How To Train Your Dog
Understanding Dog Psychology Basics to Perfect Your Pet Relationship
According to the Insurance Information Institute, there are approximately 90 million pet dogs in the U.S., yet a well trained dog is hard to find. When I went to my grandparent’s as a kid, the dog didn’t enter the kitchen without permission, knew several tricks, and could be easily walked without a leash.
This was considered normal. Your dog, while well-loved, had a strictly defined place in the family hierarchy (which was not begging at the dinner table.)
Nowadays far fewer people have such standards for their pets. Though these owners are often plenty happy, many dogs suffer abandonment or worse as a result of their uncontrolled behavior.
Alongside my writing in health and wellness, I also work as a canine obedience trainer here in Dallas, Texas. I was trained under a former Bomb-dog “sapper” who has been training canines in multiple modalities for over a decade.
When I began professional training, I was very surprised by just how simple dog training truly is, and came to see how most pet owners’ problems could be solved by little more than a shift in mindset.
Most dogs are smarter than they are given credit for; Dogs are eager to learn, but they are hierarchical animals that both rely on and desire clear leadership. Disobedience is not as often the result of a lack of intelligence so much as a misunderstanding of how to communicate with dogs.
By understanding the basic principles that underlay how to communicate with dogs, you can begin to build a much better relationship with your canine friends.
So without further adieu, this is the foundation of how to train your dog.
5 Principles of Dog Training
With all of my dog training clients, I go over 5 basic principles of dog training. I first heard these from Mike Ritland, the man responsible for getting the Navy SEAL/S to begin using military working dogs (MWDs.)
These 5 principles take into account the role of the handler as leader, as well as the psychology of dogs as simple association animals. Though I refer to them as simple, this does not mean I think they are stupid.
Dogs can learn to do incredible things, but they do so by making basic associations. Ever notice how your dog gets excited when you pick up his leash, even if you are only moving it? This is because he has made an association. Leash means walk, and the dog likes walks.
Dog training involves using the power of association to teach your dog to listen to you. Though there are many tools at your disposal, the foundation is simple.
The 5 principles shine light on how:
- Be Confident & Carry Yourself Like A Leader
- Reward Behavior You Want
- Correct or Extinguish Behavior You Don’t Want
- Be Consistent
- Keep Emotion Out Of It
Be Confident & Carry Yourself Like A Leader
This principle has to do primarily with how dogs respond to body language as well as their desire for hierarchy.
Dogs are social animals. Dogs evolved from wolves and as such, they are pack animals. The pack unit included their literal family members and other wolves that act as extended community. Even when there are altercations within the pack, these seldom result in major injury and merely help communicate the hierarchy.
Dogs are, if anything, even more reliant on cues of hierarchy than wolves. Over time living alongside humans, they have come to rely on us heavily for cues as to their position in the social hierarchy.
Another way of looking at this is to think of where your dog comes from. Even if you did not get your dog when they were a puppy, he was removed from his mother and litter mates, the only environment he had ever known, to live with humans.
For all intents and purposes you are your dog’s mother, father, and family. Your dog looks to you for guidance as to their role in the world. Imagine how your kids would feel if you just didn’t teach them or guide them. Not only would they cause you more trouble, but they would have more unpleasant lives.
The first step is to confidently assume the role of leader. We’ll get into the system of reward and correction you can use to directly teach your dog soon, but first and foremost you need to see yourself for what you are: the most important source of guidance in your dog’s life.
It doesn’t always happen, but I’ve had many clients whose dogs are problematic at home but behave for me without training. This is often simply because of my body language and confidence.
For example, one of my training dogs, a mutt named Buddy, improved 90% in the first few sessions of training. When Buddy first came in, he would pull on the leash, stand up and put his paws on counter-tops and on people, and generally ignore his owners.
Meanwhile, when I took the leash, Buddy quickly began heeding me. I stood tall and planted my feet until I was ready to go. Though initially Buddy tried to walk off in the direction he found interesting, he met the end of a slack-less leash. I did not yank him back, nor did I pander to him or try to lessen the jolt by moving in his direction.
I simply stood as if he were not there, ready to go when I wanted to. I was aware of my position as leader and behaved as such. Someone who tries to provide comfort for their dog at all times, even in scenarios the dog gets himself into (sprinting to the end of a tight leash) is not a leader. They are a doting follower.
Simultaneously, someone who is always fighting their dog for control, showing exasperation and frustration, is not confident. We’ll address emotion later, but for now just know that your dog can sense these things. Standing tall, and setting your own pace by ignoring the dog until you are ready, is one of the best ways to begin this process. You’d be surprised how powerful simple aloofness can be.
As far as Buddy? Simply as a result of my body language, he looked at me before trying to walk off. He paid mind to know where I was leading him rather than trying to take charge himself.
Body language won’t make your dog a perfect heeler who magically knows commands, but it will establish you as the source of guidance for your pup. Your dog should see you as the source of guidance.
Reward Behavior You Want
When it comes to actually training dogs, I use 90% positive reinforcement. Some of you may read that and think I’m saying I use 90% reward. While I rely heavily on reward, that’s not what I am saying.
Positive Reinforcement is not reward. Positive reinforcement means I am adding a new stimulus, such as giving the dog a treat (positive reward) or I am applying a correction such as saying sternly “No!” (positive punishment.)
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is the removal of stimulus. If I take a toy away from my dog that is negative punishment. I am removing something he wants or likes. If my dog is scratching at the door to go outside, and I let him out, that is negative reward. I am removing the door which allows the dog to have what he wants.
Like I said, I don’t use much negative reinforcement to train my dogs, but it is important to understand what it looks like. If your dog scratches at your door to go outside, and you let him out, you have just rewarded him for his behavior by removing the barrier. This reinforces his behavior and makes him more likely to scratch the door in the future.
In training your dog, reward is how we promote behavior we want to see repeated.
Now, to be clear, reward does not mean solely food. Good use of reward involves learning what drives your individual dog. My Anatolian Shepherd is so incredibly food-driven that it is almost silly not to use food as her primary reward. She learns new behaviors extremely quickly in response to this driver.
On the other hand, my bulldog is food-driven and toy-driven. I will vary my sessions with her by using food as a reward for some training and toys as reward for other training.
I also vary the intensity of my reward and use praise as reward. When you are first teaching a new behavior, lavish reward is powerful. However, if you use high reward every time, you can end up in a situation where your dog expects a very specific reward for performing a command.
If he does not receive that reward, he may stop doing the command as willingly until you bring back his expected reward. This is why varying your reward is important.
As my dog performs the intended behavior more often, I will reward less often with food or high reward, and will start using praise more. I will still bring back high reward occasionally to maintain enthusiasm, but all-in-all the goal is for my dog to respond to my commands reliably and quickly with only praise as a reward.
In order to enhance the effect of reward training, I use a device called a “clicker.” Basically, a clicker is a device that you can keep in your hand to make a distinct sound. Here’s how it works:
To “prime” a dog to a clicker, spend a few minutes clicking the device and immediately followed by giving your dog a reward. Click, reward, click, reward. This creates an association in the dog’s brain that the click sound means reward.
If I am teaching a new behavior, I will wait for my dog to issue the behavior or use molding (a process of placing your dog in a desired position manually) and then immediately click and reward. The advantage of a clicker is that I can immediately tell the dog that they did something I want. Over time you can raise your standards and get higher levels of competence out of your dog.
In the realm of dog training, there are many who believe that reward is the only tool you should use to train dogs. I do not believe this nor have I found it effective. Some dogs can certainly learn through reward alone, but many do not.
On the other hand, I do not believe that reward is an ineffective motivator. I’ve met old-school trainers who think modern practices are “too soft” and that high correction training is more reliable. I disagree with that as well.
Imagine this scenario: I give you a table covered in objects and I want you to pick up all the blue objects but you do not know that. You are wearing a shock collar and every time you reach for an object that is not blue, I zap you.
Pretty soon you would stop reaching for objects whatsoever. Better not to play a rigged game than to lose at it.
On the other hand imagine that instead of shocking you, every time you touch the wrong object, nothing happens, but if you touch a blue object, confetti falls from the ceiling and you’re given a plate with your favorite dessert on it.
You’re going to figure out I want you to pick all the blue objects and have a great time doing it too. This is the difference between teaching using correction vs. teaching using reward.
So in my opinion, reward is ideal for teaching new behavior. On the other hand, correction is a more appropriate tool for removing behavior.
Correct Behavior You Don’t Want
As I mentioned earlier, some people believe correction has no place in dog training. However I do not believe reward alone is reliable enough to teach all dogs everything they need. By forgoing even mild correction, you may actually put your dog at risk.
Behavior that you want to remove is best addressed using correction, or the application of punishment. Now, before anyone gets there tizzies in a twist, punishment is anything your dog dislikes.
At the highest level, punishment is abuse. I do not condone anyone striking their dog. If you end up in a situation where you feel that striking your dog is necessary, then I believe you have failed as a leader and trainer.
Instead, use training collars, verbal corrections, and other tools to communicate with your dog.
I use prong collars, E-collars, or martingale collars as training devices for my dogs. I do not use choke chain collars, as they place pressure on a dog’s trachea and have higher potential to cause harm. Prong and martingale collars close when pressure is applied through the dog’s leash, causing discomfort.
In the training I do, we never hold training collars closed. Instead, to issue a correction, we issue a firm jolt through the collar. In essence, you jolt the leash, causing the collar to quickly and suddenly tighten, and then immediately release.
The advantages of this motion are twofold: surprise and safety.
The sudden nature of the jolt acts as a behavior inhibitor. The idea is to break your dog out of the behavior you are intending to correct. If you were to simply hold the collar tight, your dog would experience more discomfort while also being less likely to stop the behavior.
Furthermore, holding the training collar tight is, in essence, choking your dog. We never use training collars to restrict a dog’s airway. It is a tool for issuing a signal, nothing more.
Whenever I issue a correction using a training collar, I also say “OUT!” You can use another sound, such as “NO!” The reason I do this is to associate the sound “OUT!” with correction. I will not always have a training collar on my dog at home nor be easily able to apply a correction.
For at-home behavior, I will issue the “OUT!” verbal correction. Often this is enough to address behavior, but if a dog has a stubborn behavior, I will simply leave their training collar on them for an hour a day while at home. If they offer the behavior I dislike, I will say “OUT!” and calmly walk over to them.
When I get there, I will issue a correction with the collar. If my dog tries to run away, I will simply follow him until he eventually tires. I do not get mad or make more noise. Simultaneously, if my dog stops the behavior only from the “OUT” verbal correction then I typically do not issue a correction using the collar.
Oftentimes behavior you dislike will resolve simply from beginning to train your dog. Things like general rowdiness may subside on its own as a result of your dog listening to you better. Carrying yourself more like a leader, and establishing a relationship through clicker training can go a long way.
So when do I use correction? When my dog is doing something I don’t want them to do, and it has not resolved from other training.
For an example, we’ll look at a case of the most extreme correction you should ever need (don’t worry, it’s really not bad.) One of my dogs is an Anatolian Shepherd named Anya. Anatolians are a breed of livestock guardian that typically defend sheep from wolves. They are known for being standoffish or even aggressive toward other dogs.
While I do not believe in making blanket statements about all members of a breed, this trend is true of my Anatolian. Though she has never been in a fight with a dog, her response to unfamiliar canines was to bark, puff up her hackles, and stand up against her leash.
Though her nature is a good quality in a guard dog, it is dangerous for an owner. What if I am walking my dog, and someone else’s animal gets loose and runs up to us? Furthermore, what if someone smaller than me is walking my dog? I have no problem holding her back, but at 85lbs and athletic, she could easily pull away from a smaller person.
In short, we have behavior that is too instinctual to go away from other training, but must be extinguished to avoid potential harm to my dog or to myself.
I started removing Anya’s dog aggression by going to parks with many dogs around (not a dog park where they would be off leash, just a regular park where we could keep distance.) Any time Anya looked at another dog, I issued a sharp jolt to the collar.
Yes, I did this for even looking at other dogs. This may seem harsh, but for Anya, allowing her to spend time fixating on other canines merely promoted tunnel vision. There was never a scenario where Anya looked at a dog without fixating on it and becoming reactive. Waiting to issue a correction would serve no purpose.
A dog-aggressive canine can quickly become so riled up that they’ll ignore corrections from a collar. If anything, these corrections will only make such a dog more aggressive. This is why we implemented a zero-tolerance policy and issued a correction for even the slightest focus on other canines.
Whenever Anya looked at another dog, I’d issue a sharp correction. If Anya looked away and stopped fixating on the dog, I’d immediately praise her with an enthusastic “good girl!” It is very important to reward your dog for stopping the behavior you are correcting. Don’t add insult to injury, let your dog know they did a good job.
Every single time she looked at a dog, we’d go through this process. If Anya started to look back at a dog, I’d issue a correction. If she looked at a new dog: correction. If she ignored the correction and kept looking, I’d issue a harder correction and if that didn’t work, I’d make a sharp right turn and walk briskly away from the dog while also issuing a correction. This final level, turning away and correcting, always worked as it forced Anya to stop looking at the dog because I was taking her the opposite direction. This also allowed her to calm down as she disengaged from her fixation.
Most cases of correcting a dog will be far more mild than this example. I was dealing with a very strong instinct in my dog that could result in a dangerous situation if not addressed. For most issues, dogs will stop presenting behavior after only a few corrections, and may only need verbal correction.
Another major theme you should notice is the consistent presence of reward. Every time I corrected Anya, I immediately issued praise if she broke her focus away from the dogs. Breaking her focus away from the dog was an example of behavior I want, therefore, I reward it.
When rewarding my dogs after a correction, I typically use praise rather than a clicker and food. I don’t want to over-excite my dog and distract her from the scenario. A dog that realizes you have food may suddenly begin behaving perfectly. However next time they are right back where they started, misbehaving.
Although you can and should certainly wean your dog off of reward and behavior that requires correction should disappear, you must also be completely consistent until that is appropriate.
I believe this is the holy grail, the missing link, and the secret sauce of dog training: You must be consistent. Until your dog learns a new behavior, reward him for performing that behavior every time.
Until your dog stops doing a behavior you want to get rid of, correct him every time. This is probably more important with correction than with reward. If you decide you want to extinguish a behavior, then you need to correct it every time you see it. If you let your dog “get away with it” you are essentially rewarding him for not listening to you.
If you do not keep consistency, all you do is drag out training. In the case of corrections, this means more discomfort for your dog in the long run. The sooner they stop offering a behavior you don’t like, the sooner you can stop correcting them for it.
This also goes for consistency of training sessions.
Dog training can be very simple, but it is work, and if you want to train your dog, that means daily, consistent effort.
It doesn’t have to be long, even 20 minutes will do, but it is far more effective to work with your dog regularly and on a schedule than to do a willy-nilly session here and there.
As far as what training should look like? Well, at the most free-form level it can be as simple as taking your dog out to the yard with a clicker and some treats, then click-rewarding anything your dog does that you want him to continue doing.
Say you want your dog to sit next to you if you give a “heel” command. You will click and reward any behavior that is closer to that end than you usually see. If my dog sits down 30ft from me, I’ll reward him because he sat down.
If he moves closer to me, I’ll reward him for that. Over time I will stop rewarding for either sitting or for moving closer to me, but if he moves close AND sits, I’ll reward that.
Eventually I’ll start saying “sit!” and if he sits, you know the drill. This form of reward training is considered by many to be extremely effective at making your dog enthusiastic about listening to you, but it also requires a great deal of vigilance and patience on your part as a trainer.
For that reason, there are many training methodologies that use “molding” which involve things like guiding a dog using a treat (for commands such as heeling) or using a training collar to lead a dog into position first (Teaching sit by using slight upward pressure with the leash and putting your hand on their hips to press down gently.)
Molding is faster because it does not rely on the dog to figure something out on his own, but it can have a mild subduing effect. I use molding with all of my professional training clients, to ensure stable training timelines, but with my own dogs I tend to leave it out if I can. Dogs get very excited for figuring things out on their own.
Regardless of the methods used, we train at least 5 days a week for months. I don’t consider dog training done until my dogs reach my personal standards for what I want.
If you want a dog who sits outside the kitchen while you cook, will respond to command the first time every time, knows “Sit, stay, place, come, etc.” and is competent off-leash, then you should train him consistently until he can do all of that reliably without food reward.
I think this is where most people fall short. Everyone wants to believe dog training is complex, because it hasn’t worked for them when they only try teaching their dog once every 3 weeks. In reality consistency, mere consistency, is the only thing missing.
First, commit to 20 minutes a day on weekdays. Then you can worry about what training program you use. I think you’ll find that just by having consistent and dedicated time to your dog, things will begin to improve.
One of my favorite programs for new dog trainers is Mike Ritland’s online dog training. It is roughly $120 a year and relies primarily on clicker training. If you don’t know where to start, start there, just be consistent!
Keep Emotion Out Of It
This point is last but certainly not least. If there is anything that can turn correction into abuse or turn reward into a false motivator, it’s emotion. It’s fine to express affection for your dogs, and being mildly annoyed isn’t a big deal either, but generally you want to be calm and collected.
We’ve already seen the power of this in principle 1: Be confident and carry yourself like a leader.
If your dog is failing to learn from your training, it means that you have not found a way to communicate what you want. Don’t get angry or frustrated, this will only stress your dog out and make training even less effective.
If you are stressed, it becomes more difficult to notice nuances to your dog’s behavior. Dogs show many signs of stress, from excessive yawning to panting or nervous behavior. Some days will just not be your dog’s day, and these signs combined with a seeming lack of learning can mean it’s best to cut short and end the training session.
Getting stressed or frustrated yourself is only likely to amplify these effects in your dog. Dogs are very in tune with body language, and how you feel will affect how your dog feels. Don’t make your job harder by putting your dog under stress due to your own emotions.
Tools & Training Programs
The world of dog training is as vast as the day is long, but basic principles dictate dog behavior. No matter what specific methods you employ, there are a set if principles that can guide you.
Understand your role as a leader, use reward and correction appropriately, be consistent, and control your emotions.
Beyond that, training depends on your goals and desires for your dog. You can find training programs by working with professionals in your area, on youtube, via online courses, or through books.
If you work with a trainer, a word of caution: Your dog will learn commands from a trainer, but unless you take on the role of leader and implement these commands, your dog will not have reason to listen to you.
Always try to be involved with your dog’s training or do it yourself as much as possible. One of the biggest reasons that professional training fails for my clients is that owners do not implement the tools we have given them.
Dogs will not magically listen to your every command if you are not a good leader. Even if they have been trained, it is unreasonable to expect obedience if you do not have their respect. You get respect via the principles in this article.
Always learn how to use training tools properly before implementing them. Some of these can be abused in the wrong hands.
- Prong collar: depending on your dog’s size, buy two of these collars and use them to create a larger collar. You can do so by removing links from one collar and adding them to the other. Collars with larger prongs can be heavy and less effective/safe. A properly fitted prong should be snug on your dog’s neck without being tight. We always use the Herm-Sprenger brand for reliability. I cannot vouch for others.
- E-collar: Electric collars can be used like prongs to issue a correction. The advantage is you can be extremely swift with correction, and don’t have to be near your dog or holding a leash. Some dogs over-react to the sensation of an E-collar, however. Be mindful of this. If you’re worried about the shock, put it on and shock yourself. It is uncomfortable but not painful. I recommend researching e-collar training methods before using them. Have a plan first.
- Martingale collar: Martingale collars are like chain collars but use nylon. They don’t put as much pressure on the trachea as chain collars so are generally more safe. Corrections on a martingale are typically not as effective or strong as a prong or chain.
- Clicker and Clicker bag: Clicker and food bag kits are extremely common. You can order them online or get them through a pet store.
- Food rewards: I typically use my dog’s kibble for clicker training, but biljac is very popular as well. Supposedly biljac is less likely to lead to weight gain for your dog than treats. Most dog treats have sugars and carbs in them, as well as being expensive. Either way, your dog will be getting more activity via training which should help prevent weight gain.
Training Programs & Resources
Like I said, you can take a course, get on youtube, hire a trainer, or read books to self-teach. I’m always a fan of just getting on youtube and learning everything you can via osmosis. Try things like “Clicker training basics” or “how to train my dog to do (insert desired behavior) using clicker training.”
Beyond that, here are some resources for beginning dog training.
- Mike Ritland Online Training: Mike is a former Navy SEAL who brought Military Working Dogs into the Navy Spec-ops community. He is well versed in dog psychology and uses heavily clicker-based training for MWDs and civilian dogs alike. His online program is for entry level dog owners to be able to understand their pets and bringthat relationship to the next level.
- Team Dog: Mike Ritland’s book on dog psychology. This was my first introduction to dog training and has acted as a base for my methods since reading it. It is foundational stuff, rather than strict coursework, but highly valuable. This book covers basic dog psychology across all the relevant arrays.
- Koehler Method of Guard Dog Training: The second half of this book contains the most updated version of Koehler obedience training that has been committed to print. The Koehler method held popularity through much of the 20th century and was the course of choice for Disney and many other programs that required well trained dogs. It is a more “old school” method and relies on molding, praise, and corrections as opposed to clicker training. I prefer more modern techniques if I have time, but Koehler is very effective for quickly and reliably training obedience. My first experience as a professional trainer was a 10 week Koehler method course. While clicker training tends to lead to better enthusiasm from dogs, Koehler was very reliable, and very easy. It is also a good way to learn “molding” techniques.
There are tons of methods out there and tons of trainers offering courses. The above are a few that I like but you should go look around and see what’s in your area as well.
I really hope this article has been useful for you. With nearly half of the households in the U.S. having a dog, it is as important as ever that people understand how to interact with their canine companions.
Dog’s want strong leadership. They are social animals that rely on clear hierarchies. You aren’t doing your dog any favors by leaving that hierarchy unclear.
Through confidence, as well as a basic understanding of how to communicate with your dog through consistent reward or correction, you can guide your dog to understand what is expected of him in your household.
The final result is a sense of respect for you that few owners can expect from their dogs.
As always, thank you so much for reading and good luck on your journey to become a better human!