Today we continue our new puppy series by introducing some information about obedience training, why it’s important, what the real deal is about training with food, and how it all works. In our next post we will dive right in by teaching you how to train your dog to lie down.
Why should I train my dog in obedience?
Teaching your puppy obedience is extremely important. You may find your dog in a situation that requires them to sit and stay immediately so they do not get injured. In some instances, it can even save your dog’s life. For example, I remember years ago I was walking from my dad’s house to my mom’s house which was about two blocks away. My mom had a bad habit of letting my yorkie Watson outside to go potty without a leash because he was typically very good about staying in the yard. As I approached the rather busy road between the houses I noticed him sniffing around in the backyard that faced the road. Unfortunately a moment later Watson picked up his head and saw me waiting to cross the road and immediately began running directly towards me.
I panicked for a moment watching all the cars whizzing by and my 6 pound dog running right for them with me stuck on the wrong side of a potentially horrible situation. I quickly held out my hand in a classic “stop” position, and yelled out “Watson, SIT!” Because he had been trained in basic obedience my dog miraculously skidded to a stop and sat down about three feet from the road. He looked rather perplexed, but I thanked him under my breath and told him to stay as I watched the cars waiting for my chance to cross safely and collect my dog. He continued to sit safely on the other side of the road until I could pick him up and give him the praise jackpot of his life!
Obedience training is not overly complicated, but it does take some time and patience on your part. Shorter more frequent sessions are always best so neither you nor your puppy gets bored or frustrated. Always try to end your training sessions on a good note even if it means having to regress a few steps to something you know your puppy has down cold.
What every dog should know
In a previous post, we covered how to teach your dog to sit on command. In the following blog posts you will learn how to teach your puppy down, stay, and come. Those are the most basic of obedience commands that every single dog should know how to perform, and should be able to perform in any setting no matter the environment. If I had only trained Watson how to sit in the house there is no way he would have sat for me when we were outside next to a busy road. He was trained starting in the house, then in our yard, in parks around people, and on walks in strange places he had never explored.
How young is too young to train a puppy?
There is a misconception that dogs cannot be trained until they are 6 months of age. This dates back to aversive training methods such as choke collars, shock collars, etc. The reasoning behind this statement wasn’t that puppies didn’t have the mental capacity for learning until they were 6 months old, but more so, that a puppy’s fragile body couldn’t handle the corrections until they were a bit older and bigger. Using positive reinforcement training you can begin as early as 5 weeks of age. Younger dogs do not have a long attention span so if you are trying to train your 8 week old puppy, you will have to keep sessions short. You can, however, get a lot accomplished in those quick five minute sessions.
The Food Controversy, and why all dogs have gambling addictions!
Using food is one of the easiest and most fun ways to train any puppy. Food motivated dogs will learn even faster because they will do anything for that morsel! The key to training with food rewards is to give them frequently at first while the pup is learning the behavior and slowly begin to stretch the time in between rewards. If a dog learns that sit means food, and that food continues to magically appear while they remain seated then you will have a dog that sits automatically and waits calmly while sitting even in distracting environments.
A lot of puppy owners have concerns about using positive reinforcement to train their dogs because they feel their dogs will only listen to them if they have food with them at all times. While it is possible that your dog can train you into working for bribes, if you handle food correctly while training your dog you will not always need to have treats with you.
Dog behavior dictates that dogs will retire any behavior that is not rewarding to them. This does not happen instantly, however. If that were the case your puppy would stop jumping up on you after the first time you ignored the bad behavior. That didn’t happen though, did it? Dogs will eventually retire a non-rewarding behavior but only after trying it again several more times to see if they might get lucky with a reward. While that is a bit frustrating when you’re dealing with an undesirable behavior the same concept works in your favor for trained behaviors.
Think about a gambler at a slot machine. He plays and plays for a long time and eventually he wins a little bit of money. He will be more likely to continue playing and will accept all the times he spins and doesn’t win on the off chance he wins another jackpot.
Dogs work the same exact way. This is why they are like furry, four-legged gamblers.
If your dog performs a behavior and gets rewarded for it a few times he or she will continue to give you that behavior even if they get a lesser reward such as praise and petting, or no reward at all, simply on the chance that they get the good reward again.
Remember Watson’s story? I didn’t have any dog treats with me that day, but Watson still performed the behavior because he knew there was a chance he’d get a sweet reward out of the deal.
Food makes an excellent reward, but is important to handle food rewards correctly while training your puppy. Food lures are used at first to help your puppy move into the correct positions. It is important to retire the food lure as soon as possible. Once your puppy understands that sit means treat, chances are they will throw sits at you and a lure will no longer be needed. Keeping the reward out of sight once you retire the lure is important so that your dog doesn’t learn to look for the reward before they perform the desired behavior. A training pouch works great as well as simply keeping the treats in a pocket. Keep one treat hidden in your hand but ready to be delivered should your dog perform the correct behavior you are asking for.
Will I always have to carry treats around?
The short answer is no, you won’t. However, training your dog is like giving them a job to do. Listening to you and doing the behaviors you ask for is your dog’s job, and we pay them in love, praise and yes – food. Would you still work at your job if you stopped getting a paycheck? Although you don’t have to reward them with food every single time they perform a command it is still a good idea to surprise them with a food reward once in a while. This reinforces the gamble that your dog is taking when performing that behavior.