learn how to understand and control your dog. For those of you who want to enjoy a sport or compete in an activity with your dog you will need to start with obedience and move along to more complex training.

The basis for each type of training is who is learning who's language. With behavior training, it's mostly the human learning dog, and with obedience training it's mostly the dog learning human words and what to do when he hears them. At either end of the scale, the human has the biggest job. All the dog has to do is listen and do what the human asks for. It's the human's job to figure out how to communicate her wishes to the dog.

There really is no right or wrong way to train your dog and you can mix and match to serve your purposes. Things to take into consideration when choosing the most effective method for you and your dog include: your personality, your dog's personality, your goals, your abilities as a trainer, and your experience as a trainer. For example, if you are not happy with a particular method of training, for whatever reason, then it is unlikely you and your dog will do well with this method. Your dog will pick up on your reluctance and either share your dismay or take advantage of the situation to do as he pleases.
Training can't be effectively executed by half measures, otherwise you'll get an almost trained dog. For those of you who say, "That's OK, I don't need a perfect dog,' I respond that training isn't about perfection; it is about building a willingness in your dog to follow your instructions. If you ask your dog to sit but he doesn't, and you just stand there asking him to sit over and over again, he'll be learning from you that when you say "sit", you don't really mean it. This is why many dogs act perfectly well with their professional trainers and are less behaviorally consistent at home. The trainer is persistently following through with their commands while the owner is letting things slide at home.

Training isn't magic and there are no gimmicks, no matter what some books and websites may claim. You can't wave a magic wand and put no effort into following through with your dog's learning process and expect to have a well behaved dog. Dogs are influenced by their owner's lifestyle, their environment and what is commonly called self-education, which means they attain knowledge and use it always to their advantage - not always to your liking. It is of no relevance whether it was you who educated your dog or someone else before you.

In my experience, dog ownership is a little like a job: you need certain qualities in order to be good at it. The ideal characteristics include balance, composure, patience, persistence, ambition and initiative. You also need to be precise and consistent; have common sense and be logical; be organised; and have the ability and the desire to be in control. Finally, you need enough time to work with your dog, and you need to be affectionate and loving.

Patience is a gift. This is what gives you inner calm and composure. In training, the patient person is one who doesn't rush ahead, but takes the time to repeat, or even reconsider, his techniques, reverse or change procedure, intensify or revise a routine. A patient person may take a long time to achieve the desired outcome, but he always seems to get there in the end and be more knowledgeable because of his experience along the way.

A patient and composed person will be willing to look harder for the right approach to use with dogs whose temperaments lie at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Opposing your dog's behavior, battling him every step of the way, won't bring you any closer to victory. A patient person will learn how many repetitions his dog needs in order to learn something new and how intense the stimulation required. He will not set his dog up to fail but will encourage him and work with him to solve a task. A good dog owner plays for the same team as his dog. You're the captain, and he is your willing team mate.

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