Dog training is very simply training a dog to behave a certain way. You can find tons of people who call themselves dog trainers, but not all of them are created equal. I talked to Lauren Miller of zoephee.blogspot.com to get her take on this complicated subject. Here’s what she had to say.
What is your background in dog training?
I mentored under several certified dog trainers. One of them is a certified behavioral consultant who primarily works with aggression cases. Currently, I’m working to obtain my CPDT-KA.
How would you describe what you do with the dogs?
I’ve been working with dogs ever since I was enrolled in a 4-H program as a teenager, so 21+ years! Back then I trained my family dogs in Obedience and Agility. I worked with an awesome agility instructor who used to let me work with her dogs and run them in agility. I also worked with other 4-H kids to help them learn how to train and show their dogs. Then I went on to become a professional dog groomer. After hurting my wrist and being unable to groom anymore, I got into professional dog training. I helped teach classes and private lessons under a certified mentor. I also spent three years assisting with dog/dog behavioral assessments. Eventually I’d like to specialize in working with fearful dogs.
I currently own three dogs, all shelter mix breeds that I love spending time with. We hang out, go hiking, spend time training advanced behaviors and tricks. I also do a lot of enrichment with them, such as providing food puzzles and other activities. Each of my dogs has their own unique personality and we’ve overcome quite a few behavioral problems together.
What methods or training styles do you use?
I use positive reinforcement. That means that I set a dog up to be right and then they get a reward after performing a behavior. I use clickers and food primarily. As the dog gets really good and knows what we’re doing, I will add in toys and real life rewards. An example of a real life reward is if my dog sits at the door, then opening the door (to go out for a walk) becomes the reward.
I do always carry food on me. You never know when you might need to reward the dog, or recover a dog from a scary experience. Dogs are always learning. Having the opportunity to reward them when they do something awesome keeps that training fresh in their mind. If something scary happens, like a car backfiring, giving them a little food can often help them recover faster and gets their focus back on me. The dogs don’t always get the food I have on me. They know that just because I have some, doesn’t mean they will get it.
I use “lure-reward” training, where you lure the dog into a behavior (such as sit or down), “shaping”. You shape tiny increments of a behavior (go to your bed, turn on the light) until they understand the full behavior You “capture”, by marking and rewarding a dog for a behavior that they offer on their own (peeing in the correct spot outside, laying down on their own without being told). Each time they get the behavior right, I use a marker (clicker or verbal word) and reward with a treat or toy. The marker tells the dog the instant they get it right. That gives the person time to get the reward to the dog. Then once they know the behavior and it’s trained to fluency, I don’t need the clicker anymore. I might choose to reward with something other than food.
Managing the environment
Management is another important piece of the puzzle. The environment drives behavior, so if you set the environment up really well, you don’t see as many behavioral problems. Some examples of management include: not leaving important personal items out for a dog to chew, not leaving food on the kitchen counters so our dogs never learn to counter surf, or keeping a new dog crated when unattended so they can’t get into things.
They say “Practice Makes Perfect” and that goes for good behavior and bad behavior. The more often a dog is allowed to rehearse a behavior, the better they get at it. So making sure the household is set up so the dog is unable to practice unwanted behavior is best. Training is so much faster and easier.
Occasionally a timeout is appropriate for certain situations, which would be considered punishment. Time outs are trained, I will give a warning cue such as “that’s enough”. Then the dog can make a choice, to stop what they are doing and do something else or continue. If they continue, I say “too bad” and they are placed in a very boring room for about a minute. After that minute we come back out and try again. Usually the kind of situations that involve a timeout are outside of training sessions and are more in the moment.
Replacing negative behavior with positive behavior
When I am modifying behavior, working on problem behaviors, it’s important to replace unwanted behavior with acceptable behavior. Using time outs over and over don’t work that well because they don’t tell the dog what to do. Timeouts are generally more for the humans so they can have a break and time to figure out how to get the dog to not do the behavior they were doing.
I strive to always tell the dog what to do, versus what not to do. Dogs don’t really understand “don’t do that” without replacing it with something else. In example, a dog jumping on a person can be modified by teaching them to sit when they greet people. They can’t jump on people and also have their butt planted on the ground at the same time. Or instead of bugging mom while she’s cooking, settle down on your mat right outside the kitchen. Dogs can’t be underfoot if they are settling on their mat.
I don’t believe in using intimidation, fear or pain to train dogs. You wouldn’t see a prong or shock collar on any of my dogs.
Short and long term goals
Short term goals are basic manners skills and teaching them how to learn. They learn what the clicker means and that they can make the click happen by doing things. I really focus on bonding and building my relationship with the dog. They understand that all the best stuff comes from me (or the owner). Then we teach simple behaviors, such as sit, down, stay, leave it and come.
Long term goals are generally walking well on a loose leash, heel work, behaving well in a public setting and advanced obedience and tricks, including some service dog type skills. Another huge one is training a dog to accept all types of handling. Accepting voluntary basic care like bathing, nail clipping, ear cleaning, giving medication, vaccinating and drawing blood is helpful in day to day life.
Eventually I’d like to get back into dog sports. I’m interested in Agility, Rally Obedience and Nosework. I’d also like to get trick titles on my dogs at some point.
Common dog problems
The most common problems we see are dogs that
– overreact to things
– bark and lunge at other dogs or people. These dogs are usually frustrated when they can’t meet other dogs and go play.
– are fearful of other dogs or people and want them to go away.
Common handler mistakes
The most common one is that a lot of people don’t understand their dogs. Instead of getting professional help right away, they will use harsh punishment to “stop” unwanted behavior. Punishing bad behavior only suppresses that behavior and makes a dog fearful of it’s owner.
It’s like putting a band aid on a severe wound without addressing the underlying cause and expecting that wound to heal. Meanwhile you’re bleeding out. Punishment only suppresses the behavior in the moment. Most of the time, without addressing the underlying cause, the behavior will keep coming back.
The owner is also reinforced for using punishment because it looks like the behavior goes away. They are more likely to use more punishment or escalate their punishment when the behavior comes back or on other problem behaviors come up.
Insisting on meeting other dogs
” Another common problem in America is that owners will allow their dogs to greet any dog they come across, even if they don’t know that dog, even if the other dog does not want to meet”.
Everyone wants their dog to have other dog friends, even if their dog does not want to be friends. People get really fixated on this. They think that dogs are pack animals and have to have friends. Their dog is abnormal if they don’t like other dogs.
In the wild dogs are not pack animals. They usually have a buddy or two that they hang out with sometimes but not always. It’s really hard even for professionals to orchestrate an on leash meeting that goes well.
As a professional, I don’t recommend that pet owners allow their dogs to meet on leash. The leash does not allow dogs to perform natural greeting behaviors. Tension on the leash can actually trigger an aggressive response, even in usually happy-go-lucky types of dogs.
Ignoring other dogs is good
I would like to see more dog owners teaching their dogs to ignore other dogs on leashed walks. Save play time for designated off leash areas or your backyard with dogs you know are safe. If a dog never meets another dog on leash, they learn that it’s not play time. That way they don’t get frustrated. Ignoring other dogs, also really helps out those fearful dogs or dogs who don’t want an interaction at all.
I would also love to see all dog owners following the leash laws and not allowing their dogs to run up to other dogs that they don’t know.
What tools or references would you recommend to someone trying to train their own dog?
For training tools, I do recommend getting a clicker but people can also use a “marker word” like “YES!” instead of a clicker if they feel like managing a clicker, the leash and treats is too much for them.
You also need really high value treats cut into pea sized bites and a treat bag to store them in. I ask my clients to use a variety real meats or cheese, mixed in with other high value treats. Keeping the treats varied can really help motivate the dogs and keep them interested in the training games we play. I ask them not to use hard biscuits or other dry foods. These are usually not motivating enough to work in the real word away from home.
I have a lot of training resources on my training page: zoephee.blogspot.com/p/dog-training
One of the main websites that I recommend all the time is Karen Pryor: clickertraining.com. That website has everything a person needs, from free training articles to books and gear you can buy. I shop there all the time.
What criteria should a person use when searching for a reputable trainer?
To find a professional trainer, I would recommend checking out the CCPDT’s trainer referral page here: ccpdt.org. These trainers are expected to complete 300 hours of training and provide a signed attestation statement from a CCPDT certificant or a veterinarian before they are tested and certified. They are also required to continue their education. A certain amount of educational units are required every three years. If they don’t get them, they are not allowed to renew their certification.
If you don’t have a CCPDT trainer in your area, and you find a trainer online. It’s very important to go through their website thoroughly. Make sure the things that are said on it sound like positive reinforcement training.
I also recommend going through yelp and google reviews before calling them. Then interview the trainer over the phone. Ask about the methods of training they use. Ask what happens to the dog if they get it right and what happens if they get it wrong. If the trainer does group classes, ask to observe a class. A good trainer will always let you observe a class without your dog.
If a person is looking for a trainer for a certain dog sport, I would recommend looking for someone who actually competes in the sport and has titled their own dogs.
What to avoid
NEVER hand your dog’s leash to a stranger without fully vetting them and observing how they train first. The training industry is unregulated and anyone can call themselves a trainer.
I would avoid working with anyone who says they are “leaders of the pack”, “alpha” anything to do with “being dominant”, or “balanced”. These trainers will often use coercion, painful training collars and intimidation. These methods can actually cause dogs to become aggressive and I don’t recommend them.