Monday, November 21, 2011

My Ten Rules When Training a Dog

My own challenges with Finna and a friend's problems with her dog have had me thinking about my rules for  training a dog. These are rules that I've collected from all over the place and made my own. They didn't come as a packaged set, they are rules that capture what I think is important.

Rule ONE. If your dog does something naughty it's your fault. I learned this one from the wonderful trainer we worked with when we first adopted Ranger. Dianne Canafax is a gifted trainer who taught me a lot. She was using a foster dog from her pack as a demo dog and after repeated efforts by the dog to say she needed to go out that Dianne failed to correctly interpret the dog peed on the floor. Dianne used the opportunity this presented to illustrate rule one. She explained that it was her fault for not listening to the dog and cleaned up the mess calmly and without fuss. She also pointed out the cues that she'd misinterpreted and how now she would be able to do better by this foster next time. So I try to remember that if Finna gets into the cat food, if she pees on the carpet, if she jerks my arm half out it's socket it's not her fault it's mine for not paying better attention.

Rule TWO. A tired dog is a good dog. This is one thing that Ceasar Milan gets exactly right; most dogs don't get the exercise they need. And when a dog does get the exercise he need he is a better behaved dog. After all how would you feel if you were a marathon runner confined to a twenty foot square room 23 hours a day--you'd be bouncing off the walls. Wolves travel large distances as a matter of course. Dogs are a domesticated version of wolves but the physiology that allows wolves to maintain that tireless travelling trot for hours at a time is still present. Different breeds of dogs have different exercise needs and in my insanity both of the dogs I've adopted are herders--breeds that are bred to work all day and to be able to run large distances flat out multiple times a day. When we first adopted Ranger we were walking him 5-7 miles a day and giving him 60-90 minutes a day at the dog park. With Finna's fear issues we can't walk her as much and dog parks are right out but we're still managing 2-3 miles a day, a couple 30 minute sessions of race and wrestle with Ranger in the yard, and multiple sessions of indoor fetch of five minutes or so. A restless bored dog getting into mischief is a dog that needs a walk. That's how I view it.

Rule THREE. All walks are training walks. It isn't enough to tire a dog out physically. Their active little minds need to be tired out too. I recently ran across this blog http://dogblog.dogster.com/2011/11/15/the-three-stages-of-healthy-dog-walking/  that does a great job of summarizing what a good walk should look like. With Ranger any time we were doing a short walk we were doing extra training. Because Finna is still learning leash manners and how not to bark and growl at everyone she sees a lot of her walks are taken up with training. Any slack in the leash is praised, any check in is praised, any walking at heel is praised to the skies. Any straining at the leash results in a full stop and no advancing, a taut leash receives a long drawn out whoa. With Ranger I remember two weeks of hell teaching him to walk nicely on a leash; every time he pulled we stopped. Both of us hated walks like that. Now he's a dream on leash and he knows exactly how fast and for how long I can jog. Walking Ranger and Finna together I often find myself looking around to make sure Ranger is still with us because he doesn't pull.

Rule FOUR. Every dog needs a job. This is especially true of breeds that are not very far removed from their working roots. I remember reading somewhere that a working Border Collie can do the work of nine men and that a bored and unemployed Border Collie can do enough mischief to keep nine men busy. Living with Ranger and Finna I can well believe it. Ranger's job is meeting people and making them feel good. His second job is learning things. In an earlier blog I wrote about why I decided to teach Ranger K-9 sign. He needed something to learn and I'm a more effective trainer when I have a goal. Finna had never been given a job before she came here. She'd decided that her job was to be ultra vigilant and protective. I have no interest in living with a dog that wants to protect me from the other creatures in the house and from my husband and children. Finna is learning that her new job is to learn patience and manners. Now that she's mastered sit I often ask her to sit and wait for her treat. Every time she is asked to wait she is learning self-control and she is learning polite behavior. In time we'll figure out what her great love in life is and we'll find a job that fits with that love. For now learning is a good job for her. And since she does have a real job now her protectiveness is diminishing.

Rule FIVE. Not every dog wants to please. Finna does want to please her people and she'll work for praise alone. Ranger has never been interested in pleasing his people and for him praise is just a marker that a tangible reward is to come. Ranger wants to know what's in it for him. He has no interest in giving up that book he's decided to chew on just because I want the book however he is willing to trade for it. Ranger is my dog. We are partners with mutual respect and affection and I understand that Ranger works for reward not just because it makes me happy. Training a dog like Ranger is harder because he has his own agenda and it requires putting yourself in his mind and figuring out what his motivations are but training a dog like him is also incredibly rewarding because you are successfully teaching a member of another species how to navigate your world. Finna will always look to her people for clues on how to behave and she will always want to do what makes her handler happy. Ranger is confident of his own ability to navigate human society and to make everyone he meets understand what he wants and needs.

Rule SIX. You have to be smarter than your dog. I never cease to be amazed at how difficult this is for some people. I have watched so many people fruitlessly chasing their dog around the park trying to capture her to take her home. I figured out very early in my relationship with Ranger that he is scary smart and that if I wanted any sort of control I would have to be smarter. Rather than hang his leash on the fence so that he'd have an obvious clue that I was planning to take him home I decided to wear his leash like a sash from shoulder to hip. Rather than teaching Ranger that if I called him in the park it meant we were going home I practiced calling him over, fastening his leash giving him a treat and releasing him. Ranger never knew when we were going home and after the first few weeks I never had to have someone else capture him for me. Any more it's second nature to me to look for things that could cause problems and figure out ways to avoid them. At the moment while we are gone Finna and Ranger are confined to the enclosure with its six foot high fences. I've notice though that the gate to the driveway can be warped out at the bottom by a determined dog. I also know that Finna has separation anxiety issues and might be tempted to try to escape while we are gone. The gate swings both ways so I've piled the old tires I use for my potato plants against the outside edge of the gate. The tires weigh a lot more than Finna does so even if she tries to push the gate out it won't work, yet I can still open the gate and walk through.

Rule SEVEN. You use the rewards available. Ranger is not crazy about being brushed. I generally trade him high value treats for cooperation but when I don't have treats available I'll brush him for a bit and then throw the brush for him to chase and worry. It means the handle of the brush is less comfortable in my hand but he'll cooperate just as well for the thrown brush. I sometimes reward Finna by letting her lick my hands. If the dog likes it it can be used as a reward.

Rule EIGHT. You need to know what you want from your dog. The dogs I really like and respect are attached to people who know what they want from their dog. The dogs I don't like are attached to people who have no idea what they want. Figure out what you want from your dog and work toward that. Since I realized early on that Ranger was destined to be a Therapy Dog I knew what I wanted was for him to have impeccable manners. Since I believe that Therapy Dogs are often the best judge of what the person needs I didn't want him to be constantly looking to me for direction but I also wanted to be able to trust that he'd behave appropriately. Ranger is pretty lousy at obedience but his manners are beautiful. With her fear issues and lack of early socialization Finna is a different kettle of fish. She needs to learn to look to her people for direction and for safety.

Rule NINE. You are the human and your dog is the dog. There are a whole lot of people that don't seem to understand that humans and dogs are different species. Canine social rituals are not the same as human social rituals and it's OK to expect your dog to follow human social rituals with humans (no crotch sniffing) but it is not OK to forbid your dog from following canine social rituals with other dogs. How would you feel if you were expected to meet new people blindfolded and gagged? When you don't let your dog act like a dog and sniff other dogs in areas you personally find offensive that's what you're expecting of your dog.

Rule TEN. Every day you do the best you can but some days the dragon wins. This one is actually my parenting mantra but it applies just as well to dog training. Some days nothing you try is going to work. Some days despite all your best efforts you'll be a horrible trainer. Some days the dragon is going to win. Don't dwell on it. Some days are like that and tomorrow will be better.

Others will have different rules but these are the ones that work for me.


  1. Excellent rules. I came over from Trisha McConnell's blog. I've enjoyed your posts there, and am very impressed with what you've done with Ranger and how you're approaching Finna.

  2. Expansion of Rule Two: A Tired Dog is a Good Dog. Dogs need both mental and physical stimulation. A dog that only gets physical exercise isn't getting the stimulation that they need. I hope that the rest of the post makes it clear that in addition to physical exercise my dogs get lots of mental stimulation.