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When your new puppy pees on the rug, chews your bedroom slippers, and steals your dinner – or your family pet starts jumping on people for attention, barking, or tugging on the leash – it’s not a sign that you have a bad dog. It’s a sign that you and your dog are not communicating well. Although a few large, aggressive dogs or rescue dogs with a history of abuse may have intractable behavioral problems, most dogs who misbehave are just confused. Modern dog obedience training doesn’t focus on turning your dog into a dispirited slave or punishing a dog for not knowing how to behave. Instead, dog training focuses on improving communication and creating a healthy social structure for your blended human and canine family.
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Dog History and Psychology
Dogs are pack animals. Even their wild cousins, such as wolves, jackals, and coyotes live and hunt in groups. Dogs themselves, though, have been domesticated for over ten thousand years, and in that period, bred specifically to be part of a social structure including human beings, often as working animals involved in such tasks as herding and hunting which require close, intelligent cooperation and communication with us. What this means is that bringing a new puppy into your home is more like raising a child than like buying a toy. Dogs need to be socialized into a group hierarchy to live a long, safe, and happy life. Because you understand the modern world better than your dog does, you need to be the dominant member of the hierarchy, so that the dog will obey you when necessary.
Dog Training and Dog Safety
Dog training isn’t just about your convenience as a dog owner; it’s crucial for your dog’s safety. Dogs are very much like babies or toddlers, in that they don’t really understand the dangers of the modern world. Many breeds of dogs, for example, were raised to hunt or herd sheep or cattle, and are instinctively very skilled at it. Unfortunately, when your border collie’s instincts lead her to try herding cars on a busy street or your terrier decides to forage for food and rats in dumpsters containing industrial waste, the result can be a badly injured or dead dog. Because dogs don’t understand technology or what is safe to eat in the modern world, as an owner, you are responsible for keeping them safe and making sure they don’t get injured. Teaching a dog to heel or stay or drop something on command is just like teaching your toddler not to run into traffic or touch the hot stove or chew on power cords; it’s a necessary part of responsible dog ownership.
Everything is Training
In a sense, every single interaction you have with your new dog acts as a form of training. Just like babies, dogs pick up cues from their environments. For example, if you feed a dog when he begs at the dinner table, you are training him to beg by rewarding begging with food. If you punish a puppy for peeing or pooping on the rug, it learns that it should be afraid of performing these functions in your presence, and instead do them in hidden corners of your house when you’re not watching. From the moment you bring a new dog home, you need to encourage it to behave in ways that will integrate it into your family in a positive way.
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Once a puppy opens its eyes, it’s old enough to begin simple training and socialization. Since very young puppies have short attention spans, this means early training should take the form of short, simple, fun games, lasting for a few minutes at a time and done three or four times during the day. At the age of seven weeks, a puppy is ready to learn simple commands such as “sit” and “stay” and to associate such words as “good dog” and petting with treats until the phrase itself becomes a reward. This is also a key window for socializing a dog to interact with people outside your immediate family. When friends or neighbors visit, give them a treat to offer your dog, so that the dog learns not to fear people.
Crate training takes advantage of a dog’s natural tendency to have a den, a safe secure place for eating, sleeping, and raising a family. A dog’s natural reluctance to soil her home means that a crate can be incorporated into the housetraining process. Although you shouldn’t lock up a young puppy in a crate for more than an hour or two, you can start by placing food in a unlocked crate as soon as the puppy is fully weaned.
In a sense, most professional dog training is really a form of human training. Although dog trainers can work directly with a dog to help the dog develop advanced skills, most dog-training sessions involve having an experienced professional work with you and your dog to improve communication and understand how to reinforce or discourage certain behaviors. Especially when you adopt your first dog, a few sessions with a professional trainer can help you understand what you and your family need to do to help your dog adjust to its new home. As there is no federal certification for dog trainers, when you search for a trainer, you should look for certification by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers or Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Staff at the local Humane Society or other animal shelter or your veterinarian’s office may also be able to make recommendations.
- National Geographic: Domestic Dog
- The Humane Society: Crate Training
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Training Your Dog
- American Kennel Club: Dog Obedience Training
- Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
- Association of Professional Dog Trainers