Ten useful basic lessons


Introduction: Who needs training, humans or dogs?


A lot of training advice focuses on the dog, but sometimes we need to train ourselves if we want to help our dogs to behave better. Firstly, training ourselves to develop routines helps a lot. Then we can get tasks done more easily, and our dogs know when important events like eating and walks will happen. This makes for a more relaxed relationship.  

Routines are part of getting organized, with a weekly training plan geared towards long-term goals. Keeping a training diary can help a lot with recording progress, and identifying areas that need more work. Each dog is different, so it makes sense to be flexible, and gear a training plan to a particular dog, rather than try to rigidly impose a plan from a schedule of what an imaginary dog should be doing. 

Secondly, it helps to train ourselves to anticipate potential problems, so we don’t put ourselves and our dogs into situations we aren’t ready to cope with. Many dogs are tempted to chase joggers, for example, so a long-term plan to tackle this has to be coupled with prevention until the dog is reliable. It’s safer to start with restrictions, like a short leash, and gradually give more freedom as the dog becomes more reliable. That’s much better than having to impose restrictions after an incident!

Thirdly, training ourselves to observe and understand canine body language is very important. It makes two-way communication possible. Dogs can tell us how relaxed they are from their body language. Their eyes and tails are in a more natural position when they’re relaxed, while their eyes may be wide open, or narrowed when they’re aroused. Happy, curious dogs tend to have their tails up, while worried dogs put their tails down. It’s well worth while spending time watching dogs together, just to get a feel for how they communicate with one another. That helps with understanding what they try to tell us. 

Most adult dogs are housetrained, but some, especially those kept in kennels before they came to you, may need remedial training. Dogs, like most animals, don't like to soil their own dens, but kenneled dogs sometimes have no option, if they aren't taken out often enough, and the kennels aren't cleaned. So these dogs have actually been trained to do something that is against their instincts. In these cases, you have to treat the dog as though he were a pup, and it may take a while to teach new habits.

Bite control is best learnt young, as the first rule a pup should learn. It means no mouthing, no chewing, no playbiting, and no nipping. It is usually easy to teach a pup bite inhibition, and much more difficult with an older dog. There are various ways to teach a pup not to bite, like distracting him with an object that he’s allowed to chew, or walking away and ignoring the pup. Often owners find this a little slow, and an effective way to stop playbiting is to blow a gentle raspberry at the pup's face, just when he's starting to gnaw you. Do this when the pup is fairly relaxed, so more responsive, eg when he is on your lap, and follow it with a long, calming stroke when the pup has stopped gnawing you. The usual response is for pup to try again, and if you repeat the raspberry, the pup should then stop and lick you. It's better for adults to do this, and only when pup is relaxed, as kids can get carried away, and pups might get more excitable.

Recall is a command that all dogs need to know. It’s easy to teach with pups, and often quite easy with older dogs, simply because dogs like to do things with humans. Call your dog, and reward him when he comes to you. Use whatever you think will attract your dog at first, some pups respond better to funny noises, like squeaks, than to their own names. Squeaky toys can be very useful for teaching recall, as can squatting to make yourself interesting. If your dog likes ball games, holding up a ball can encourage him to come back. Start off practising recall indoors over a short distance, within the same room, then when you’re in another room from your dog, then try outside in a safe, enclosed area. If you can't find an enclosed area, use a long line, so the dog has no option but to come back when you call.

Dogs need to learn good manners with other dogs and humans, that’s what socialization is about. It's easier to do this in your own home because you have more control of the situation. When people come in, ask your dog's admirers only to pet him when he has all four paws on the ground. Teach him a 'down' command which you can use if he does jump up. Ask your visitors to cuddle your dog after he has settled a bit, rather than instantly. This also helps him learn that a manic greeting does not bring rewards.

Dogs need to learn to wear a collar and go out on a lead. Pups especially may dance about at first, and try to play tug of war with the lead. Just call the pup to distract him, and get him to sit before moving on. You can practise this in a garden at first, and even indoors, so you feel more confident in the outside world, where safety really matters.

Respecting passers-by involves getting used to people and other dogs, and being polite to them. Pups need to get used to all kinds of people while they are young - including children, men with walking sticks, and paperboys with bikes and bags, and all kinds of dogs, like big, long-haired dogs and little dogs with coats on.

Being sensible in traffic means both getting used to traffic, and responding to commands that help keep your dog safe. Traffic can be overwhelming for pups, and for dogs not used to busy roads, like country dogs who move to towns or cities. They may cringe, flinch away and tremble, or get overexcited and try lunging. It's easier to get a pup used to noisy traffic than an adult dog, but adults do eventually get used to it. Start off training at quiet times of the day, or on quiet roads. The aim is to have your dog focusing on you, and what you are asking him to do, rather than the traffic. How much you expose your dog to depends on how well he copes - backtrack to move forward again if it gets too much. It's the long-term progress that counts, rather than daily setbacks.

Young dogs, and dogs not used to cars may not enjoy the experience of travelling at first, but if journeys are initially kept short, and the dog ends up somewhere fun like a park, they are likely to get in the car eagerly after a few trips. It also helps to take the dog for a walk, or play in the garden first, so he can get rid of some energy, and relieve himself if he needs to.

Some dogs are naturally good travellers, and lie down on the floor. Other dogs need to be taught to that they should sit quietly and not make rude comments to passers by, human or canine. Have someone travel with the dog to remind him of his manners if he is a bit rude. Barriers preventing dogs from getting to the front of the car make travelling safer, but even so drivers need to be able to focus on the road rather than being distracted by the dog.

It's also safer to train dogs to leave cars only after permission, if you live in the city, and it makes it easier for you to stay in control, especially if you have more than one dog. Again, use a short lead for dogs getting out of cars where there's traffic or passers-by, its safer.

Dogs are predators, but can be surprisingly flexible in learning what is and isn't prey, especially if taught as pups. Dogs can get along with rabbits, chickens and cats, if trained from puppyhood to respect them. Cats tend to defend themselves. Small pups need to be supervised to ensure they don't plague the cat, and suffer nasty scratches. Pups can get the message pretty quickly with a cat that stands its ground, and cats are more likely to stand their ground if you are there to ensure the pup doesn't chase the cat. Likewise, pups need to be prevented from chasing rabbits, sheep and chickens, because once a chase starts, 'hunting mode' kicks in. You can keep the rabbit or chook safe with a barrier, and get the pup to focus on you, by playing games, so the presence of the chook or a rabbit becomes perfectly normal, no need to get excited.

Using a long line on walks gives you control and the dog some freedom. If he’s off-leash and you both spot a cat, or some sheep, a 'chsst' noise followed by a recall is a fast way of saying 'don't even think about it', you’re meant to be with me.

Teaching self control over potential prey takes longer with older dogs, though the principles are the same, supervision, never allowing the dog to give chase, and getting your dog to focus on you.

Some groups of dogs get on wonderfully well, and sort out their differences with little fuss. Other dogs are too pushy for their companions to deal with, and need more intervention from you. It helps keep the peace if newcomers are encouraged to respect resident dogs, and if you give privileges for good behaviour rather than for a dog looking cute or being pushy.

Thanks to Diana Attwood for comments on this article

Finding a Good Training Class gives suggestions if you want the help of a trainer

Behavioural Problems gives more suggestions for dealing with particular problems.

Bringing up Your Puppy focuses on raising and training pups.

It's also worth checking out books on Puppy and Manners Training, books on Agility and Training Games, and books onWorking Dog Skills. You may also be interested in dog behaviour, to work out what‘s normal for dogs, and explore different ideas people have about training. If so, Books on Behaviour and Training Philosophies will be interesting.

Further reading


There has been a lot of research on how dogs understand the world, including humans, on dog-human communication, and on the effects of training. Here are a few interesting articles. It’s worth exploring recent research yourself, especially if you have a particular interest, like nose work.

Bentosela, M., Barrera,G., Jakovcevic,A., Elgier, A.M.and Mustaca, A.E. (2008) Effect of reinforcement, reinforcer omission and extinction on a communicative response in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Behavioural Processes, 78 (3) (2008), pp. 464–469

Marshall-Pescini, S, Passalacqua, C, Barnard, S, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde, E (2009) Agility and Search & Rescue training differently affects pet dogs' behaviour in socio-cognitive tasks. Invited paper for a Special Issue on the dog-human relationship. Behavioural Processes 81, 416-422.

McGreevy, P, Henshall, C, Starling, M, McLean, A, and Boakes, R.  (2014). The importance of safety signals in animal handling and training.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 9, Issue 6, November–December 2014, Pages 382-387

Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012) Dogs' Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47653. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047653

Miklósi, A., Polgárdi, R.,Topál, J. and Csányi,V. (2000).Intentional behaviour in dog-human communication: an experimental analysis of “showing”  behaviour in the dog. Animal Cognition, 3, 159-166

Udell, M.A.R. and Wynne, C.D.L. (2008) A Review of Domestic Dogs' (Canis Familiaris) Human-Like Behaviors: Or Why Behavior Analysts Should Stop Worrying and Love Their Dogs J Exp Anal Behav. 2008 Mar; 89(2): 247–261.

Wallis, L.J., Range, F., Müller, C.A., Serisierc, S.,Hubera,L., Virányia, Z.(2015) Training for eye contact modulates gaze following in dogs Animal Behavior Volume 106, August 2015, Pages 27–35

There are also some particularly useful books worth exploring, such as:

Amy Dahl’s 10-minute Obedience: How to effectively train your dog in 10 minutes a day (2011) Willow Creek Press, which focuses on formal obedience using ‘hands-on’ methods. There are also chapter on puppies, manners and on behavioural problems. This is especially suited to people with Labradors, golden retrievers and Chesapeke retrievers. (Amy specializes in retriever training.)

Claudia Fugazza’s Do as I Do (2014) Dogwise Publishing. An innovative approach to teaching dogs interactions with objects, for example jumping onto a table, using their ability to copy humans.

Steven Lindsay's Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Procedures and Protocols, Volume 3 (2005) Blackwell Publishing. This is a very thorough, research-based approach to training and tackling behaviour problems. It’s an invaluable resource if you take training seriously, though it’s not a book you can read in one go!

Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed: The puppy program (2012) Clear Run Productions. This is especially useful for people with border collies, and for people who like competing in dog sports. There is a lot on helping dogs to relax when they are too wound up. This is a useful book for people with dogs of any age, not just puppies.

Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills’ Life Skills for Puppies (2014) Hubble and Hattie. This focuses on helping pups to develop coping skills, and though it’s geared to pups, it’s also useful for remedial work with older dogs.

Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills’ Helping Minds Meet (2015) Hubble and Hattie. This focuses on humans looking at life from a dog’s perspective as a first step in achieving a well-behaved dog.

See reviews of these and other dog books in Books on Animals