What I’ve learned About Training a Dog


Dash&meNov14My father  insisted that if we have dogs, they be trained.  As kids under 12, we really didn’t know what we were doing, and my father was too busy growing a business to help us. So, in the 1960s, we got books from our school library, and my sister and I used treats to train the dog all sorts of ‘tricks’.  People who witnessed our ‘routine’ said we were cheating, and the dog would only work for a treat.  We’ve since learned that is not true, but back then—in the last century, people had all sorts of wacky notions about dog training.

I got MY first  dog—the one I was responsible for—an Afghan Hound, when I was 12, and  we found a dog training class.  People might not know this, but you either handed your dog over to a ‘professional’ dog trainer who had a kennel, and you didn’t see your dog for several weeks (and really didn’t know how he got your dog trained, in terms of methods) or you attended classes run by  amateur hobbyists.  We all used choke chains, and learned that it was vitally important to learn to ‘snap’ the chain, and that praise was very important.  Nobody used prong collars, and  certainly nobody used harnesses or Flexis.  It was always a  six foot leather leash (a nylon leash was believed to burn your hands if the dog pulled).  We did NOT use treats.

The experts at the time were Blanche Saunders, the Piersalls (Milo and Margaret), the Volhards (Joachim and Wendy)  and Koehler (who believed in  roughing dogs up and  disorienting them—all dogs.  You read his book now and you have to cringe…).  Then, the Monks of New Skete  published, “How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend,” which I still refer  people to.  Also, Karen Pryor, and  Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson published their books.  More and more trainers were  stressing positive re-enforcement and behavior shaping using the clicker as a cue.  Now there  are thousands of great trainers who started by training their own pet dogs.

When I started, as an adolescent,  we were told to spend 15 minutes  a day, at one time,  so our dogs would ‘get it’—‘it’ being whatever we were trying to get our (confused) dog to understand.  Amazingly, we were able to train dogs in spite of ourselves!  So we dragged our dogs around for  15 minutes,  physically manipulating them, speaking to them in a foreign language (English), and they were  smart enough and resilient enough to get what we wanted them to do!

A few months ago, I got a 7-year-old dog who  had been returned to her breeder (the owner was in an accident and could not keep the  dog).  Venus was housebroken and could walk on a leash…and she could sit for a cookie.  She wasn’t a counter surfer, but she did bark at the neighbors (and it was apparent she had been debarked by the quality of her  tone).  She had been used to doing things her own way her entire life, and  she really had a lot of self-esteem.

VenusShe’s the type  who will jump up on you (happy to see you) and  lick and give what some people call ‘love nips’ but what I call biting.  So…I had to  reshape her behavior.  It was slow going at first.  While she didn’t panic when I  worked with her, her body language clearly said I am unhappy.  Confused, maybe a bit stressed.  Here was the giant talking  martian English.  One of my fellow dog club  member  suggested getting her used to the lingo.  Actually, this  is a modern  technique, and it helped:  catching her doing something I knew I wanted to command her to do, using the  language, and praising her for it. So does using what we call high value treats.  I get hot dogs from the dollar store, and we use string cheese as well.  One of my fellow trainers uses kangaroo and  alligator.  No dry dog biscuits for us!

Also, I ask her once, put her in the position, Treat, Praise, end of session, No nagging.  It took about a week to get a 30 second sit. About  three weeks to get a down.  A dog has to really be submissive to  do a down and lay prone.  We are on our way to understanding.

She knows she can’t bark at the neighbors, and  she knows I don’t want love nips (although  be forewarned:  do NOT enter our home unannounced! She will bite you!).  In any case, experiencing dog training this way—as behavior shaping—and practicing for a minute or two several times a day, we’re getting a trained dog.  So, I don’t understand  people thinking that  training the dog is  all that hard (unless the dog is brain damaged or genuinely stupid).  Now here’s  the deal:  If I had gotten her as a young pup—say at the age of eight to 12 weeks, she’d be trained like a Golden Retriever, Sheltie,  or Portuguese Water Dog…. but I was not going for a competition dog, I was going for a pet Whippet.  We are undoing lifelong habits here.  You would not have to do this with a puppy.

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3 Responses to “What I’ve learned About Training a Dog”

  1. mrsbmakesandbakes Says:

    I feel like my whippet pup, about a year old is dumb as a box of rocks some days, going to try these techniques!! She just gets scared even if I use a happy upbeat tone, she thinks she’s in trouble when she has to learn lol

    • disparateinterests Says:

      Debbie—Whippets aren’t stupid, but they are sensitive…and these days, most training techniques don’t take into account how sensitive sighthounds are. Take your time. If you get frustrated, stop and try later.

      • mrsbmakesandbakes Says:

        My older whippet was much easier to train. She responded really well to positive happy voices etc…mind you walking on a lead is still very hard, but she is great off lead at the beach!
        The little one is a loose cannon haha. I try not to get frustrated or show anger as I know they get upset easily. She is hilarious, boisterous and outgoing, sometimes I think she has doggy adhd! Will keep persisting.

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