Your Guide to Dog Training: How To Tackle the Basics of Behavioral and Obedience Training

Key Points

  • Your dog is an individual with a unique personality and independent desires and needs.

  • Once you commit to dog ownership, your dog is completely dependent on you to supply all their needs, which includes education.

  • Using positive reinforcement is a humane and effective training method for modifying a dog's behavior.

  • This guide outlines the basics of behavioral and obedience training so your dog becomes a well-educated family member.

Humans have lived with dogs and loved them for thousands of years. The scientific community now understands that dogs and humans have an innate, DNA-level ability to love each other. Living with a dog in your home requires you to educate your canine friend, who has a distinct personality and independent needs, to coexist harmoniously in one of the most rewarding relationships — the human-dog bond.

Educating Your Dog

Your dog innately wants to learn from you and indeed learns from you. It is your responsibility as your dog’s guardian to be the best human for them, and this means giving them the best education. Once you commit to dog ownership, your dog is completely dependent on you to supply all their needs. 

An Educated Dog Is a Life Saved

Researchers Bailey Eagan et al. published in the journal Frontiers of Veterinary Science that “Behavioral problems have been reported to be the cause for the relinquishment of dogs to shelters, and relinquishment may, in some cases, be due to only one behavioral issue.”

Too many dogs perish in animal shelters for dog-related or guardian-related reasons. Providing ongoing education for your dog so they are comfortable and sociable members of society is life-saving. 

This guide outlines the basics of teaching your dog to be a well-educated family member. 

Foundational Training

Think of training your dog as reinforcing all of the good behaviors your dog already knows how to do, such as sit, lie down, quietly remain in one place, or go potty. Consider all the things that the quintessential perfect dog, in your estimation, does, and begin systematically rewarding those behaviors. 

Look at your dog: Are they doing something you want them to do? If so, reward them for it with something they esteem valuable. They are likely to repeat that desirable behavior. Are they doing a behavior you don’t want? Change the subject by distracting them, and as soon as they do any acceptable behavior, even if it’s just looking away or staying quiet for a moment, immediately reward it. 

Teaching Methods

The foundation of positive reinforcement training is rewarding your dog for a behavior so they are likely to repeat the behavior. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for shaping and even changing your dog’s behavior, and it’s the fastest, most humane way of educating your dog with their best interest in mind. 

Clicker training is another form of positive reinforcement, where the dog expects a reward when they hear a stimulus, such as a click or the word “Yes!” Conditioned reinforcers are faster and more precise than primary reinforcers, such as food, so the dog accurately identifies the specific behavior you want them to repeat. 

Sometimes, dogs exhibit natural and healthy behaviors in ways or locations that are inconvenient or undesirable for humans. People tend to think of “problem” behavior, but it’s up to you to educate your dog when and where they express ordinary behaviors. An example is potty training: Eliminating is healthy and necessary, and your pup must know when and where, as well as have ample opportunities, to use the appropriate area you decide as their potty. 

Occasionally, you want your dog to change their behavior for a variety of reasons. The good news is that do-over-dogs, those pups who need to re-learn the basics or even completely update their education, are also teachable. Using positive reinforcement to change behavior is a great way for your dog to re-learn desired behaviors.   

Critical Puppy Socialization

Puppies have a critical developmental period between two and 16 weeks of age. Primary socialization between three to five weeks is the most influential stage of a puppy’s life. This is the stage where puppies learn to approach and interact with humans and other animals, social cues, bite inhibition, social hierarchies, and other important behaviors. If puppies don’t receive the right socialization or leave their litters before eight weeks, they are likely to show deficits in these vital areas. Continued adult dog socialization is equally important to develop appropriate outgoing, friendly, and confident behavior. 

The foremost puppy socialization authority, veterinarian Dr. Ian Dunbar states it clearly: “Prior to eight weeks of age, puppies need to be safely and gently exposed to as many different environments as possible and to interact with and be hugged, handled, handfed and trained by at least 100 people, especially children, strangers, and men, and then by at least another 100 people during the first month in their new homes.”

It’s hard to overstate how critical early and ongoing socialization is for your puppy. Dogs are able to learn manners and basic obedience at any time during their lives. Though behavior problems are resolvable at any time in a dog’s life, it’s best to teach good habits from the very beginning.

It is important to address temperament issues in puppies early on to avoid the difficult and time-consuming process of rehabilitating adult dogs. Prior to three months of age, before your puppy is fully vaccinated, safely socialize puppies by bringing people to them and avoiding high dog traffic areas such as public spaces or veterinary clinic parking lots. Doing so prevents the risk of contracting puppy diseases such as parvovirus.

Perfect Potty Habits

After socialization, error-free potty habits are a critical early skill to teach. Control your puppy’s access to your home by keeping them tethered to you on a leash while they’re awake. Every two hours, as well as after they finish eating, wake from sleep, and after every playtime, take your puppy to their designated potty area.

Make a huge fuss when your puppy produces and immediately reward them with the highest value treat your puppy loves. Do this each and every time your puppy eliminates in their designated potty area. 

Crate Training

When you aren't able to keep your pup tethered to you, teach your puppy that being inside a crate is a wonderful experience. To crate train your puppy, toss a few of their favorite treats into the crate with the door closed while your puppy is outside the crate, so they want to get inside. Then, open the crate, let your pup gobble the treats, and exit. Play this quick game several times throughout the day. 

Next, close the crate door for a few moments while tossing treats down from outside the crate while the puppy is inside. Gradually build to leaving the door closed with your pup inside for slightly longer periods until, eventually, you leave the room for a few moments, then several seconds, then a few minutes. Build up slowly until your puppy is happy being alone in the crate. 

Reinforce your crate training by always leaving a stuffable toy, such as a Kong, filled with your puppy’s food or treats. Toss a food-stuffed toy in the crate to occupy your puppy whenever you leave them in the crate for any amount of time. Feeding your puppy’s daily meals this way is excellent while crate training. 

A puppy only controls their bladder for one hour every month of age, so give regular access to their appropriate potty area. Always leave enjoyable and safe chew toys with your pup while they’re in their crate. Crate training must go hand in hand with plenty of exercise, play, and giving your pup ample freedom to use their bodies, minds, and noses.

Calming Dog Ad

Loose Leash Walking

Teaching your dog early in your relationship to walk calmly on a leash is worth it for a lifetime of payoff. Begin in a quiet, distraction-free area inside your home or yard. Clip the leash onto your pup’s properly fitted collar or harness, saying “Let’s go for a walk!” If your pup puts pressure on the leash or pulls, simply stop, hold the leash statically, and wait. 

It may seem like a long time, but be patient; your pup eventually sits. As soon as your dog sits, immediately encourage them to walk forward again with “Let’s go!” If your pup hits the end of the leash or pulls again, consistently wait for your pup to sit and then continue along your walk together. Avoid giving the sit cue, but rather wait for your pup to sit on their own.

Resources and Professionals

Enrolling in a basic obedience class is a wonderful opportunity to continue learning positive reinforcement techniques with your dog. A group setting is a useful forum for you to learn to teach your dog under the watchful eye of an experienced trainer. The results of a group class are a better-behaved, confident dog and better teamwork between the two of you.

It’s surprising how much ground the professional covers in a basic six-week training class, from learning sit, down, and stay when cued, how to walk on a loose leash, to resting comfortably on a mat when asked. These affordable classes usually address basic impulse control, allow you and your dog to work together during distractions, and teach primary training theory and how to use a clicker so that you are able to teach your own preferred behaviors in the future. 

Personalized Training

For specific needs like help with your new puppy, learning a particular skill, needing individual instruction in a specific dog sport, or needing help but you are only available at certain times, private lessons with a professional dog trainer are invaluable. 

The help and experience of a professional dog behaviorist working with you and your dog are necessary when facing remedial behaviors that need improvement. It’s always best to teach your dog what to do and reward the behavior you want rather than correcting them for making mistakes. Sometimes, problem behaviors still happen, and managing these behaviors in do-over dogs takes a strategic and positive approach. 

For do-over dogs, seek a certified canine behaviorist affiliated with the following organizations: American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), or the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). Refine your search specifically for a behaviorist rather than just a trainer. 

Choosing a Dog Trainer

Find a reliable and qualified dog trainer for expert advice tailored to your dog’s individual needs. Verify the trainer’s certifications and experience to be sure they have the expertise for the specific behaviors you are seeking help. Seek out an experienced trainer who has demonstrated proficiency in teaching dogs the specific needs you’re interested in and who also currently has students excelling in learning how to teach their own dogs. 

Importantly, if a trainer ever suggests using an electric collar, choke chain, prong collar, or any other aversive technique, politely but firmly decline. Keep searching until you find a qualified professional who uses up-to-date science-based positive reinforcement training. 

Canine Good Citizen

Graduation from many basic obedience classes often involves completing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program. The CGC is a recognizable benchmark that your dog is well-behaved in public, has the confidence and calmness to meet strangers, and conducts themself in busy crowds. 

The CGC boasts the principle that, given the right circumstances, all dogs are good dogs. With the right guidance, all dog owners have the ability to become great owners

Common Behavior Challenges and Solutions

Rather than trying to prevent behaviors you don’t want, think of changing the subject to a behavior you want your dog to offer and rewarding that action. When your dog is not rewarded for displaying a behavior, as in ignoring an unwanted behavior so that it is not reinforced, that behavior gradually diminishes. Ignoring behaviors you don’t want while rewarding behaviors you do is a fast track to success. 

Sometimes, the unwanted behavior itself rewards the dog. An example is barking at the mail delivery person. Every day the mail person arrives, the dog barks to defend their territory, and eventually, the mail person moves off, thereby reinforcing the dog by giving what they want, which is for the mail person to go away. This barking behavior is continually reinforced and strengthened day by day.

There are myriad ways to address barking in dogs, and one of those is the useful “Look at that!” game to counter-condition a learned response. Keep your dog below threshold, while you teach your dog to look at the exciting stimulus, then repeatedly reward them for staying calm while just looking at it.  

Play the Look At That Game

Have a very highly valuable reward that your dog loves, like pea-sized bits of hot dog or chicken in a handy pouch. Be sure you are at a distance and time where you control how close or far you are from the trigger. Always keep your dog under threshold (showing quiet and calm behavior) so that they notice the trigger without going over threshold. Sometimes, this means starting at a very far distance from the trigger. If your dog isn't able to see the trigger at any distance without going over threshold, practice first at home with a neutral target (anything that they do not react to). 

As soon as your dog glances at the trigger (the mail person, another dog, a car, or whatever your dog finds stimulating or scary), click or say “Yes!” to mark that behavior and give them a delicious treat. After your dog progresses to the point they are offering a glance toward the trigger, add the verbal cue “Look!” Your dog quickly starts to look at the scary or stimulating trigger when you give the “Look!” cue and then eagerly turns to you for a tasty tidbit. 

Continue rewarding their bravery, and keep sessions short by using only five to 10 tiny treats at a time. Give your dog frequent re-set breaks and make each session brief and positive. Keep practicing this game until your dog is calmly looking at the trigger in anticipation of the click. The end goal is a conditioned emotional response so that your dog remains calm when they see the trigger, and eventually, you completely fade the food treat.

Seek Professional Help When Necessary

If you find that even with positively reinforcing desired behaviors and teaching basic obedience, your dog is acting aggressively toward other dogs or people, please seek the help of a professional animal behaviorist. Ask your veterinarian for a reference for a certified animal behaviorist in your area, or seek intervention from a behavior specialist certified through the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), or the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). In the meantime, take extreme care to avoid putting your dog into situations that lead to aggression. 

Goals and Expectations

Setting realistic training goals is specific to each individual dog and even varies within individuals based on the dog’s age and their unique learning needs. Patience is everything. Even if there are setbacks, celebrate every small achievement as you progress along the training journey. 

Boldly use management strategies in your favor. If you need to crate your dog while you’re away, make arrangements for them to have plenty of exercise and play opportunities while out of their crate, but be free to know that when you arrive home, your pup is happy to see you and you’re happy to see them. If you need to avoid public spaces for an interim while you are working on changing target behaviors, it’s perfectly okay. Feeding your dog their daily meals inside a stuffable toy is an excellent way to establish calm, self-rewarding behavior.

Remember that many “problems” aren’t problems at all. It all depends on the context. It’s a matter of setting up your dog to succeed, finding the desired behavior when and where you want it, and consistently positively reinforcing those behaviors. 

cane corso puppy

Unlock the Genius of Your Dog

Science agrees with you; your dog is a great genius. It’s up to you to bring out their individual brilliance by providing the best possible education. The flow of happiness from your dog to you and the other way around is positively enforcing in and of itself. Your commitment to your dog includes effectively teaching them how to be a comfortable and confident member of society. 

Positive reinforcement training is quicker, longer lasting, and more effective in changing behavior and teaching dogs new behaviors. In June 2023, the Journal of Veterinary Behavior published research showing that “Positive reinforcement training is an effective and humane training technique for modifying animals’ behavior.” Positive reinforcement is your ally to preserve a great relationship with your dog, keep them mentally healthy, confident, and happy, and learn the behaviors that are important to you so your dog wins in life.

The benefit of structured help from a professional allows a deeper dive into using your voice and play as positive reinforcement and teaching reliable off-leash verbal control at a distance and with distractions. Pursue positive reinforcement to learn a dog sport like agility, disc dog, flyball, or dock diving. Wherever your journey with your canine friend takes you, enjoy the lifelong bond and positive behavior achieved through effective training.

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