Well if that's not a strong title, I don't know what is. But, I do know that when it comes to training your dog to be obedient, there are just some things that you must do, need to have, or have to use in order to get the results you're looking for, and there is no substitute. Follow my commandments and I guarantee you will see better results and have a better relationship with your dog. Who doesn't want that?
I. Make sure your dog is ready
Insecure, fearful, and undersocialized dogs are common today. Make sure your dog is not nervous, confused, afraid, or skittish in public and especially not afraid of you. Address fear and lack of socialization before obedience. The reason being is that you cannot hold a scared and skittish dog accountable to obeying commands if they are running away from everything due to fear. You will most likely create more stress, anxiety, and fear for your dog while damaging your relationship by forcing obedience. In my experience, I've seen many people punish their fearful dog be it verbally, physically or both for not following commands but have yet to witness an improvement of the dog actually listening. That's because they can't, their brain is in fight or flight, and it is literally impossible to focus on a task in that state of mind.
II. You must be committed
Kind of a no-brainer here, but you'd be surprised by how many people put in minimal work and effort and expect to see results. Don't be that person. If you're going to start any training program with your dog, you need to commit to the process to get the desired results. Realistically, you can expect to train your dog for 6-12 weeks minimum to create a foundation of understanding. If you think that's a long time, it's not. Training your dog for 12 weeks out of their 12-year life span is effortless in the grand scheme of things. This time frame builds a solid foundation of understanding for your dog from which you can always refer back to when needed for the duration of your dog's life.
III. You must have reasonable expectations
All too often, people assume that their dog is more proficient with a behavior than they really are. This assumption can easily lead to frustration, disappointment, and eventually giving up altogether. Even when I start a training program with clients who tell me their dog is good with a behavior, we ALWAYS start from scratch with the dog. If the dog performs well, we can skip ahead, but it is always a good idea to keep expectations low and build on them as the dog learns and becomes better at responding to cues for training. If your dog just started to learn sit, it is unreasonable to expect them to hold a sit for 30 seconds while another dog walks past or plays fetch in front of them. They may "know sit" at home with no distractions and a handful of food, but the context and motivation have changed at the park.
IV. Train with a leash on your dog
I get it, you want your dog to be off-leash and be free like a dog should be. Me too, but the only way that will happen is by having the ability to control them ON a leash. Ironic, I know. But if your dog is not reliable with a leash on, there's no way they'll be reliable with the leash off. Remember this statement... one word equals one action. This means that if you tell your dog to sit and you do not get a response, you must make them or help them (depending on where they are in training) go into a sit. Don't give your dog a command if you cannot make sure it happens, period. Don't fall into the bad habit of repeating commands, if you continuously repeat yourself, you devalue the word, and it means nothing to your dog. Having the leash on your dog when giving commands affords you the ability to control, guide, and direct them if needed.
V. Use what motivates your dog
I could write a book on this topic alone. Just like people, dogs need to be motivated to do something or not do something. This motivation can come from a few different things. Food, toys & play, petting & praise, freedom, and appropriate corrections. Food is an obvious motivator, and I highly recommend using it. As I say to all of my clients, you're going to feed them anyway so you might as well make them learn something in the process - learn to earn, nothing in life is free, they gotta pay to play... you get my point. In addition to that, you can keep the momentum going and really add the repetition needed to teach a behavior when using food. Toys and play can quickly be substituted for food after the desired response is achieved. Petting and praise should always be a part of the reward as it helps create a strong bond. Using freedom is a little known trick because sometimes the reward is the release. For your dog, getting the okay to run free is worth the one minute sit you had them do to earn it. A correction is a great motivator too, but there is a time and place for an appropriate correction when it comes to obedience training, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. However, every dog is different, and it is your responsibility to know what works best for your dog. I hate to be ambiguous here, but I would be setting you up for failure if I started telling you how to correct your dog without knowing a thing about them, your relationship with them, or what standard they should be held accountable to. You want to give your dog a correction that they can learn from, not one that scares them or makes them look at you like you're a joke. You also have to make sure they understand WHY they're being corrected, so it helps to have shown them exactly what they should be doing instead. Use corrections in conjunction with rewards.
VI. Your timing must be spot on
There's no getting around this. Dogs have 1.3 seconds to associate a consequence (good or bad) with a behavior. For example, if I am teaching my dog SIT and I go to reward my dog with food, and their butt pops up as I give them the food, I am in fact rewarding them for getting up from the sit. Same applies for those of you that bring your dog inside to give a treat after they potty. Your dog thinks they're being rewarded for going back into the house, which isn't a bad thing, but they don't know they're being rewarded for peeing in the yard which is probably your intention. Timing is equally as important when it comes to corrections. You must correct them in the moment; otherwise, you run the very high risk of coming off as an unpredictable lunatic. This means that you must be paying attention to your dog during training to have great timing with rewards and corrections.
VII. You must be consistent with rules
I know some of you struggle with this one. I always think of jumping when it comes to being consistent with rules. Don't let your dog's cuteness get in the way of implementing the rules and setting boundaries. It is nearly impossible for your dog to understand that sometimes it is okay to jump on you and other times it is not. Same goes with being on furniture, and for breaking a sit or down without permission, and many other things. Have it so that they require your approval to jump up on you or furniture or get up from a sit. It does not matter if you were "just about" to call them up or release them, if they get on the couch or break a sit without your permission, they must be made to get off or sit back down and wait for your release. A dog will do what is more convenient and desirable for them, so if you're not consistent, they will consistently do what works for them. It's that simple. One side note on consistency it helps a dog to live a better life as they crave routine and look for patterns to follow. Inconsistency creates frustration, which manifests into behavior problems. Be consistent!
VIII. Have fun with training
When it comes to training your dog, treat it like summer camp, not like boot camp. If you approach training as a game and set your dog up to get the right answers, they'll be more interested in playing and even more successful at learning. Avoid harsh corrections and reprimands early in the learning process, it can ruin training and damage your relationship. If you look for everything your dog does wrong, training will be miserable for you and your dog. Instead, focus on having fun, being enthusiastic, and engaging with your dog. For example, when I'm starting to teach any dog to walk nicely on a leash, I won't say "no" and correct them every time they pull to the side or pull ahead. What I will do is cheerfully redirect them to focus on me and reward them for doing so, this way the act of being near me and focusing on me is the rewarded and more desireable behavior, corrections can come after they better understand what I want. I tell my clients with puppies to cheerfully call the dogs to them whenever the dog gets a hold of something they shouldn't have (like a shoe), then calmly and happily take it away and redirect them to an appropriate item. Doing this, as opposed to yelling "no" and chasing the dog to get your shoe prevents them from fearing you and running away with your sketchers easy-walk. Focus on what you want the dog to do.
IX. Train in different locations with different distractions
This is know as generalizing. Dog's are contextual in nature and they associate rules and behaviors within the context of locations. If you only ask your dog to sit and stay at home, in the kitchen, before their meal, then that's where you should expect your dog to perform that sit-stay and nowhere else. If you train the sit-stay in your yard, on walks, at the park, the pet store, and other places, your dog will listen to you in all of these locations. To put this in perspective, some people have a hard time working-out at home because it's out of context for them; home means relax, gym means workout. If that person began working out at home frequently, that would become the new norm for them. When you train your dog in many locations, the pattern of performing certain obedience behaviors in different areas and with various distractions becomes normal and expected. This is how you get the same responses from your dog outside with distractions as you do inside the house without distractions.
X. Use it or lose it
Simply put, you have to maintain the behaviors you've taught your dog throughout their life if you want your dog to listen. To be honest, training is life long, but not to the extent that you need to train every day. For your dog to continue to listen to you, you must use what you have taught them frequently enough to keep the behavior relevant. If you never call your dog to you at the park, just because you never need to, they probably won't listen to you that one time you do call them and require them to come. Even though you may have spent 8 solid weeks training "come" a year ago if you don't make it a part of your dog's life and routine, the behavior will fade. The same can be said for us. Maintenance is necessary to keep known commands fresh and relevant in your dog's mind. Think for a second about how long we all practiced basic math in school, and some people still need a calculator to do simple math, because they rarely do it. It's the same thing for dogs.
With all that said, if you're struggling and feel like you may be in over your head, put your pride aside and call a professional to help. Don't be shy, even the greatest of the greatest ask for help, you can too. If you do need to hire a trainer, take the time to do some research and screening. Read this article to help with that. Whatever you do, remember that attitude is everything and don't give up!
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