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Dogs: Basic Training

There are reviews of several good books on dog training and behaviour in Books on Animals.

See also:
Dogs: Training Classes
Dogs: Bringing up your puppy
Dogs: Using Flexileads Safely
Dogs: Behavioural Problems
Books on Puppy and Manners Training
Books on Agility and Training Games
Books on Working Dog Skills
Books on Dog Behaviour and Training Philosophies

watercolour by David Simon, click for larger image

'Running Dog', watercolour by David Simon.
Taking dogs to sporting events can help with their training
Click on the picture to see me better


The First Steps, Questions To Ask Yourself

Basic training is about teaching your dog what he needs to know for life together to be enjoyable for both of you. What your dog needs to know depends on what he already knows, and your circumstances. So the first step is to think about what you want to teach your dog. What would really improve your life together? Coming when called is important for all dogs. Country dogs especially need to learn to respect livestock. City dogs need to cope with passers-by, their dogs, and traffic, and learn to walk nicely on the lead. Dogs in multi-dog households need to learn to get on with one another. There are ten useful lessons suggested in this article. Some your dog will already know, others may not be very relevant for your circumstances, and you may want to add your own ideas. The ten lessons are suggestions, you're the one who knows best what your dog needs to learn, you're the trainer.

Training in the wider sense is about teaching rules, like sitting nicely at the kerb to cross the road, rather than just commands, like 'sit'. You've maybe taught some commands, and have probably already taught your dog a lot more, both good and bad habits, sometimes without realising it. For example, a dog that does a perfect sit in obedience classes may have learnt that it's OK to jump up and down like a lunatic before you open the front door. If you've let him do that, you've trained him it's OK. Try listing what your dog has been taught, good and bad. List the good stuff as well as the bad, because it helps your morale, and you can build on your dog's strengths. Most dogs have both strengths and weaknesses. Dogs brought up with kids from puppyhood, for example, may be very tolerant and well-behaved with kids they know. That can help them learn to behave well with strange kids, even those who rush past them screaming, as kids sometimes do.

Quite often owners only start to think seriously about training when a pup has started to turn into an unruly dog. Then a thought may hit you on the lines of 'Oh dear, maybe I should have trained him a bit better when he was little'. This is especially true if it's your first dog, or your previous dogs have always been calmer and more biddable. Challenging dogs can be good teachers, you'll know better next time! In the meantime you may be tempted to switch from being indulgent to being stern and strict, and that could be confusing for your dog. It's possible to train a dog well and still give him or her lots of cuddles, so long as the timing is right, and you are giving rewards (like cuddles) for good behaviour rather than for being cute. Most dogs want to be entertained and cuddled as much as possible. Dogs who are rewarded just for being cute are more likely to get pushy and demanding, so if your dog is a bit pushy, make him earn his rewards. You may also want to control access to toys, allowing the dog to play at your invitation, and putting the toy away when you've finished, rather than letting him carry it off as a trophy.

Obviously it'll confuse a dog if you suddenly get cross with him for doing things he's previously been allowed to do, and that confusion can undermine trust. But you can break bad habits you've let him get into, by calling him to you, or getting him to sit, by giving him a command that tells him to do something else. You can also put barriers up if you no longer want him on the furniture, or in the bedroom. Once he has got out of a bad habit you have previously allowed, or if he starts doing something new you would rather he didn't, then you can spell out that it's not allowed. It can be very helpful for dogs to be told 'I don't want you to do that', it gives them information they need to know. 'Chsst' is a handy sound for getting a dog's attention and saying this, much more effective than 'No' and 'Chsst' is very versatile, eg 'don't pee on my neighbour's hubcap', or 'don't even think about chasing that cat'. It both conveys owner displeasure, and gets the dog's attention. Once he is looking at you, you can tell him what you want him to do.

Angry scoldings can undermine trust, especially if the dog has no idea why you are angry, that it was your favourite new CD he just chewed, or whatever. But it is useful for dogs to know that their actions may sometimes have bad consequences, especially if they are putting themselves in danger. You can set things up in such a way that the dog doesn't realise you have anything to do with what happens. Say your dog steals from a kitchen work surface, and might eat something that's dangerous for him (or eat your lunch). You can set up a booby trap to discourage this, for example, using empty tin cans that fall down and clatter if he tries to get at something from the kitchen counter. Make sure that nothing in your trap is dangerous, and that it's just scary enough to do the job, not so scary that he becomes reluctant to come to you if you call from the kitchen.

Trust is very important in training. Some dogs are naturally trusting, others are warier. How are you building up trust with your dog? Are you predictable and consistent about rules, or do you sometimes let your dog on the couch and other times get cross with him for being there? Are your hands always firm and gentle when you touch the dog? What does his body language tell you? Is your dog sometimes trusting and relaxed with you, other times less so? How can you build on the trust you have, and develop trust in other areas?

Two-way communication helps with building trust. What does your body language tell your dog? Does it always fit with what you want him to do? Do you use gestures to send him messages? If so, are you consistent? What words do you use to give him information and tell him what to do? Are you always consistent with words, eg do you always say 'off' to get off furniture, or sometimes 'down'? Does he understand you from your body language, even when your words don't give clear messages, or would it help to be more precise?

Dogs try to tell us what they want in all sorts of ways, such as looks, nudges or barks. Sometimes it's very clear what they want, like a dog bringing the lead when it's walk time. Other times less so. Do you listen to and watch your dog for messages? How does he tell you what he wants? Dogs also tell us about their feelings through their body language, like whether they are confident or spooked, spoiling for a fight or friendly. Understanding a dog's body language can tell you, for example, that an approaching dog is one they really don't want to be close to. It helps with anticipating and so preventing trouble. How good are you at reading your dog? Is it worth watching him and listening to him more?

Teaching your dog to pay attention is easier with some dogs than others. Some dogs are wonderfully attentive, checking you constantly to see what you want them to do. Others take little notice unless you remind them you are there. What do you do to encourage your dog to pay attention to you? Do you interact with him on walks, or is your mind elsewhere? Do you give him interesting tasks to do?

Many books and trainers recommend titbits for teaching commands. They are easy to use, and get results with most dogs. But, though most dogs like to eat, they also like activities, like walking with you. Understanding what a dog most wants at any particular moment helps you to negotiate - for example, 'if you sit nicely, I'll open the front door and we can go out'. And 'If you erupt out of the house barking, we go back indoors and do it again'. Do you just bribe your dog, or do you negotiate? What does your dog most like doing?

Allies can be very helpful. They can help boost your morale, and ensure the dog gets the same messages from people close to him. If you live with other humans, working together helps enormously. Can you all agree about rules, like whether or not the dog is allowed to beg while humans eat? It's much easier to train a dog if everyone agrees both on the rules, and on the words you use to enforce them, like 'off' for getting off furniture. If you are inexperienced, training classes can help.

A good trainer can help you with particular training problems, as well as teaching you how to teach commands. If you think your dog is a risk to you or other people, you really do need help from a trainer or a behaviourist who has a good track record in solving the problems you are faced with. When a dog suddenly starts behaving badly, this may well be a medical problem, rather than a training problem, so a friendly vet is another useful ally. Experienced owners you meet on dog walks often love to pass on tips, some of which can make life much easier for you.

It's also very useful to have well behaved canine allies who can help teach newcomers the rules. Sit stays, for example, are much easier to teach if you already have a well-trained dog who the newcomer can learn from. Some dogs are happy to teach newcomers, pups or otherwise. Other dogs may find the role a bit much, and may need protection from you if they find a newcomer too pushy. Even so, you may be lucky enough to find a walking companion with a calm, well-behaved dog. As young dogs often copy older dogs' behaviour, their dog can help your dog to learn to behave better. So it is well worth asking who might be potential human and canine allies, and how much can you ask of them.

Training takes patience. It is easier if you break down lessons into bite sized chunks, both in terms of understanding commands, and handling stress. Do you always think of how much your dog can handle? Are you realistic in your expectations? If not, how can you break down lessons to help your dog to learn faster? Keeping a diary is very useful if you are training a youngster. It helps record progress, which is good for your morale, helps you see patterns so work out why problems are arising. It also helps you decide on what works and what doesn't. A diary an also help you to set goals and build structure into your training programme. Diaries can be very good for morale. Morale is important if you realise you have taken on more dog than you bargained for. So long as you persevere, you should see great improvement, and you can check this our by looking back at your diary.

Walks are the Backbone of Training

It's raining. You're tired after a hard day's work, and your favourite soap is on. Why walk the dog? Well, there are lots of reasons. It keeps you fit, which is good for feeling cheerful about life, helps you sleep well, and believe it or not, exercise can also boost your IQ! And it can be good for your social life. Many people will talk to someone with a well-behaved dog, when they wouldn't talk to a lone human.

So walks are good for us. What about the dog? Imagine the boredom of being shut in all day. Your human gets home, looks out and sees it's bucketing down, and you both agree, 'maybe not now'. Then your human slumps in front of the TV, and nods off, while you are getting increasingly antsy. You may feel cheated, disinclined to do anything you are told, and may even pee somewhere you are not meant to, or chew on the remote control.

A long daily walk brings huge training benefits. It's when you get to know each other, can explore and interpret the world to each other, and when humans can give guidance on issues they understand better than dogs, like that traffic is usually quite safe if you keep on the pavement next to your owner. When you get home, your dog is likely to sleep contentedly, and you can nod off. Morning walks are also important if the dog has to be left alone. The bed may be nice and cosy, and outside cold and frosty, but five minutes into the walk you are looking at your dog's joy at being alive, and glad you made the effort.

A key benefit of walks is that the dog sleeps afterwards. This is important, because many owners who complain of a dog trashing their house while they are out, or howling from 'separation anxiety' could tackle the problem by taking the dog on a long walk before leaving. If he has a good run, and you don't make a big deal of leaving him, he is less likely to see it as a big deal.

Walks mean you are doing something together. Walks can also allow your dog to run off steam, if you can find a place where he can be safely off leash, though ball games in the garden can also help to relax your dog. There are indoor activities for days when the weather is really foul, but walks help combat 'cabin fever' by providing novel smells and sounds - even a short walk round the block can calm your dog and help you enjoy each other's company more.

Ten Useful Lessons

1) There are acceptable and unacceptable places to perform (housetraining)

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.

Housetraining involves frequent trips outside, whether you are training an adult or a pup, so you will need help if you are out at work for long periods. If you live with other people, they can help with a housetraining rota. Fellow dog owners can help in exchange for your helping them at weekends, or you can pay for help.

You can prevent a lot of accidents by taking the dog out at key times, like first thing in the morning, when the dog wakes after a nap, after meals, after play sessions, and last thing at night. Dogs often show signs of wanting to go, like sniffing the ground. Watch for signs that your dog is trying to tell you he needs to go. He may give up telling you and just pee indoors if you take no notice.

Some people use indoor kennels, or crates for teaching housetraining, because dogs won't usually 'go' in their den, but they only work if they are used for short periods. If the dog really has to be left alone for a long period, it's far better to fence off a safe area, with a place he can use as a toilet, and to put the crate in this safe area with the door open, so he has his den to sleep in and can still go to the toilet.

Pups can sleep in bedrooms at night in their crates, with the door closed, so they don't wander round and wee on the floor, or get trodden on by a human getting up in the dark. You do have to be prepared to get up in the middle of the night, if the pup needs to 'go'. Pups especially are better off downstairs with a toilet area, if you can't bring yourself to get up for them, because otherwise they may suffer from needing to go, and not wanting to wee in their crate. Adult ex-kennel dogs are really better off not sleeping in your bedroom until they are housetrained.

Dogs do like company when they pee, even if you are falling asleep, in your dressing gown, and it's cold outside. It's no use shutting pups outside and hoping they will perform - they'll just want to come back in again to be with you. There's another benefit to accompanying your pup, you can teach weeing on command. Every time your pup performs, say 'hurry up', or another phrase that you don't usually use. Then you can use the same phrase for times when you want the dog to perform.

Adult male dogs have a tendency to pee on anything upright, and on anything that smells of 'outdoors', like a pot plant at the vet's! They will of course pee where another dog has peed, including doorways to rooms where training classes are held. Dogs may also pee on outdoor shop displays, doorways and car hubcaps, if allowed. Keeping a watchful eye on your dog can help avoid many embarrassing situations, and help you train him to pee only where it's acceptable.

When previously housetrained dogs start weeing indoors, this is less of a training issue than a detective problem. Have their routines been disrupted? If you get up later at weekends than in the week, some dogs may not be able to hang on for their morning pee. Has a visiting dog peed in your house? Have you brought in a large pot plant, or a box that smells of outdoors? Vet checks are usually a good idea, especially with bitches, for example, a dog may have a urine infection, and spayed bitches may suffer from spay-related incontinence, which can be treated.

2) Learning that dogs do not bite humans

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 is 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.

Handling pups and adult dogs can calm them or overexcite them. Long, slow strokes are usually more soothing than rapid motions. Scritches behind the ears more calming than head pats. Dogs are usually calmer and more relaxed about being handled after a walk. Your dog's body language will tell you whether or not you are doing it right. It's important never to roughhouse your pup or dog to the point where he gets overexcited and mouthy or bitey, nor let anyone else do it. That is just training him to bite. If a young dog thinks being rolled over means a roughhousing, playbiting session, you'll have trouble examining him when he is an adult, and so will a vet. You need to be able to examine dogs for burrs, matted fur and small injuries, so practise doing this gently with soothing words and occasional scratches where he likes to be scratched, to keep it pleasurable.

Rolling dogs gently on their backs (without forcing them) and gently stroking them can teach dogs that touch is relaxing, and help to build trust. Dogs will tell you if they are relaxed, or tense or overexcited. Take your cue from the dog's body language, and use touch while the dog is in a relaxed mood. You can also teach a 'roll over' command, which is handy if you want to look at a dog's tum.

Teaching bite control is much more difficult with adult dogs. You may be faced with this problem if, for example, you adopt a dog that has had little contact with humans, or whose humans have encouraged the dog to playbite. It is safer to try teaching bite control to adult dogs only if you have a lot of experience in solving the problem, especially if the biting goes beyond little nips, or soft playbites. Some dogs not only have never been taught bite control, they have also learnt, or rather been trained, to bite their way out of trouble, or to get what they want. If you have little experience or any doubts, get an assessment and a training plan from a professional with a track record of success in tackling the problem.

Generally, with a dog that bites to protect itself it's safer to take it slowly to build up trust, only handling the dog when he is relaxed after walks, keeping a watchful eye on his body language. The more you can handle the dog when he's relaxed, the less likely he is to tense up and want to defend himself.

Dogs may try to bite anyone approaches their dinner, to defend 'stolen' objects, or even to defend a space that you want to use. Dogs can learn, or be trained, that they can get their own way by threatening people. It's not good for either of you to put yourself in a situation where the dog may bite you. Grabbing dogs roughly by the collar can trigger bites, there are safer ways to deal with a dog threatening you.

Dogs need to feel safe when they eat. Having to compete with other dogs for food can lead to dogs defending food bowls against humans, so supervise meal times, if you have more than one dog. You can teach 'drop' to teach your dog to give up objects. Barriers can prevent dogs occupying couches. Teaching a solid 'off' command is much safer than grabbing a dog's collar to yank it off a couch. Sometimes a dog will stop growling to 'defend' a high place or a bag of food, and go into 'obedient mode' if you give a calm and confident command. A house line (long lead) also gives you control at a distance. You can use it in the house and garden to reinforce commands that aren't obeyed such as 'off' (the furniture), together with rewards for when the dog does obey you.

Growling is a threat, and can be upsetting, but it is actually very useful in giving you a warning signal that the dog may bite. Whether the dog is hiding under the table and growling because he is spooked, or on the couch, you can try ignoring him and doing something really interesting on your own, like eating some meat, or playing with a squeaky toy. Continue to ignore him for a little while when he comes to see what you are doing, then give him a command, which you can reward him for obeying. Then you are back in control and can tackle the problem, If he is spooked, try working out what has spooked him and how to get him used to it. If he thinks the couch is his, teach him 'on' and 'off' commands until he obeys 'off' automatically - a low table in the garden can be handy for teaching this command.

There is a lot you can do with an adult dog that sometimes threatens you, but to repeat, unless you are very experienced with this type of problem, it's better to seek the opinion of someone with a lot of experience, who can check out the dog. And if a previously peaceful adult dog suddenly starts biting, this is probably not a training issue, it is likely to be a medical problem, so a vet check is essential.

3) Coming when called

Recall is a command that all dogs need to know. It is 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 name. 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 are in another room from your dog, then try outside in a safe, enclosed area. If you can't find an enclosed area, try using a long line, so the dog has no option but to come back when you call.

Coming when called means more than just knowing the command. It means that wherever your dog is, and whatever other attractions there are, he comes when called. So if you rarely call him on walks, and usually just let him do his own thing, he's less likely to see recall as very important. The more you use the command, and the more it's obeyed, the more solid the recall.

Dogs often go deaf when they are following a scent, they are so focused on the smell that they actually can't hear you. There are special collars that release a citrus smell that reminds a dog following a scent that his owner exists. A whistle can also be a great help in the countryside, though it might attract more dogs than yours in a park.

Whistles are very versatile for distance work, allowing you to give a range of commands at a distance without losing your voice. Sheepdog books are good sources of information on whistle training. While recall can get your dog out of most tricky situations, a 'stop where you are command' can be extremely helpful, especially if there is busy traffic between you and your dog. A 'stay' or a 'down' at a distance can also useful.

4) Greeting guests politely

Dogs need to be socialized, to learn good manners with other dogs and humans. 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.

Some dogs are leg humpers, while others can go through their lives without ever molesting a human. It is usually linked to overexcitement, so prevention includes sending dogs to their baskets if they are getting too wound up. A squirt from a small water pistol can distract the dog from the love object if 'down' commands are ineffective. Humping might seem funny at times, but can be scary for some people, especially kids, so is best always discouraged. If your dog is a humper, be extra vigilant about his jumping up.

Not everyone likes dogs, so a useful goal is to be able to get your dog to stay at some distance from the door before you open it, and to stay there until you give permission for him to move. You may want to send him to a basket once the guest has sat down, so he gives your guest space.

Dogs do need to learn that they can't always be the centre of attention, even if your guests adore dogs. It's worth using a basket, or just a lie-down and stay command for part of the guest's stay, making sure the dog stays for a while until invited to take part in the conversation. Teaching this self-discipline is very important for youngsters. If they are fussed by every visitor, you're training them to get overexcited and pushy when guests come to your house. People who really adore dogs will understand.

Visitors who are experienced with dogs can be very helpful allies. They can help you practise greeting guests, by calling at the door, coming in and sitting down a few times, until you and your dog have got this right. They can also help youngsters get used to being handled by other people, by grooming them, and gently looking at paws, teeth and ears, combining this with long, soothing strokes. You can return the favour by helping others with young dogs.

5) Walking nicely on the lead

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.

An orderly exit is very important if your front door opens into a public area. Who leaves the house first is less important than whether your dog waits to be given permission to leave. It's better that he waits for a command and goes first than if you just squeeze out of the door first, with him trying to push past you! Your dog should be able to 'sit' and 'stay' while you open the door, and only leave when you give him permission. Once he's trained, he should automatically wait for you to give permission before going out of the front door.

Dogs tend to pull if they are allowed to do so, especially if they are keen to get somewhere. When this happens, stand still and call your dog back to you, or call him back and walk backwards. Keep the walk unpredictable, changing direction a lot, alerting your dog to changes in directions, to help focus him on you. In time he'll learn to walk nicely. Walks can be a little slow as dogs get used to the rules, but the investment of patience and time is worth it. A harness may help if your dog pulls when spooked by loud sounds. A spooked dog pulling can panic more with a collar pressing against his throat, while a harness gives him more chance to calm down.

It's much easier to teach a mannerly exit and walk if you can use up some of your dog's energy first, for example with a ball game in the garden, or some indoor retrieving. It's also easier to teach a dog to walk with a slack lead if you use a short lead, rather than a flexilead, which effectively rewards dogs for pulling. If you have to use a flexilead, lock it at a short length for the first part of the walk, when the dog is more likely to be very excited, then give him more freedom when he's in a better frame of mind for using it. Sedate walking companions can also help with curbing the enthusiasm of young dogs. Dogs tend to take their cues from older, more experienced dogs.

6) Respecting passers-by, human and canine

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.

Learning to be polite means your dog learning that not every other dog or human wants to play with him. It's very important to keep pups and young dogs under control in public places, only approaching strange dogs with permission. Youngsters don't always sense when another dog really wants to be alone, and can be too pushy and get their noses bitten. Even if other dogs are obviously friendly, it's worth rationing interactions, to help your dog focus on you, rather than every dog he meets. Playing should happen when you give permission. Being socialised doesn't mean playing with every dog you meet, it's about being polite, and includes respecting dogs that prefer to be alone.

The same applies to people. Young dogs need to learn to walk past people without making a fuss. They can get pushy if everyone fusses them when they are little pups, and can frighten people if they think they have the right to greet every human effusively. This especially applies to children. Pups generally like attention from children, but can get overexcited when kids run around and scream. A pup chasing a child may seem like fun, but a young dog can be scary for children, so young dogs need to learn to focus on you, and not be overexcited by kids. As with guests, your youngster needs to learn he can't always be the centre of attention, so teach him to sit quietly while you are talking to friends you meet on walks.

Teaching a dog does take time, it's not instant, and a thinking dog will sometimes chose to ignore you. This can cause you some embarrassment if your dog ignores your call to come back, and bothers people. Be apologetic if this happens, and stay friendly and polite, even if they get cross. You often need a good sense of humour when you walk young dogs, and you need to think ahead and leash them up if you spot temptations ahead, like running children.

You can teach your youngster to cope with moving children in manageable stages. Get him used to one or two well-behaved children, for example, before taking him to a play area where there are children running around shrieking. Get him involved in an on-leash game with you, rather than looking at the kids. If he can't handle it, go back to a level that he can handle, rewarding him when he is paying attention to you and obeying your commands, with praise, cuddles or titbits. Try to get your him to experience as many different walking situations and stimuli as possible, including joggers and cyclists, getting him to focus on you, and what you want him to do, rather than what is going on around him.

Sometimes adult dogs need to be socialised, for example if they have never met other dogs or children. You will need to be cautious, because adult dogs can get into fights, or startle children, but the principles are the same. Take it gradually, perhaps putting him through a training routine with other dogs near. Try walking him at a safe distance, on a loose leash, with sits, stays and 'walk ons'. Or let your dog watch other dogs training from a distance, again using calm, well-behaved dogs for your first interactions. Reward him for obeying your commands rather than focusing on other dogs. You can work out what his 'comfort distance' is, ie how close to another dog he gets before he starts to misbehave. Once he starts to relax, his 'comfort distance' will be closer.

Sensible older children can help if your dog is nervous of kids. Ask them to walk past, and say nothing, or just 'hello using a soft, gentle voice. They can also just sit, quite close, but not too close, and not look at the dog, but pretend to be absorbed in something else. Again, the dog's body language will tell you his 'comfort distance'.

Dogs may bark at passing dogs because they are nervous. Shouting at a nervous dog and jerking on the lead may just make him more wound up. Dogs can also get a kick out of being rude to each other, just as humans can. This especially applies to dogs on the lead with an owner protecting them, or dogs behind fences, which allow them to hurl insults without risk of being attacked. Even if your dog is being a brat, you are more in control if you stay calm than if you bellow at him. Get him to focus on you through a smart about-turn, or other manoeuvre.

Prevention helps, getting your dog to focus on you before he starts eyeing up his 'enemy', as does nipping trouble in the bud, for example with a 'chsst' and sudden change of direction, before he starts barking. Certain dogs are very easy to read when they plan mischief. Collies, for example, will sometimes go into stalk mode when they see a dog they don't like. Humans have the advantage of being taller than dogs, so you can often spot and avoid potential trouble before a dog can. The goal is to keep him focused on you rather than allowing him to get into bad habits.

Some dogs can handle crowded parks, while others find them stressful. Sometimes someone else's off-leash dog comes running to you and your on-leash dog, and wants to play. You can put your dog into a sit stay so that the other dog isn't rewarded for being 'naughty' by getting to play. This also prevents the other dog humping yours, something young males often try. Standing between your dog and the other dog can help, if your dog is upset by the attentions. Then ask the owner to retrieve their dog please, if they are showing no signs of doing so - novice owners don't always realise that not all dogs want to play. It's more difficult if your dog is followed a long distance and plagued by a dog with no owner in sight. Some owners resort to arming themselves with water pistols! Nervous dogs who are bothered a lot may learn to overreact when any strange dog approaches. If parks are often too crowded for comfort, try walking at quiet times of the day. First thing in the morning is often a good time, because there aren't many people about, and morning walkers tend to keep their dogs with them, so they can get home and to work on time.

Recall is the most obviously useful command when you are out in public places, though other commands, like 'stand' can also be helpful. Asking a dog to 'stand' for people to pass you on narrow paths means that they can see the dog well, won't tread on his tail by accident, and it's quicker and easier to do than a sit, which dogs may not always want to do if the ground is wet or muddy. 'Stand' is also useful when you'd rather children didn't fuss your dog, since children tend to see a sitting dog as less intimidating and so want to pet them. A 'stand' shows that your dog is obedient and well behaved, so people feel safe passing you, and allows you to get on with your walk as soon as possible.

7) Being sensible with traffic

Being sensible in traffic is both about getting used to traffic, and responding to commands that help keep the 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 lungeing. 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.

Even at quiet times, some traffic is especially threatening to dogs, like big heavy lorries, and loud motorbikes, especially if the motorbikes come close to the dog, or are started up near him. Motorbikes can be very scary for dogs, so special training with them can help. You can let your dog sniff a stationary bike, and talk to a biker with a helmet on, who offers him titbits. (Make sure your dog doesn't pee on the bike, or your biker helper may lose the urge to help you.) Wait until your dog has got used to bikes at a distance before exposing him to the sound of a bike being started up near him.

There may never be a quiet time in a city, so just keep walks short at first, building up the time the dog has to cope with traffic noise as he gets more confident. Dogs tend to cope better with scary surroundings if they are doing something, rather than just sitting, but when your dog is ready, you can also try sitting somewhere near traffic, with your dog on your lap or by your side. Give him a titbit or a cuddle now and then as a reward for paying you attention.

Traffic can make inexperienced dogs panic and try to slip their collars, so always check his collar is secure, and use a short lead rather than a flexilead in traffic - short leads are much safer.

Some people sit their dogs at the kerb, Others put them in a stand. Sitting a dog at a curb makes it easier to keep the dog still, but standing may be better in heavy traffic and with a lot of passers by who might tread on your dog's tail by mistake. Standing is safer at traffic islands because dogs' bottoms and tails can extend a long way into the road, and standing dogs are much easier for traffic to see. You can use a command like 'road' to cross the road and 'path' as you reach the other side. so that the dog knows to get off the road and onto the path. An advantage of teaching these commands with a 'stop' or a 'stay' is that you can use them at a distance. A stop whistle, and then 'path' command could be a life saver.

8) Travelling safely in cars

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.

9) Learning that some animals are prey, others are not

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 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. A 'chsst' noise gets your dog's attention if he is planning on mischief. It's a fast way of saying 'don't even think about it', and can be followed by a recall.

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.

10) Respecting other dogs in the household

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.

Pushy youngsters may benefit from a little discipline from older dogs, if it teaches them to behave better and accept the oldster's authority. However, all dogs that live together need to respect a 'no fighting' rule, it's safer for them and for you. If they scrap, you can scold the dogs involved without taking sides. This may leave you with your best behaved dog retreating from a pushy dog every time he is provoked, in order to avoid a fight. Your best behaved dog is not showing weakness, on the contrary, he's showing self-control, and deserves more privileges than the pushy dog. Pushy dogs can learn to copy well-behaved dogs if they see that being well-behaved, eg sitting and staying on command brings rewards. Then the penny drops, and they start watching the well-behaved dog to see what they are meant to be doing to get the rewards you give.

Prevention is important if your dogs have a tendency to squabble. Always supervise meal times, and increase the distance of feed bowls from each other if your dogs behave badly. Only free-feed if your dogs are capable of sharing a food bowl amicably. Recognise signs that a fight is brewing, so that you can prevent it with a command or a distraction. Putting the dogs in a 'down' may help if there are problems because they all want to greet you at once. If you have to stop a fight, keep your distance, so you don't get bitten, and use whatever is at hand to distract the dogs, like turning on the vacuum cleaner, throwing a cushion, using a water pistol, or a bucket of water if you are outside.

Some people don't ever allow playfighting, which is different from real fighting in that the dogs use playbows, and aren't trying to hurt each other. Dogs vary in how far they can playwrestle and chase without it getting out of hand. It's safer to ban playfighting indoors. Precious objects can get broken, it can get out of hand, and you are entitled to peace and quiet.

It helps to choose new companions carefully, so that they are likely to fit in with your existing dogs. The better suited they are to each other, the easier life is for you. Again, if despite your best efforts the dogs are not respecting one another, get help from a professional with a lot of experience of solving this problem.


Teaching Basic Commands

Commands are useful in teaching rules to dogs, for example a word or phrase that means 'please wee now' helps your dog know where it's OK to wee. 'Drop' is a useful command to teach a dog to drop objects from its mouth. 'Leave' is a useful for telling a dog to leave the chicken bone he has spotted in the street. 'Sit' and 'lie down' are very useful in a range of situations, especially for greeting visitors nicely. You can use 'sit' if you feel your dog is about to jump up on a guest, for example. A 'Go to your basket' command is also handy when visitors come. 'Stay' is useful both when you leave your dog and don't want him to move until you say so, or if you are at a distance, and want him to keep still.

The one essential command is recall. It can get your dog out of trouble, and prevent him from causing trouble. You might think 'sit' essential, but many country dogs live well-behaved lives without ever sitting on command, they tend to lie down if told to stay. Work out what commands are most useful for you, and a programme to teach them. This is where trainers and others with a lot of experience in training can help a lot.

You may be taught specific words in class, but you can use any word for a command, so long as you're consistent. You can also invent commands that help you. Some people use 'downstairs'. 'All gone' is handy for 'stop hassling me for a titbit/ball', and you can show your empty hands. (Don't give in after you've said this, or you train the dog that hassling you can be effective!)

Commands are both about telling your dog what to do, and giving information. You also need a 'release' word if commands that mean being still, like 'sit' and 'stay', are to be effective, otherwise your dog doesn't know how long he is meant to sit or stay. An active command like recall obviously releases a dog from a 'being still' command, otherwise you can use 'OK now' or another expression to tell the dog there's no longer any need to keep still. Likewise if you use an 'I don't want you to do that' expression, like 'chsst', it helps to follow it with a 'this is what I want you to do' command, like recall.

There are many books on teaching commands, and many methods today use titbits. For example, to teach 'sit', you can place the titbit in front of the dog's nose and move it slightly back and up, so he has to sit to follow it, while you say 'sit'. Then he gets the titbit. He should learn fast that obeying 'sit' brings a reward. Once he has sat, it's easier to get him to lie down. Again you need the titbit in front of his nose, then take it to down to his feet and along the ground in front of him, gently pressing down his rear so it doesn't stick up as his head goes down, following the titbit. Say 'lie down' as you do this. Eventually he'll lie down on command, and won't need to sit first. Keep the 'sit' and 'lie down' commands separate, because it's confusing for a dog to be told to 'sit down' - he doesn't know whether to 'sit' or 'lie down'.

To get him to stay, start off by getting him to sit beside you, then move one step away and back, saying 'stay'. Reward him if he stays. Gradually build up the distance you are away from him, saying 'stay' each time. You can then try going to the front of the dog and back, and then to the end of the lead and back. Then try him off the lead, walking a short distance away. Eventually you will be able to walk around him, and even go out of the room, or hide behind a tree, and he will stay. You can make the stay stronger by teaching him to resist distractions, for example rolling a ball across his line of vision while telling him to stay. The more you work on it, the stronger his 'stay' will be.

Titbits are very useful both as rewards and as lures, to attract and keep your dog's interest. They should be small, and smelly titbits are especially attractive. Try out different types of titbits - dogs vary in terms of how they respond to them. Dogs that aren't very food-oriented may need smellier titbits, while food-oriented dogs may work better with more boring titbits, or you may find that they focus on the titbit rather than what you want them to do. The titbits have to be small so that they can be eaten fast. You can use them on your first walks with a pup or new dog, to reward the dog for coming back when you call, and for sitting quietly when humans or other dogs are around. You can replace one of his meals with the same amount of complete food taken on walks, so that he doesn't get too fat.

Titbits can be useful for teaching new commands, but you don't have to use them all the time, just often enough for the dog to be motivated. Titbits can also help with relaxing dogs that are unconfident about slightly scary surroundings, though very spooked dogs will ignore titbits. Titbits should eventually be phased out once dogs know basic commands, and owners often feel unconfident about doing this. That's why some people never use titbits at all, and rely on other rewards, like praise or cuddles, and other lures, like a ball or a toy. Some trainers also guide a dog into position, using their hands, being careful to be gentle and firm, rather than forcing an unwilling dog. When this is done well, it has the advantage of building up trust. It takes more skill to do this than to use 'hands off' methods, though if you don't touch a dog during training, you still need to teach the dog to trust your touch doing other 'hands on' exercises.

One way to tackle both the problem of motivation, and teaching dogs to accept touch is to teach a dog skills that are fun in themselves, using games that involve touch at a time when the dog is relaxed and having fun.

Manners vs Skills Training

A lot of basic training is to do with teaching self control and good manners. 'Manners training' or teaching dogs to behave well around people and other animals, is often seen as different from 'skills training', or teaching dogs to do useful activities. The first usually stresses not doing things, while the second is more about doing things. However, the two types of training do in fact mesh very nicely. A very effective way of teaching the self control needed for good manners is to combine 'being still' or 'giving something up' commands with activities which dogs generally find enjoyable. This helps to motivate your dog and makes him more likely to obey. For example, if sitting nicely brings a reward, such as a ball being thrown, the 'sit' command is strengthened.

When you doing activities that the dog finds enjoyable in themselves, titbits become irrlevant. This is especially true if you have a dog who is a natural retriever, who will spit out titbits as boring compared to the attractions of a retrieve object. Teaching a very basic retrieve can be fun. First, encourage the dog to bring objects back by throwing them, giving lots of praise for his bringing them back, then throwing them again. You can arm yourself with a lot of throw objects so that the dog naturally drops one to retrieve the next. Say 'fetch' when the dog goes to fetch an object, and 'drop' when the dog drops the object, so he learns the name of the commands. 'Drop' is much easier to teach if it means the game carries on after an object is dropped.

Once your dog has grasped the basics, you can bring in a 'sit'. A dog that likes retrieving quickly learns that sitting nicely means that you to throw the object for them, whereas if they leap up and try to grab it, you won't throw it. If you always make them sit, they'll eventually sit automatically. With very keen retrievers, you need a super-reliable sit, because they can damage hands by trying to grab the throw object.

Keen retrievers can quickly learn to retrieve after a sit coupled with a stay. You can gently restrain the sitting dog and say 'stay' when you throw the object, then let go and say 'fetch', to teach him only to go after an object when you give permission. After a while when he feels ready, you can try throwing the object with a 'stay' command without restraining him, going back to the gentle restraint if he doesn't stay.

You can also combine tug games, which dogs often love, with a retrieve, so reinforcing the 'drop' command (try a higher value object, or a titbit to get the dog to drop the tug at first). When the dog has let go, throw the tug as a reward. The dog should then bring back the tug for more fun, so you are teaching retrieve skills as well.

Dogs vary a lot, and what's a reward for one dog may not interest another, so learn from your dog what he likes doing, and use this as a reward. There are books on training games for dogs which explain a variety of games that you can try out, to find those that most interest your dog.

Teaching working dog skills can help to bring out the best in your dog, for example, teaching gun dog skills to gun dogs. Understanding the job your dog was designed to do gives you insights into what makes your dog tick. There is also a lot of off-leash work at a distance, which gives you greater control of your dog on walks.

Working dogs are sometimes seen as tools, rather than living creatures with their own needs. Some working dog trainers use methods that make most pet dog owners shudder. Trainers who both work their dogs and enjoy their company as house pets tend to understand the needs of pet owners better. Even so, working dogs trainers may have a lot of insights to offer about what makes dogs tick, even if you don't feel comfortable with all their methods, so their books can be interesting, even if you wouldn't want your dog to be in their training class!

Skills training is very useful in many ways. It provides motivation, builds up trust and helps you to communicate with your dog. It is also worthwhile because it's enjoyable for you. It's a great feeling of achievement to see what your dog is capable of, and to know that you have helped to train him, you've given him the opportunity to show what he can do.

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 Animals, for example, there's a page for books on Puppy and Manners Training, another page for for Agility and Training Games, and one for Working Dog Skills.

Some working dog books are more helpful for people with particular breeds, for example, gundog books for people with gundogs, and the sheepdog books for people with sheepdogs, especially collies. However, other books are useful for a wider range of owners.

'Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?' gives an account of two sisters trained for different jobs, one a sheepdog, and the other a service dog. There is a lot in this book about basic training which is relevant for most owners, and it's combined with a fascinating account of how basic training fits with advanced training.

All dogs which like to use their noses can benefit from scent dog training, which is the key to search and rescue work. There are also training books designed for specific breed types, like terriers and hounds among the Dog Breeds pages.

You may also be interested in dog behaviour, to work out what is normal for dogs, and in different ideas people have about training. If so, Books on Behaviour and Training Philosophies will be interesting.

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See also:
Dogs: Training Classes
Dogs: Bringing up your puppy
Dogs: Using Flexileads Safely
Dogs: Behavioural Problems
Books on Puppy and Manners Training
Books on Agility and Training Games
Books on Working Dog Skills
Books on Dog Behaviour and Training Philosophies