What are we training our dogs and why?
Updated: May 17
As our dog's carers we need to help them be safe and stress-free, and this involves some training. We should teach a leave for those occasions when a dog gets something they shouldn't have, muzzle training may be advised for some dogs (see muzzleupproject.com), to reduce stress train the dog to cope with those situations they struggle with (i.e. firework desensitizing and 'counter-conditioning' to associate the noise with good things), we want nice loose lead 'connected' walking so we can keep the dog safe near roads and have connection for when something stressful happens and recall (even if never off lead outside house/secure field). Crate training for those emergency vet cases where the dog will be put in a crate (note that I do not agree with routinely putting dogs in closed crates, if a dog needs to be contained while training occurs to address an issue, then set up a penned off area with lots of fun things in and train the dog to be happy in its area). Consent training (like a chin rest while being examined) is good to help dogs when at the vets.
Dogs like to please us and training can, and always should be, fun. As part of the training we can teach lots of things, some may be useful at some point like 'touch my hand' to encourage connection, 'bed' for when we would like the dog to calm down, and some may be less useful but are just fun for carer and dog. Training activities are great if they allow the dog to be a dog, for example dig for a toy, find and fetch to use the dogs nose to locate hidden items which allows them to use their natural skills (part of genetic prey-drive sequence built into our dogs). Any activity using the dogs natural dog instincts help them to de-stress, they are mentally and physically enriching. A tug game for a dog who enjoys it does no harm, contrary to some opinions we are not teaching our dog bad habits, do however be careful not to tug too strongly and tug along the line of the dogs spine, let the dog win so it doesn't get frustrated. We want training to be fun, we want the dog to succeed so it gets lots of praise and rewards and we want it to be safe. Teaching our dogs how to ask for things helps them be confident and not get frustrated if their communication is not understood, for example my dogs have a button to press to say they want to go into the garden.
Do not get hung up on some of the traditional obedience training, when walking we want the dog to sniff around not be glued to our leg, we don't need to teach sit, for some dogs it is very uncomfortable, a calm wait will suffice if needed. http://www.turid-rugaas.no/sit.html is one of many posts on not insisting dogs sit all the time. Training that uses the dogs natural skills and senses, is fun, and builds the dogs confidence as they make good choices for themselves is where to focus. Young dogs and puppies need mental enrichment and alongside interactive toys and puzzles fun training can provide it but keep sessions short and regular throughout day, and remember the dog needs time to rest too. Finish play sessions with a calming activity. Training sessions can start with a cue like 'playtime' so the dog starts to recognise when training/play time is starting and if it is regular the dog will likely wait for the cue to train/play rather than get frustrated asking for it.
A number of behaviours could be covered by the Universal Hand Signal, giving the dog the 'choice to co-operate': https://www.facebook.com/nordicdogtrainer/videos/673382660316421 Allowing dogs to choose what to do rather than always following cue's gives them confidence and they could be more likely to make the right choice in other more novel situations.
I do not believe a dog should ever have to earn it's right to basic needs: food (some can be held back along with higher value treats to make training more special for the dog), water, exercise, emotional connections (petting, grooming, massage, perhaps sleeping together). Our dogs deserve these items for being part of our family unit. Feeding can be mentally enriching for the dog using snuffle mats, licky mats and puzzle/interactive toys. These items also slow down the feeding which helps the dog process the food better. Being near the dog as they eat allows you to share in what is a good time for the dog but I personally would never interfere in their feeding, just be there and enjoy watching them snuffle out their food. Hand feeding a dog is too much of an interference for me, aside from those bits held back for training. A nervous dog will be stressed by hand-feeding, the conflict between approaching someone and wanting food. 'Nothing In Life is Free' is a process encouraged by some trainers, it harks back to dominance theories in my book, making the dog recognise you as being in charge of all resources (food, play and exercise is with-held until the dog asks for it in the way you prescribe), totally unnecessary, the dog knows you are in control of the valued resources, who does it go to when you open the dog food cupboard ! All of the dogs basic needs should be freely given.
Dogs may need help learning how to relax, reward them for going to their bed for a rest and nap, this is far more valuable than a 'sit'. Mat training can be used to encourage the dog to relax in different scenarios, useful link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr1olzgidMw
This is a process for teaching relaxation: https://journeydogtraining.com/karen-overalls-relaxation-protocol/
Do be sure to not overload your dog with training and games, allow them plenty of time to 'just be', be guided by what they enjoy doing. Training and games will hopefully build a great engagement between carer and dog so they will look to you for help when feeling emotionally unsure, you become their safety net, they trust you to keep them safe.
Some interesting links: ACE freework: https://caninecompilation.com/free-work-enrichment-for-dogs/ which can help us to learn what the dog enjoys while giving mental enrichment.
Pattern games – buildingbondstraining.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Reactive-Dog-Pattern-Games-with-Links.pdf can help build confidence and engagement.
https://www.facebook.com/susangarrettdogagility/videos/402999888299327 - 20 games to play at home, physical and mental enrichment.