Unlike coolly indifferent cats, who will knock snowglobes off dressers and sleep in laundry baskets as long as they live, dogs want to learn.
Grayson White Boudreaux, owner of DogMa Pet Care of New Orleans (504-812-8088; www.dogmacare.com), says canine curiosity is one of the best weapons in a trainer's arsenal. Effective trainers trust that dogs are rational — in their own way.
"[They're] eternally opportunistic creatures. ... [In training, the dog is] figuring out 'The more correct choices I make, that makes my life better,'" she says.
Most styles of obedience training share underlying themes of consistency, structure and awareness of your dog's needs and abilities. Three trainers offer tips.
Puppies should start obedience training as early as possible. Ann Becnel, owner of Ann Becnel Companion Dogs (6107 West End Blvd., 504-616-6067; www.abcompaniondogs.com) says "peak socialization" takes place between eight and 12 weeks old. During that time, expose the dog to different environments and types of people (think children, the elderly, people with beards, people in wheelchairs). This helps the dog become comfortable in unfamiliar situations.
Different age groups of dogs have different attention spans. Adult dogs can handle longer training lessons, while puppies should have several short daily sessions with frequent breaks.
Consistency is key. Boudreaux compares training a dog to teaching a toddler. Even though the concepts are simple, the dog won't understand if you don't act the same every time in response to a behavior. Set clear boundaries and consistently reinforce positive behavior with treats, petting or encouraging words. Don't expect the dog to pick up things on its own.
It may take some time for your pet to respond to the same command in different environments. Dogs have trouble generalizing and extrapolating, so a "down" or "sit" command that seems hard-wired at home may take additional training for expeditions to the park.
Link corrections to positive actions. "You don't want to get in the habit of constantly telling the dog no," Boudreaux says. "Your dog's getting frustrated, and so are you." Dogs can recognize what you mean by a hard "no," but interrupting the behavior without further instructions creates turmoil and confusion. Follow "no" with a request for a behavior (like "sit.") This can be used to great effect when correcting existing bad habits. For example, dogs that jump on guests can be trained to go to a specific place in the house when visitors arrive so they can interact with the new person in a controlled way.
Practice leash discipline. Many dogs struggle with leash reactivity and exhibit actions including jumping and pulling when someone approaches. This often is learned in puppyhood, when attention from passersby encourages bad behavior.
"If it's a friendly puppy, that puppy is getting reinforcement for jumping and carrying on and not paying attention to their owner," Becnel says.
A vest or collar that says "do not pet" or a polite mention that your dog is in training and prefers not to be petted can help discourage neighbors and their pets from disrupting your dog's walk and exacerbating leash-related issues.
Let responses (or lack thereof) to commands inform your training. When a dog won't obey a command, it generally doesn't mean the animal is being difficult or ignoring you. This is a sign that the association hasn't been made between the command and a behavior (in trainer-speak, the behavior isn't "proofed").
Boudreaux suggests asking for a behavior twice. If the dog doesn't respond, it tells you it doesn't know the command and suggests an area to focus on in future sessions. Repeating a command the dog doesn't know can make it harder to learn that command in the future.
Above all, dogs thrive in a world with rules. At The Good Dog Training & Rehabilitation (818-441-1837; www.thegooddogtrainingneworleans.com), founder Sean O'Shea says problems such as biting often stem from environments that are too permissive. It's fine to dote on your dog, but affection has to be tempered with rules and structure.
"Ninety-nine percent of behavior issues come from dogs being stressed and anxious from not having enough information about what's OK and what's not OK," he says. Overstimulated, stressed-out dogs are unpredictable, which can lead to a crisis.
According to O'Shea, dogs don't need a firm daily routine, but they do need structure and rituals they can rely on ("If I do X, I get Y.") This soothes anxiety and goes a long way toward correcting burgeoning behavioral issues.
If you see early signs of aggression such as growling or staring over a food bowl or snapping, seek help from a professional trainer.