Considering dog ownership and wondering where to begin? Look no further! In this guide to dog training, we’ll tell you how to choose the right dog, establish a trusting relationship, and communicate effectively to make training a breeze.
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Before You Train: Choosing Your Dog
Choosing the right dog for you is an important prerequisite to a positive experience with training and dog ownership in general.
If you already have a dog, feel free to skip this section. Or don’t! Even if you’ve had your companion for a while now, considering breed characteristics and individual temperament is an important prerequisite to training.
Whether you’re buying a puppy or adopting an older rescue, it’s important to consider the main traits of each breed. Even for mixed breeds, researching the types of dogs in a particular mix will give you a good idea of how big a puppy will grow and what its temperament will be.
Factors to Consider
Temperament: Do you want a loyal guard dog or a friendly pup to accompany you everywhere you go? Do you know which breeds are generally easygoing, and which are stubborn and independent?
Size: If this is your first puppy, be careful you don’t choose one that will someday be big enough to drag you down the street! Don’t go expecting your five-pound pup to grow into a 70-pound dog, either. Keep in mind the expected adult size of your dog and how much they’ll need to eat each day.
Exercise: Be very mindful of how much activity each breed needs. If you’ll only have time for a walk around the block each day, don’t bring home an Australian Shepherd!
Intelligence: Some dogs are highly intelligent and responsive, which may make them easier to train than others. But intelligent dogs can become easily bored and even destructive without adequate stimulation.
Coat: Most dogs shed. Some dogs shed A LOT. Hypoallergenic breeds include Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, and Airedale Terriers.
Each dog breed falls into one of seven groups according to what kind of work that breed of dog was originally selected for.
Sporting Group: These breeds were created to assist hunters in the field. Most of these dogs are obedient and quite active. They make good companions. They are sometimes referred to as gun dogs or bird dogs. These dogs require vigorous daily exercise.
There are four categories of sporting group dogs: Spaniels, Pointers, Retrievers, and Setters. Dogs in this group include:
- English Setter
- Golden Retriever
- Irish Setter
- Labrador Retriever
- Sussex Spaniel
Herding Group: Consisting of a wide range of dogs — everything from Corgis to German Shepherds — this group is renowned for its ability to control the movements of other animals. These dogs need a great deal of exercise and thrive with intensive, positive training.
Herding dogs include:
- Australian Shepherd
- Bearded Collie
- Belgian Malinois
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd
- English Sheepdog
- Welsh Corgi
Hound Group: These dogs are hunters. Some are renowned for their tracking abilities, while others were bred to run extreme distances in pursuit of prey. It’s a diverse group ranging from dachshunds to wolfhounds.
This group includes:
- Basset Hound
- Irish Wolfhound
- Norwegian Elkhound
- Pharaoh Hound
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Scottish Deerhound
Toy Group: These small dogs were bred purely for appearance and companionship. They are a good option for city dwellers and for people with limited experience with dogs.
Toy dogs include:
- Chinese Crested
- Italian Greyhound
- Manchester Terrier
- Miniature Pinscher
- Shih Tzu
- Yorkshire Terrier
Terrier Group: Often thought of as small dogs, some terriers are actually quite large; the Airedale Terrier weighs around 60 pounds or more. Terriers are energetic dogs bred to hunt and kill rats and other pests. Their oversized personalities make terriers an iffy choice for first-time dog trainers.
Dogs in this group include:
- Airedale Terrier
- Australian Terrier
- Border Terrier
- Bull Terrier
- Manchester Terrier
- Rat Terrier
- Russell Terrier
- Scottish Terrier
- Welsh Terrier
- Wire Fox Terrier
Working Group: These dogs were bred to perform a variety of jobs. Some were selected to guard property and livestock; some of these breeds are exceedingly independent and prone to wander. Others were bred to pull sleds or perform search-and-rescue missions. These dogs are very intelligent, but need a great deal of time and dedicated training.
Dogs in this group include:
- Alaskan Malamute
- Anatolian Shepherd
- Doberman Pinscher
- German Pinscher
- Giant Schnauzer
- Great Dane
- Great Pyrenees
- Neapolitan Mastiff
- Saint Bernard
- Siberian Husky
Non-Sporting Group: This last group is basically a catch-all for dogs that don’t fit well into other groups. They are quite diverse, and each breed merits individual research.
Dogs in this group include:
- Bichon Frise
- Boston Terrier
- Chow Chow
- French Bulldog
- Lhasa Apso
- Shiba Inu
- Tibetan Spaniel
It’s important to consider the fact that purebred dogs are prone to serious genetic disorders due to inbreeding. These problems can affect their health and behavior. Sometimes they are so serious that the dogs need to undergo surgery or be put down.
Just say no to puppy mills! Do not purchase purebred dogs from that shop at the mall. Find a reputable breeder or, better yet, adopt a mixed-breed dog or puppy in need of a loving home.
A Word on Pit Bulls
These sweet dogs get a bad rap.
There is so much fear-mongering around this particular breed that as many as one million pit bulls are euthanized each year. The majority of dogs in shelters are pit bulls, and the majority of pit bulls that are taken to shelters are euthanized.
In reality, they are wonderfully friendly and loving dogs. Pit bulls are easy to train and unlikely to stray far from home.
With any dog, individual temperament is more important than breed traits. Read on to learn more about how you can evaluate the personality of an animal before taking them home.
Evaluating a Dog or Puppy
So, you’ve decided on a breed or made a list of your local rescues… but how do you decide which pup to bring home?
Adult dogs are simpler. Their personality, energy level, and temperament are usually obvious. You’ll also be able to speak to their foster parents, shelter employees, or previous family to learn how much training they’ve had and evaluate how easy this particular dog is to train.
Puppies are a bit more complicated. How can you possibly know what this adorable, wiggly puppy will be like as a grown dog? There are a number of things you can do to evaluate a puppy’s temperament before bringing them home.
Puppy Personality Tests
Pick the puppy up and hold them in your arms like a baby. Place one hand on their chest and look into their eyes. Puppies who accept this treatment will probably be easier to train, while puppies who resist and struggle to escape may be more energetic or independent.
You can also place your hands gently around the puppy’s rib cage and lift them into the air. Bring the pup up to eye level and look into their eyes. Dogs who allow this are said to be less likely to be willful or stubborn.
Make Some Noise
This noise sensitivity test determines the dog’s reactivity, which gives you some idea of whether or not they’re likely to be calm or high-strung. Drop your keys or another noisy object near the puppy. Reacting is fine, but be wary of the puppy that runs away to hide. Bonus points for the pup who runs to investigate!
Ask the breeder or shelter worker to leave the room and see how the puppy reacts. Then leave the puppy completely alone with a few toys and observe whether they play on their own or sit and whine. Be sure to pay attention to the puppy’s reaction when people return, too.
Pups who are overly distressed at being left alone are a poor choice for owners who won’t be able to spend hours and hours every day with their dog. Puppies who are so interested in toys that they don’t care when people return may be overly independent and more difficult to train.
If you have children or plan on bringing your dog out in public, find out how the puppy reacts to kids. This one isn’t a deal-breaker, so long as you take the time to socialize your new puppy around a variety of people while they’re still young.
Dog Training Basics
Whether you’re adopting a puppy or an older dog, the most important thing to do is to establish a secure and loving relationship. Give them loving attention and time to adjust to a new environment. Never hit or yell at your dog.
It’s usually quite easy to teach dogs, even young puppies, not to pee in the house.
Set them up for success by taking them outside frequently and praising them when they pee in the proper place. If you see a puppy begin to pee on the floor, quickly interrupt them (no need to scold) and take them outside. If you’re too late, simply clean up the mess and be sure to give them more frequent opportunities to pee outside.
It’s not natural for an animal to urinate or defecate in its den, and dogs are pack animals who want to please. If your house is large, a puppy might be confused about what counts as outside — concrete and kitchen tiles aren’t so very different.
Consider keeping your puppy confined to a small area. Put them in a kennel at night. Set up a puppy playpen in your kitchen or home office to keep a close eye on them. Puppies are less likely to pee inside if they are confined to an area they recognize as their space. Don’t give them the chance to go hide behind a chair.
In the previous section, we mentioned placing your dog in a crate overnight.
But isn’t it cruel to lock a puppy in a cage?
Actually, most dogs love their crates! It’s natural for dogs to seek out a safe nook, a den where they can rest and relax. Crate-trained dogs will go into their crates independently when they’re ready for a nap.
Start by choosing the right sized crate. Your dog should be able to stand up and turn around comfortably, but it shouldn’t be big enough for your puppy to pee in one end and sleep at the other. Many crates come with dividers so that you can adjust their capacity as your dog grows.
Place the crate in a common area so your puppy won’t feel isolated and alone.
Use treats, toys, and loving attention to help your puppy form positive associations with the crate. Don’t lock them in just yet. Feed them meals in the crate.
When you first shut them in the crate, do so for a few minutes at a time.
Give them a special treat or toy to help make this a positive experience. Small puppies should be let out frequently for a pee break and some love; don’t expect young puppies to be able to stay in the crate by themselves for more than a few hours, even at night.
Most dogs are highly motivated by food. A variety of high-value treats (something that they enjoy more than their daily meals) will help you to keep your dog’s attention. Keep these treats quite small so that you don’t fill up their stomach too quickly while training.
Some dogs are less motivated by food and will pay more attention if they’re hungry. Other dogs are SO food-driven that they may be spastic and distracted if you try to train them before they’ve had a good meal. See what works best for you and your pup!
You may find that your dog has other priorities. Some dogs truly want nothing more than a kind word and a pat on the head. Others are far more interested in toys than anything else. Find out what motivates your dog, and use that as an incentive to training.
You’ve heard of Pavlov’s dog? Some modern trainers do something similar: they train dogs to associate a certain sound with a positive reward and use that sound to signal the dog when they respond correctly to a command or signal.
The most common way to do this is with a clicker and treats.
When the desired behavior is followed almost immediately by a click and followed up with a treat, it’s very easy for a dog to understand what’s expected of them. Good training is all about effective communication.
Start by simply pairing the clicker with a reward. If your dog knows how to sit on command, you can start there.
Sit – Click – Treat – Repeat
If you’re working with a young puppy who doesn’t respond to any commands yet, you can simply click the device each time you feed them a treat so that the puppy begins to associate this noise with a reward.
You can also use the click-reward method to capture good behavior, such as greeting guests without barking.
Puppy doesn’t know how to sit on command yet? Don’t worry, it’s easy!
Set your puppy up for success by placing them with their back on a wall or piece of furniture. This will encourage them to sit instead of backing away.
Get your puppy’s attention with a treat or toy. Bring the treat close to their face without letting them eat it. Slowly bring it up over their head. They’ll naturally follow the treat with their eyes, and their rear end will plop to the ground.
Immediately say “Sit! Good!” or click your clicker, and let the puppy have the treat.
Repeat this multiple times a day until your puppy sits on command.
The process is very similar. First, tell your pup to sit. Good dog!
Now, slowly draw the treat straight down from their nose. When they plop to the floor, say “Down! Good!” And repeat!
Most puppies will naturally run to you if you call them. Start off in an environment with zero distractions. Call their name, and reward them when they run to you.
Add in Distractions
The real trick is training your puppy to obey your commands even when there’s something better to do!
Find a quiet spot outside. With your puppy still on a leash, practice the commands you’ve worked on at home. Let them wander to the end of the leash, call them back, and reward them with treats and lavish praise.
Gradually add more distractions like other dogs, people, and treats. Train your dog in a variety of settings. First your house, then the yard, a quiet park, nature spots, a busy dog park… Start with a short least, progress to the longest leash you can find, and then test their recall off-leash (in a safe, fenced area).
Teach your dog to respond to you under any and all conditions, and you’ll have a wonderful companion for life.