It’s no secret that I don’t have the most well-behaved dogs in the world. I’m a writer, not a dog-trainer. I do, however, have an obedience training certification and experience working with very intelligent, very high maintenance breeds. Having four dogs all at once…well, it’s easier to work with one at a time, and some of my older dogs are dealing with medical issues. That being said, I don’t work with other people’s dogs because I’m not uniquely qualified. I am, however, uniquely—and easily—overwhelmed. For that reason, I’ve compiled a list of the absolute best, most lifesaving strategies for dealing with and/or working with dogs…of any breed, age, and demeanor. These strategies have seriously transformed my dogs’ behavior and made my daily life happier, calmer, and much more peaceful.
Changing your dog’s behavior doesn’t have to be a step-by-step, perfect solution where obedience is a chore. I’m proposing that you simply change the way you think about dog training, and in turn, your dogs. We aren’t talking about a defiant 17-year-old kid here. We’re talking about a border collie who can fetch the newspaper, or bring my boots, or shut the doors, or even open the fridge and bring me a Stella.
We’re talking about a five-pound chihuahua that may or may not be fifty years old and that was found with a pirate ring in his ear.
We’re talking about a min pin that looks like a bowling bowl with tooth picks for legs, and that devours anything within a five-mile radius and wears an eye patch.
And, we’re talking about a two-year-old Australian Shepherd with an Oedipus Complex and real obsession with putting an end to vacuüm cleaners all over the world. You, know, we’re just talking about dealing with everyday, regular, normal kind of dogs.
This list is a simple, easy-to-incorporate way of life for you and your pets; rather than, a step-by-step guide outlining basic obedience training. It’s a lifestyle change, and it’s one that has produced remarkable results based on trial and error, other people’s suggestions, and my own observations as a multi-dog owner, pet lover, and primary care giver to four special-needs dogs (and I use that term lightly) with a propensity to misbehave.
With that being said, here’s a list of the top fifteen daily routine/doggy lifestyle tips that I’ve learned over the years. These tips are awesome because they’re super easy to put into practice (especially for busy dog owners) and they start to work almost instantly. But, the key to success with any of these tips, like most things in life, is total and utter CONSISTENCY. Some of them you may have heard before, but I’ve included them anyway.
Don’t assume your dog knows what you expect from him until you have bothered to teach it to him. This one is super important and it’s the framework for everything else on this list.
Reinforce good behavior; ignore bad behavior. Dog training techniques that primarily emphasize dog psychology are a waste of time. Some of those dominance and pack hierarchy techniques may work for a short period of time, but oftentimes this kind of training is temporary and causes more damage than good. Watch your dog as much as possible and whenever you catch him doing the right thing, reward him for it. How? Well, you will have to read numero tres to find out!
This step is two-fold. Rewarding your dog for good behavior, like waiting calmly for food or attention, teaches him what you expect. It also positively reinforces doing the right thing. If your dog is consistently rewarded for doing the right thing, he will associate that action with something positive. Eventually, it will become like second nature. But, at the same time, don’t punish bad behavior. If you’ve shown your dog what you expect from him and you’ve consistently rewarded him for doing it, he won’t want to behave “badly”. Most dogs behave badly because they don’t know what you want them to do OR because you have unknowingly rewarded them for bad behavior. More about that later.
It may seem like I’m telling you to teach your dog to do what’s “right” without actually telling you how. But, I’m doing that on purpose. This post isn’t about step-by-step obedience. It’s about small changes you can incorporate into your life to put your pet on the path to success and make your life together less stressful and more enjoyable. So, if you’re wondering how to teach your dog to do the right thing, revisit Número Dos: if you’re dealing with difficult or stressful doggy-behaviors, spend less time worrying about the “how’s” and more time worrying about the “when’s”. As I said in Numero Dos, ignore bad behavior and reward good behavior. For this step, ignoring bad behavior is IMPERATIVE. That’s because punishment doesn’t reinforce anything but confusion and fear. The goal is to remove the reward for bad behavior and provide a better reward for good behavior.
Here’s an example: Lee-C and Eddie are typical doggy siblings. They play together, chase each other, and run around like a couple of long-lost friends. That is, until food, toys, or affection is introduced into their combined space. They’ve developed a habit of growling and hovering over their food bowls if they’re eating within a ten-foot radius of one another. I could just move their food bowls. But, I’ve learned that it’s important to use every bad behavior as a teachable moment. As soon as they growl, I lift up their food bowls and stand between them patiently without saying a single word. Once the growling stops, I put the food back down on their level and wait until they growl again. This usually takes a dozen or more times before they get it. Sometimes it takes a few days…and for really stubborn dogs it can take weeks. But, believe me, it’s an investment that will result in long-term success in your dog’s overall behavior. The same goes for toys, bones, and affection.
Here’s another example: Oftentimes pet owners reinforce bad behavior without even realizing it. For instance, whenever Lee-C jumps up on people, they put their hands out and touch her. Sometimes they pet her. Sometimes they push her off. Either way, she’s being touched. And, believe me, she’d rather have me push her away than ignore her altogether. There’s one golden rule that most dog-trainers agree on, “all four on the floor”. Don’t reward your dog with ANY type of attention until he’s sitting or standing patiently. But, don’t make him wait too long either. If you don’t reward good behavior right away, you aren’t reinforcing anything at all. Your dog will go to great lengths to please you. And, if he doesn’t feel he’s pleasing you, he will go to great lengths to get your attention. You have to give him attention one way or another. Make sure it’s positive attention and it’s only offered when he’s doing the right thing. And, as I said before, don’t punish him if he jumps up on you. Don’t use your knee to block him or shove him away. Simply cross your arms and turn your back to him. Non-fearful dogs want your attention. Depriving them of any type of attention when they behave inappropriately is the best way to signal to your dog that his bad behaviors are unacceptable. Eventually, your dog will stop jumping and sit or stand patiently. The SECOND he does—turn around and reward him.
This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip. To make sure you are truly rewarding your dog, and to speed up the process in the meantime, figure out what your dog wants most. Dogs don’t only like food; they like attention, toys, bones, playtime, and even a happy, up-beat vocal reward. Make sure the reward is worth it to YOUR dog, and make sure your timing is right. If you wait too long to offer a reward, your dog could easily become confused about what you are rewarding him for.
So, figure out what your dog’s best reward is. Eddie loves to play. A stick or a ball is more valuable to him than any food. Lee-C loves attention. A happy “good girl” from her parents is more impactful than any treat in the world. Riley lives to eat, so as long as we have properly taught her what we expect and then reward her with a treat—or four—she’s much more inclined to follow my instructions on a regular basis. This step, in particular, is not an overnight fix. But, it’s the start to a lifelong relationship where good behavior thrives and bad behavior slowly dissipates—if, and only if, you are prepared to patiently and consistently reward the good and ignore the bad. And, for particularly difficult and stubborn behavior, there’s no harm in following up the verbal reward with food or a favorite toy. Just like people, every dog has its own preferences and each dog is motivated differently.
It’s crucial to remember that catching your dog doing the right thing is a key part of the process. It’s the main difference between literally walking your pet through his obedience training and introducing it naturally.
Create a routine. Let your dogs out to go to the bathroom at the same time every morning. Exercise them around the same time (if possible) every day. Put them to bed at the same time (or close to it) every night. Feed them at the same time every day. Watch them after they eat to make sure they don’t go to the bathroom in the house; I wait about ten minutes with the dogs confined in one room with me. Then, I take them all outside and wait for them to go to the bathroom. Once they do, I reinforce the behavior, which leads me to my next step: introduce commands.
The most important part of teaching your dog acceptable behavior from unacceptable behavior is reinforcing the good and ignoring the bad. But, if you want to take it a step further and slowly introduce a command for each expected behavior, there is an easy way to do it! Most of these suggestions require patience and waiting for your dog to do the right thing. Eventually, ALMOST every dog will. And, when you reward them for it enough times, they will understand what you want. And, what’s more, they will want to do what’s right because they’ll associate the behavior with their favorite reward.
Once you’ve incorporated those strategies into your daily life, you can start adding commands to teach your dog to react a certain way at a certain time. Here’s how:
When your dog, for example, barks incessantly, figure out what’s making him bark. Perhaps it’s another dog passing your house. If so, walk away from your dog or turn your back to him until he stops. If he still doesn’t stop, try redirecting his attention. Be careful here, though. Don’t redirect his attention by presenting him with something fun or rewarding, because then you will only be rewarding the barking. Instead, close the curtains or block his view; call him into a different room: whatever it takes to distract him long enough for the barking to stop. Once he stops the barking—the very minute he stops—reward him for it. Follow the reward with a command word. The command word won’t work until he knows what it means. By showing him that stopping the barking is good, and then quickly following it by saying something like “good boy NO BARK” (using a pleasant tone of voice) will eventually teach your dog that “NO BARK” means STOP BARKING. Keep your commands and your “reinforcements” short and simple.
For instance, when my dogs go to the bathroom, I tell them “good boy/girl go potty!” They’ve learned to recognize when I am pleased with their behavior based on the tone of my voice. Eventually, I’m able to incorporate that same command BEFORE they go to the bathroom. I tell Eddie “Eddie, go potty.” He walks around and smells the ground for a minute, and then eventually goes to the bathroom. The minute he does, I reinforce the behavior by telling him, “GOOD BOY, GO POTTY.” At that point he usually runs to me with a stick or a ball, indicating that he knows he’s done well and he’s ready for his other reward…a game of catch. Normally, I love playing catch with Eddie. But, some days I’m too tired or there’s just too much to do to stop every time he does the right thing to play an entire game of catch. That’s OK. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing and throw a stick for 30 minutes. Just one toss is enough of a reward to teach your dog that going potty on command is a good thing.
Crate train. This one is important for dog owners who have young puppies or dogs that have never been properly potty-trained—like my two little ones. Crate training is not cruel and it’s not a punishment for your dog. BUT, if your crate training is to be successful, you have to make the crate a happy place. In order to do that, bribe your pet into the crate using a treat. Don’t lock him in there right away; just leave the door open. Once he goes in to get his treat, reward him with a vocal command, like “Good boy in your room!” If I were you, I would even follow up the vocal reward with another treat. Do this over and over several times until your dog no longer seems fearful of his crate. Eventually, you will be able to shut the door for a moment. Don’t leave it closed for too long. The point is to avoid creating a fearful situation and turn the crate into a happy, safe place. It may take time with some dogs, but believe me—it’s an incredibly wise use of your time. Once your dog is OK with being in the crate with the door closed for some time, you can start leaving him in there for a few hours. It should only take one or two days before he can stay in his crate for an extended period of time.
But, do remember; NEVER leave your dog in a crate for more than eight hours at a time. For puppies, the general rule is that a dog should only be crated for as many months as he is old, plus one. For example, a six-month only puppy can remain crated for seven hours. Puppies have small bladders, and it’s really important to avoid accidents in the crate. The crate will become your dog’s personal space, and dogs don’t like to go to the bathroom where they sleep. Even if your dog sleeps with you at night, he should still use his crate when you are away. If he’s in the crate while you are away, chances are he is sleeping. If he’s given the opportunity to have an accident in his crate too many times, you are going to have much more trouble potty training him in your home. Effective potty training in your home starts with effective potty training in the crate.
If your dog is already potty trained and you don’t need to use a crate, that’s OK too. But, be sure your dog still has a place where he can retreat in stressful or fearful situations. Remember, dogs are den animals. They’re natural inclination is to retreat to a safe, enclosed space where they can decompress in stressful situations or simply take a break from the world around them. Our dog, Jack, has a little bed in a closet in our living room. He has beds all over the house, but he loves his “doggy motel” in the closet. We hung a curtain from the wall (the closet doesn’t have a door) and he can come and go to sleep in his den as he pleases.
Play with your dog. Teach him as many fun tricks as possible. In teaching your dog to do tricks, you are actually teaching him to learn and communicate with you effectively.
Walk your dogs…for smaller or low energy dogs; just take a short ten-minute walk. For larger or high-energy dogs, do at least 30 minutes a day. The walk should not take the place of mental stimulation/exercise. It’s to help you bond with your dog, to teach him how to listen and communicate effectively, and to allow him time for crucial doggy behavior…like smelling and marking. For those dog owners whose dogs behave badly on walks….try using a no-pull harness or a gentle leader. AGAIN, NO CHAIN OR PINCH COLLARS. Dogs don’t understand why they’re being physically reprimanded. It’s proven. They don’t get it. Plus you risk hurting them…there are several ways in which these negative training techniques can physically harm your dog. Don’t use them.
For Lee-C, we use a backpack filled with a few water bottles. She feels like she has a job to do and it gives her extra exercise. Every time she pulls, I stop walking. I stand there until she stops pulling. Once she stands still or sits, and then looks up at me, I start walking again. Sometimes this takes a while, and your neighbors might think you’re going insane with all that stopping and starting. But, eventually IT WILL PAY OFF. Bring a paper bag filled with your dog’s favorite treats. Reward him whenever he does not pull. But, don’t expect him not to pull until you’ve taught him not to pull. Teaching him involves removing the bad reward and replacing it with a good one. In other words…think about why your dog is pulling. Does he want to mark on every tree? Does he want to bark at other dogs? Does he want to greet people? Is he just excited? Whatever is making him want to pull, remove that reward. For instance, when he pulls so that he can bark or chase another dog, stop dead in your tracks. He’s not allowed to move forward or greet anyone until he stops pulling. Removing his reward (when it’s bad) is really important. If every time your dog pulls you, he gets to where he wants to go, he will keep pulling you. But, if every time he pulls you, you stop walking until he no longer pulls, he will stop. Especially if he learns he can get his reward if he cooperates and does it the way you want him to do it. Don’t lose patience with him, though. Dogs are not humans and it can take some time before he understands what you expect from him.
Exercise is important but mental stimulation is arguably even more important. Give your dog a job to do…be it learning tricks, picking up toys, comforting sick kids in a hospital, learning to close doors, or walking with a backpack on…. dogs need to feel useful too.
Don’t put your dog in a situation where he feels the need to defend himself. I’ve made this mistake before…several times. Remember, your dog can’t say no. It’s your responsibility to keep him safe and feeling non-threatened. It’s not fair to ask your dog to tolerate children pulling on him or people teasing him. Eventually, he will bite. And, then…that could result in your dog developing or harboring a very specific fear, which can be a recipe for disaster. In other words, don’t back him into a corner. He can’t tell people to fuck off. But, he can bite. And, if you were backed into a corner with no other way to communicate your fear or need for spatial boundaries, you’d bite too.
Remember that when a dog bites, its instinct is to kill. If your dog bites and then runs or lets go and retreats, he is actually demonstrating a massive amount of self-restraint. He’s saying no, or stop, or I’m scared, or that’s mine…. he’s communicating the only way he knows how.
Use your dog’s breed to your (and his) advantage. This one goes hand-in-hand with numero once. Use your dog’s breed and innate behaviors to figure out the best job for him and the best reward for him. Jack is what we call a comfort dog. When LB is sick, he will lay in bed with her for hours and hours. Riley is a terrier. She likes to chase little animals and burrow under blankets. I hide fluffy toys under the blankets and let her look for them. She loves it. And, afterwards, she sleeps. That means no pesky yipping for hours when she’s bored. For Lee-C and Eddie, we do herding and hiking on the weekends, but we also take Eddie for car rides (he thinks the car is his own personal sheep herding vessel) and we teach them to bring us things and do small chores around the house. Seriously. If you have a highly intelligent breed (or if you’re very patient and very clever) teach your dog to put his toys away or pick up trash around the house and dump it in the trash can.
Make sure everyone who comes into contact with your dogs is on board with all of your training. Consistency is the key, and if you want your dog to behave whenever people come to your home, make sure other people are following your dog’s rules. Post the rules on the door if you have to…whatever it takes. This one is particularly tough for us, because we can get Lee-C to behave perfectly, until other people come over. We’re still working on it….
Never teach your dog something that you don’t want him to do all the time—over and over. When Eddie wants to play, he will run around our entire house and shut every single door in the house. When Lee-C wants us to pet her, she will roll over obsessively and cover her eyes with her paws like she’s “crying”. She rubbed the skin around her nose raw. So, now I don’t ask her to do that trick anymore.
A Few Extra Tips for New Dog Owners or Those Considering Bringing A Dog Into Their Home
Touch your dog’s feet, ears, teeth, and get him used to being handled. For older dogs that have already developed bad habits, approach this tip with caution. Slow, progressive steps towards an ultimate goal are the safest and most successful method for this tip and any other tip out there. Your mood, your tone, your actions…all of those things have a major impact on your animal. If you display anxiety, so will he. If you’re angry or upset, he or she may feel threatened or scared. If you teach your dog aggressive habits, not only are you an asshole, you should also be prepared for your dog to practice those habits both on command and off.
And please don’t buy a dog only to segregate it from the family. Dogs are social animals. They prefer and even need to feel part of a family unit. If you’re intent is to buy a dog and leave it tied out back alone or hole it up in a dark basement…don’t bother getting one in the first place.
Consider rescuing before buying a dog. Their behavior will be much more predictable, contrary to popular belief. These dogs have usually been thoroughly assessed. Also, if you do buy a dog, always buy from a reputable breeder.
And, I can’t emphasize this one enough: Punishment DOES NOT WORK. If anything, it creates a fearful, untrusting relationship between you and your pet. And, for some particularly ornery pets out there (ahem, Lee-C, for instance) negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Also, using choke collars, bark collars, and electric collars is NOT A FIX FOR BAD BEHAVIOR. It’s an unfair punishment that your dog does not understand. There are FAR better ways to redirect bad behavior. If your dog is misbehaving, chances are it’s because you have failed to train him effectively…or he just doesn’t like you.