Train yourself to train your dog

Although training a dog isn’t really “making” anything, it will make your life with your canine friend much more pleasant.

The best way to learn to train a dog is to pretend to be one. Two people are needed for this game (which children delight in playing too). One person is the designated trainer, the other plays the dog. No need to go on all fours and bark, you are taking the dog’s role, not mimicking the animal. The trainer thinks of an action for the dog to learn: sit down and scratch its head, for example. No miming or physical contact is allowed, no words may be exchanged, not even “yes” or “no.” You want to avoid using any cues or hints which a real dog wouldn’t be able to understand. Stand facing each other, and wait for the “dog” to try something (with a real dog you will need to give it a few treats to start out, to push it into action). When a desired action is taken, the trainer makes a brief clicking sound, which would be the equivalent of a treat. The dog’s goal is to earn these treats, and it will try all sorts of actions to get them. As dog and trainer face each other in silence, both players will understand that it will be impossible to guess and perform the entire trick. It needs to be taught step by step. If the dog makes a slight movement like it might sit down, click that. Click it again three or four times till the dog is repeating the movement, sure that this is what is expected. Then stop clicking that movement. The dog will understand it needs to do more and will go further: click when it sits. After a half a dozen times clicking a sit, stop clicking and wait for more. Click a hand movement, any movement. Then only click if the hand is moving towards the head. Click when it touches its hair. Finally click when the dog scratches its head, and give it a big kiss. Then switch roles and play the dog. Smart as we like to think ourselves to be, this game is hard!

Using a clicker (or making another specially designated sound like snapping fingers) with a real dog is also very useful. Train the dog to recognize the sound by clicking right before you give it a treat. After doing this a few times your dog will perk up the second it hears the sound. The clicker has several advantages over real treats:

You can click while the dog is making the desired action rather than afterwards which makes it much easier for the dog to make the connection between its action and the reward.

A particularly food obsessed dog might have trouble focussing on the game and might just stare, slobbering, at the hand holding treats.

You can reduce the number of treats because you don’t need to give one every time you click. Either make it random, to keep the dog guessing and alert, or use it as an extra cue: almost (click) almost (click) yes! (click & treat).

When playing the training game with a real dog it is also a good idea to keep it silent. Wait until the dog has figured out the complete trick before giving it a name. You don’t want your dog to think that the command “roll over” means “lie down.” Work exclusively on a single trick over several short sessions spaced over a few days and only give the trick a name once it is complete. Then use your chosen vocal or hand command for a few sessions before practicing the new trick interspersed with older ones.

Read more about dog training here


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