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Key Components of Training: Pt 1

How do you train a dog? This 4 part series breaks down the key components that go into building solid behaviors with your dog. Communication, Motivation, Relationship, and Reliability. Part 1: Communication.

Communication. As a trainer, I often see dog owners talking to their dogs constantly. This tends to teach your dog to tune you out and devalues communication especially when you need it. If you want your dog to listen to you more, keep it simple. In fact, the simpler it is, the better and faster your dog will learn. How to keep it simple?

Focus on the four parts of communication.

  1. Command (once a behavior has been taught): When giving your dog a command, it needs to be said assertively. You're not asking your dog to sit. You're telling your dog to sit. You don't need to say it forcefully or furious, but give instructions to your dog with authority. You're in charge. Don't be a roommate.

  2. Wanted behavior: marking behavior in a specific moment of time of behaviors that you like, and want the dog to continue doing. I recommend saying "good" in a higher tone. Think of it as a clicker. Click or mark it when you like it. We pair "good" with a reward such as a treat to help the dog understand "good" means something positive and has a rewarding outcome.

  3. Unwanted behavior: marking behavior in a specific moment of time for behaviors you don't like, and want them to stop doing. My recommendation for an unwanted marker word is whatever comes naturally to you at the moment. "Uh-Uh" is a very common marker word we use for telling our dogs that's not what we want. Sometimes "no" or "ack" can be said. It is important this marker word is said in a lower, sharp tone. Mean it! No means No. Just like pairing our wanted behavior marker word with something positive, we can add something negative to our unwanted behavior marker word to give it more value and meaning. This can be leash pressure or leash pop, or maybe stepping in and clapping your hands loudly.

  4. Release: a word you use to allow your dog to be released out of their command and come to you to be rewarded! I recommend saying a word that you don't commonly use. My clients use "free" for their release word. It should be said in an exciting and positive tone! They just earned their reward! Payday! I don't recommend saying "okay" to be released because it is too common of a word that we use daily. I've had clients' dogs release themselves because their owners were having a conversation with someone else and said "okay". It is important for your dog to understand when you are talking to them, especially when being released, but it is also important to set your dog up for success. Having a different word you don't use as frequently for the release word is best!

When I am communicating with a dog, I focus on those 4 basic parts of communication. I fluctuate with my tones because dogs pay more attention when tones change. In fact, a good example of tones in dog training is herding breeds working cattle or sheep. Whistle tones give them instructions on what direction to go, when to stop, when to go, how fast or how slow, etc. Tones matter!! Training will excel if you have different tones in your communication.

Remember keep it simple! Here's how: I give the command. When the dog follows through, I mark their behavior with "good". If my dog breaks that command before giving the release, I mark it with "Uh-Uh", redirect back to what I need the dog to do by giving the command, and again mark "good" when my dog is back in the position I want. Upon giving the release, I will reward the dog which can include praise words. ("Command" + "Good" + "Uh-Uh" + "Command" + "Good" + "Free" + Reward/Praise) I'm not adding a ton of other words to the equation.

Now when it comes to communication, we focus a lot on our words. Of course, that's important. However, more important is communication with our body. As a trainer, it's easy to teach owners how to communicate verbally with our dogs. Everyone can understand that. Teaching owners how to communicate with their bodies can sometimes be challenging. Some owners pick up how to move and the timing of movement really well. Others struggle. We say so much with our bodies without realizing it. Did you know, dogs will even watch where our eyes go to look? They are experts at body language. More so than us.

So how do you communicate with your body? There are several ways we communicate and use body language to our advantage. Whether it be in a training session or on a daily basis.

There are 2 types of body movement: natural and unnatural. Natural movement is smooth and calm, and it flows. Unnatural movement is jerky, fast, and stops and goes. There are times when I need to move smoothly, usually when I don't want to disrupt my dog's behavior, and other times when I need to be fast and spasmodic in situations when I need their attention or to step in to fix a behavior.

Using your body language to communicate with your dog is an important aspect when becoming a leader to your dog. So carry yourself like one. If you're walking your dog, be confident in how you're handling your leash and walking down the street. They are looking for you to have control of the situation and your guidance for instruction.

Body pressure and taking up space are other ways we communicate with dogs. If your dog is doing a behavior you don't like, adding body pressure or moving into their space can give them information that you don't like what they are doing. An example is a dog barking at the window. Moving in towards them, and taking up the space at the window, sending the dog away, can communicate that barking at the window loses that privilege. Although body pressure can be beneficial in communicating, it also can have a detrimental effect on training. Some dogs can't take a lot of body pressure, and owners put too much on their dogs at the wrong time. I often see this in the beginning phases of training when owners are trying to teach a new concept to the dog.

Using your body to create space is also extremely important. Do you have a dog that likes to bolt through the door? Use your body to create space in a doorway. Ensure you go first through the door always. Then allow your dog to come through, but sometimes don't allow them. They don't always have to follow you through and should learn it's not an automatic thing. Doing this simple interaction will set up a respectful dog and create better and safe behaviors. Plus it teaches impulse control with door thresholds. Many of my board & trains that come to me for training, will rush me to go through a door (or gate) first. It's disrespectful. Dogs value their space, and rushing mine is not an admiring behavior, it's rude. I go first. Then I allow you to follow behind. I teach this by creating space with my body. If they have to wait for me to go through, and then enter/exit calmly, you won't have a dog that is ready to dash through the door at any opportunity.

It is important to understand how body language and movement play a vital role in helping build better behaviors with your dog. My goal is to help you communicate with your dog effectively. Remember, keep it simple verbally. Tones matter. And communicate with your body.

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