Good Boy!

Alabama Living Magazine

Persistence, positive rewards help train man’s best friend

By Pamala A. Keene

Sit. Off. Stay. Roll over. These seem like fairly simple pet commands, and in many cases your dog is more than happy to oblige, as long as you, the pet owner, are willing to work with him consistently and reward him appropriately.

“With a persistent approach, short verbal commands and positive rewards, it can be easy to train a pet, whether you’re teaching him new tricks or working to replace bad habits with good ones,” says Kitty Thompson, owner of South Paw Obedience Training in Arab, Ala. “The key is to work with him regularly and remember that you’re the alpha in charge of the relationship.”

Thompson prefers to start training from the time a pet is a puppy. “All puppies like to bite and chew; it’s part of their inherent play behavior with their litter mates, not aggression,” she says. Here’s what she recommends:

“If the pup starts nipping at you, make a growling sound like its mama would make. That will get his attention. Then say, ‘Leave it,’ or ‘No bite.’ Choose one of these short commands and use it consistently. Repeat the low growl then the same verbal command each time,” she says. “If you need something stronger to get his attention, do a high-pitched yelp, like a puppy would make. Then say, ‘Good. No bite.’” 

Kitty Thompson, owner of South Paw Obedience Training in Arab, shows how to teach a dog not to jump. Photo courtesy Kitty Thompson

Use this correction and praise pattern every time it happens. Soon the pet will associate the words with the action of not biting. Giving a kibble is a great way to reward and reinforce behavior, as long as it’s associated with the positive behavior.

By no means should an owner ever strike a dog to get its attention. “A dog will respond to sounds, but some dogs may take longer to learn commands,” she says. “Again, you need to be consistent and persistent. Physical reprimands can instill fear or aggression in a pet; instead use verbal commands and praise.”

Start with basic commands, such as “sit,” “off” to avert jumping up, “stay” and “no bark.” “Use a reward system, sometimes called lure-and-reward training, involving a treat as the reward,” she says. “As the dog stands in front of you, hold the treat near his nose, then move your hand upward still holding the treat, and say ‘sit.’ There’s no need to physically move the dog into the sitting position. His rear will naturally sit as you raise your hand with the treat. Then give him the treat and say, ‘Good dog.’” Keep the treat close to the puppy’s nose/mouth to keep him from jumping to grab at the treat.

Go through this exercise several times, and repeat it in multiple sessions. Teach one command in a session. Training should be short and fun. Be mindful of the pace of training. Trying to teach a dog too much at one time can be confusing for her. “If you’re feeling frustrated, there’s a good chance that your dog will too,” she says. “Know when to take a break. Be affectionate and positive with your dog as you end the session, then come back later to try again. It’s best for both of you.”

Thompson’s technique for teaching a pet not to jump up is straightforward. “Stand with your hands clasped and fingers laced just below your waist, arms hanging down. As the dog starts to jump up, turn your hands palms down so that the dog’s nose hits the palms as he jumps, push back with your hands and say ‘Off.’ Then give them a positive job to do, such as the command ‘Sit.’ Reward them with a treat for the ‘Sit.’”

You’re correcting the jumping with the “Off” command, then rewarding the positive action of the “Sit” with the praise and the treat.

When you’re training, it’s important to use a stern/firm tone in your commands. “If you are whiny or begging the dog will not take you seriously. I’ve even had to use more gruffness in my voice or add a deep gravelly sound, like an alpha dog will do.”

Taking a dog out for a walk requires training, too. Thompson teaches her canines to sit quietly once they’re leashed, then follow her outside. “Never let your dog go through the door before you,” she says. “Not only are you keeping your dog safe from possibly running into the road or wandering off, you’re establishing that you’re the alpha, the person in charge.”

A word about crate training

Dogs are den animals and their crate is their den, their sanctuary, not a place of punishment, and it should be treated as such. Give him a treat when he goes in his crate and praise him, every time, regardless of the reason for putting your dog in his crate.

“You can use the crate to help with housebreaking by putting the dog in the crate, then giving him a walk to relieve himself every two to three hours on a schedule,” she says. “He may not need to relieve himself every time, but when he does, verbally praise him for doing his business. Over time, he will be trained to know that the appropriate place for potty is on his walks.”

Crates are the best ways to transport a dog for trips to the vet or when traveling with the family. “Dogs should not be put in a vehicle without a crate that’s secured in place, because crating can reduce the chance of injuries from sudden stops or collisions. Your dog may love to hang his head out the window to enjoy the breeze, but the risk of objects from the road flying into his face or eyes is far too great.”

Thompson, who’s been training dogs for several decades, says that the owner/pet relationship should be clear from the beginning. “You, as the owner, are responsible for the health, safety and well-being of your canine and it’s a big undertaking,” she says. “But from the very beginning, establish that you are the alpha, the person in charge. Your pet will look to you to provide for his needs, take care of him and love him. And by doing that, you’ll reap many years of happy and contented pet ownership.”

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