Training Essentials

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by Victoria Stilwell
From Nov/Dec 2011 Bark Magazine

Recent Statistics indicate that in the U.S. 90 percent of owned dogs have no formal training. Since dogs share our homes and our lives, it is more important than ever that they receive a good canine education. Doing so would prevent a heartbreakingly large number from being surrendered to shelters due to behavior problems that could have been avoided had they been addressed earlier. Investing the time to teach your dog will make life easier for both of you, and could quite literally save her life. Here’s how it works.

1. Builds a positive relationship. One of the best ways to build a healthier relationship with your dog is to understatnd how canines learn and use the principles of positive reinforcement. Traditional trainers argue that in order to achieve so-called “balance” with your dog, you must first teach her who is boss by becoming her “alpha,” or pack leader. This approach is doomed to fail from the ourset because the methods used to establish this dominant status are physically and psychologically damaging to your dog and dangerous for you. Positive training, which rewards and motivates a dog for good behavior, allows you to foster a relationship based on mutual trust and respect instead of fear and intimidation. The most effective teachers are those who can influence behavior without the use of force and work through problems in a humane manner. Dogs who are trained using positive reinforcement methods are more tolerant and self-controlled, and behave much more predictably.

2. Teaches life skills. Every dog needs to learn how to live successfully in a home environment. Domestic dogs might seem to have an easy life compared to their wild cousins, but living in a human world comes with certain pressures. Teaching your dog where to potty and providing her with mental stimulation and physical exercise can prevent her from developing anxiety and other stress-related behaviors such as destructive chewing, inappropriate barking and aggressive display. An important part of the learning process is to set your dog up for success by managing her environment and making it easy for her to do the right thing.

3. Increases sociability. Fostering your dog’s enjoyment of social interaction will give her the confidence to deal with the demands of domestic life. Training your dog to have good manners and behave well in a variety of situations requires effort, but consistent commitment ensures success. We have high expectations of our dogs, encouraging them to be friendly with everyone they meet even if they are uncomfortable. It is therefore vital to socialize your dog by making sure she has good experiences with all kinds of people, animals and environments. Doing so while she’s young will give her confidence and lessen the chance of her experiencing anxiety and discomfort in adulthood.

4. Short-circuits problem behaviors. Training your dog builds a language of communication, which promotes security and comfort. The more time you invest in teaching your dog to live successfully in a human world, the more likely you are to avoid problem behaviors that come from lack of understanding. Unfortunately, many dogs end up being punished for negative behavior that could have been avoided if their people had taken time to help them learn a better way.

5. Deepens loyalty and companionship. Positive reinforcement does not mean that you ignore your dog’s misbehaviors, just that the method you choose to respond to them involves constructive guidance rather than intimidation. Discipline in the form of time-outs, removal, vocal interrupters or simply ignoring behavior that you do not like is far more effective than harsh suppression. Guiding your dog into making the right choices and understanding what she needs to be happy will increase the bond between you.

People who make time to teach their dogs lead more fulfilling lives with their canine companions. A healthy balance of learning manners, encouraging sociability and providing the right kind of outlets ensures success. People who fail to give their dogs the education they need are doing them a great disservice and will have problems in the future. The learning process does not have to be costly or intense, and the more enjoyable it is for both of you, the better the results will be.

Victoria Stilwell, star of Animal Planet’s popular “It’s Me or the Dog,” is the author of two books and active with international rescue groups. For more info or to find a Victoria Stilwell-licensed dog trainer visit positively.com.