Fifteen Secrets to Success in Dog Training

15 Secrets to Success in Dog Training


  1. Dog training is not about ‘dominance and obedience’. It is all about providing consequences and using positive reinforcement to shape behaviour. The principle role of an effective dog trainer is to encourage compliance through positive outcomes, as opposed to delivering punishment (negative consequences). For this reason, think of commands as cues to prompt desired behaviour, then reinforce compliance. Cues don’t drive behaviour, consequences do.


  1. Keep your dog calm and free of distractions so he remains focused and attentive. Get his attention first, then teach him what you want him to do, using small, progressive steps. Teaching him to be calm and to ‘settle’ is a fundamental step in early training. Only increase the level of distractions once he has got the basic idea.


  1. Dogs don’t speak English! Understand that you are communicating with a dog, so develop an effective ‘human to dog’ language using simple, consistent cues, both visual and verbal. Don’t expect immediate understanding and compliance until he learns the language – a process called ‘word association’ – through the positive reinforcement of desired behaviours (compliance).


  1. Establish a positive reinforcer word/sound, such as “Yes!” (or the click of a clicker), as your first step in training a puppy or young dog. Once this positive reinforcer is imprinted into the dog’s psyche, it is used to pinpoint the dog’s correct responses to your cues, at the split second he performs the desired action. This will dramatically improve his level of understanding and rate of progress. To imprint the positive reinforcer, it must initially be repeatedly sounded, then immediately followed by a reward. Do this ten times in a minute, then take a break for a minute. The dog does not need to be in any particular position for this exercise. Repeat this cycle six times, at least four times a day, for a week. Gradually increase the level of distractions and say “Yes!” when he is not paying attention. You should see his head snap around to face you as imprinting is achieved, looking for his treat, which must always follow the “Yes!”. This process establishes a positive association with the positive reinforcer sound – “Yes!” – so that a high level of anticipation is created in the dog. He will begin to perform – to strive – to hear the positive reinforcer sound, knowing that good things are about to follow. The importance of this process cannot be emphasised enough.


  1. Timing is everything in dog training! It is critical to provide split-second-accurate positive reinforcers and timely rewards when the dog performs an exercise correctly. This not only tells  him he’s got it right – but when he gets it right – which greatly improves the chance that he’ll perform the desired action again the next time you ask for it. Reward both effort and improvement initially, not just perfect results. Ideally, reinforcement should be within two seconds of the action/positive reinforcer, but can eventually become more intermittent.


  1. Establish a release word early in a dog’s training to indicate when he is allowed to move from a static position in which you have placed him (such as a sit, drop, heel or recall etc). The best release word is “Free!”, but “Okay!” works well, too. The release word is also used to indicate when he is allowed to approach his bowl, leave his mat, or that the training session has ended and playtime can begin. Establishing a release word is essential for effective training, and dramatically increases the dog’s understanding of the training process

  1. Ignore unwanted behaviour, but be quick to provide positive reinforcement for desired behaviour. Never punish the dog for undesirable behaviour or for doing it ‘incorrectly’ – there is no ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ behaviour – he simply doesn’t understand, and punishment will confuse him and create fear. He will learn much faster if you focus on rewarding him for doing what you want, not punishing him for doing it wrong, or for being ‘bad’.


  1. Increase the degree of difficulty very gradually. Training for each individual action must begin in a quiet environment and progression to a more difficult environment must not occur until the action has been ‘proofed’ (become reliably compliant) at the previous level. E.g. Train ‘sit’ in a quiet room, then move out to the hallway, then in the quiet lounge room, then a busier family room, then the quiet back yard, then the noisier front yard, then the street, then the park (on-lead) and finally, way down the track, train for ‘sit’ at the off-leash park. This process could take months of training. Jumping from the lounge room straight to the off-leash park will result in failure, yet most trainers think this is a reasonable expectation to make in a puppy or young dog!


  1. Have patience! If you lose your temper, you will do more harm than good, so put your training leash away until tomorrow if you become frustrated or if you are in a bad mood.


  1. Be consistent! Your dog will not easily learn what you want him to do if the rules change from one day (or one person) to the next. Make sure all trainers in the family use the same methods and cues, and that they have a solid understanding of how to reinforce desired behaviour.


  1. Be a benevolent leader: well-mannered dogs understand boundaries, so set parameters and teach him kindly, calmly, confidently and firmly. A dog will remain calm and understand better when he respects, rather than fears, his trainer. Always keep the dog’s best interests in mind


  1. “Fido, COME! BAD DOG!” Never, EVER punish or scold your dog after calling him to you, no matter what he has done to require the recall or make you angry. He will only remember that he was punished for coming to you, and this is the fastest way to teach a dog NOT to come! And we don’t want that! Remain calm, confident and in control at all times when interacting with your dog.


  1. Practice, practice, practice! Do your homework! A dog learns through repetition and consequences, so it is essential to practice what is being learned. It is essential to ensure you cannot fail by conducting all training sessions on a leash until a much more advanced level of training. Practice every day in many short lessons, rather than in one long session. Learning needs to be reinforced through daily lessons as a puppy, regular lessons as a young dog, and then occasional lessons as an adult – for the rest of his life. Success in dog training is 99% practice to help the dog learn that “good things happen if I do this, when my trainer says that”.


  1. Teach tricks! This is a great way to stimulate the dog’s brain. Fifteen minutes of mental gymnastics through trick training can be equivalent to an hour-long walk/run, so tricks are an extremely valuable training tool. Trick training provides opportunities for additional positive reinforcement and can be an excellent distraction when required. Best of all, teaching tricks is the best training for you, the handler, because they keep your reinforcement timing accurate, which is essential in a great trainer.


  1. Make it fun! Training should be the highlight of your day, for both you and your dog, not a chore or a fight. Obedience training should never be like “army drill”. Keep lessons short and make them fun and full of variety. Your dog will learn much more quickly if he remains tuned in and happy.


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