Source: Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash
There are a few basic guidelines I rely on in every training program—whether I’m working with an untrained puppy, helping a dog brush up on a few basic skills, or dealing with a behavior problem. In this chapter, we’ll look at each of these critical components. As a group, they’re a kind of Lucky Dog 101—everything you need to know to get started.
These are aspects of training that’ll help make the time you invest with your dog efficient and effective:
It’s easy to perceive dog training as something that’s mostly physical; we teach a technique, then repeat it until the desired response becomes muscle memory for the dog. Along the way, a few things will probably become part of your muscle memory, too—like the way you hold your hand to give the STAY signal, or the leash correction that reminds your dog to HEEL at your side. More subtle physical cues—many of which we’ll discuss in the coming chapters—will also become second nature to you. But when you really examine what factors contribute to effective dog training, the one that’s too often overlooked is the mental element of making it work. It’s your mental game that will set the tone for how your dog-training time is going to flow; it’s your mental strength that will get you through the moments when it seems like nothing you’re teaching is sinking in.
There’s a philosophy I learned from one of the mentors who taught me about training when I was a teenager, and it has been a mantra for me ever since: “The face you show your dog is the face that’s shown back to you.”
So what face do you want to show your dog? You want to show the face of a boss, not an employee; a teacher, not a student. This is not an angry or aggressive face. Instead, it’s one that doesn’t show frustration or doubt or hesitation. Think about someone you know who’s a great teacher or coach.
That person is confidently in charge, positive in the way he or she teaches, and eager to share knowledge. That’s someone who has nothing to prove and everything to offer. Think of Bill Gates giving a computer class or Warren Buffett explaining investment basics. That’s the kind of face I want you to show your dog during training. It doesn’t matter if you’ve trained one hundred dogs before or not a single one. Nobody knows your dog better than you do, and nobody understands the training you want to accomplish better than you do. You are the expert during training time, and that’s the attitude you need to bring. At other times, you can show your dog the face of a playmate or a pal, but during training, position yourself as the wise teacher.
There’s a simple reason why this really matters. Animals are always looking for leadership, waiting on you for cues to tell them what to do. If you don’t deliver, they look somewhere else—or assume a leadership role themselves. In most cases, this is not about dominance—it’s about an animal with a deep-seated, inborn drive to be part of a hierarchical pack wanting someone to look up to. The same rules apply when I train large predators. The only way I can get a fourhundred-pound Siberian tiger to do what I ask is to mentally run the training experience. Physically, I can’t even compete—and anyone who thinks they can force a tiger to do their bidding through physical force is both deluded and creating a very dangerous situation. They’re basically asking for a Darwin Award.
My game face is where I always find success, and it’s the training difference between getting one of nature’s great predators to calmly do exactly what I ask and having him decide I haven’t earned that kind of respect and doing whatever the heck he wants instead.
As you delve into the training techniques in this book, remember that you need to be a confident, secure, and understanding leader for your dog. That’s the mental game, because I can promise that you will not feel confident or secure or understanding all the time—and I’d be a total liar if I told you I never get flustered or frustrated during training myself.
I feel it the same as anyone else, especially when I’m looking at an unfamiliar, untrained animal at the end of a leash and knowing I’ve got just a week or two to teach him some manners, obedience, or even tricks.
The secret, as they say in the deodorant commercials, is to “never let ’em see you sweat.” Tamping down frustration, fear, or worry is a mental exercise every good animal trainer has to master. If you show your dog frustration or anxiety or that you don’t know how to handle a situation, you might as well walk away. Your dog will read it in your face. Instead, always approach training with determination and calm. No matter how you feel inside, your face should say, “We’re doing this. I’m not quitting, and I don’t want you to quit, either.” When you do get frustrated, keep in mind that your partner in this endeavor is “just a dog.” I don’t mean that in a disparaging way.
What I mean is that a dog has less capacity than you do to learn and process language, and a dog has to learn at his own pace. Take your time, start with the easy stuff, and be patient.
Remember that you’re the one who has thumbs and walks upright, so you’re the leader in this relationship. Your dog will slowly, steadily learn everything he needs to know.
My most basic summary of what it takes to train a dog has always been “control, train, treat.” Anyone who’s ever worked with me has heard that phrase—probably more than once. It’s a rule I live by. Whether you’re starting on your first day of training with a puppy who never stops moving, or working with an older dog who doesn’t want to get off the sunny end of the couch, these are the steps that will allow you to successfully train.
This process should be your blueprint for approaching everything that’s covered in this book. If you find yourself training your dog and not seeing results in a timely manner, I want you to stop, remember those three words, and ask yourself if you are following them in order.
In dog training, everything starts with control. Why is this one issue so important? Think about it like this: a teacher has twenty kindergartners and is responsible for teaching all of them to recognize, pronounce, and write their ABCs.
What are the first steps that teacher will take to get twenty small children under control? Take them into a classroom, have them sit in chairs, turn those chairs toward one focal point, and occupy that space. That’s a pretty good system for taking a chaotic situation and gaining some control.
Your dog is like your twenty kindergartners (dog training is starting to sound easier than teaching, isn’t it?). He is a creature with a brain not nearly as developed as yours, interests entirely different from yours, and a world full of sights, smells, animals, people, and distractions of every kind. Before you can even think of teaching this animal, you have to establish some kind of control. I know this seems almost too simple to explain, but I see people every day trying to train dogs when they haven’t taken this step yet. I bet you see them, too—being dragged down the street by a dog on a leash; chasing a runaway pet at the dog park; saying, “sit, Sit, SIT, SIT” over and over to a dog who isn’t even listening. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve probably all done it at some point, too—and we know it’s not effective.
That’s why the very first step in starting any training session is going to be establishing control.
Fortunately, this step is an easy one. A room or other space that’s free of distractions gives you a little control. Getting your dog up off the floor—especially if you have a small breed—gives you more. A leash is probably the simplest way to gain control, because once your dog is clipped in, running away is no longer an option. And here’s a training trade secret: two leashes give you twice as much control.
Over the years, one of the training staples I’ve come to rely on is a technique I call the Double Leash Lock-Off. If you watch Lucky Dog, you’ve seen me use this time and again. I swear by it because it works so well, helping me to establish control on easily 95 percent of the dogs I use it on.
Remember as you move forward with your training program that control is always the cornerstone. I’ve shared this simple method of gaining control with dog owners all over the world, and in response I get e-mails every day from people who want to send their thanks and say those two words I love to hear: “It worked.”
In order to effectively train, you need more than just control—you need your dog’s undivided attention. When you’re working with a puppy or an adolescent, this can be a lot tougher than it sounds. The best way to get the focus you need is to offer something your dog just can’t ignore. Remember in Chapter 1 when we talked about breed and motivation? This is where that comes into play. Most dogs like treats, others respond to toys, and some just love to be loved. If you can find out what your dog responds to best, before long you’ll have him doing backflips all over the house for you.
If your dog has a strong food drive (as a majority of dogs do), then almost any treat will do. If your dog has a less-pronounced food drive, you’ll have to up the ante. The way to approach this is to keep in mind that food is like money to a dog—and like money, it comes in different denominations. Think about the foods your dog really loves—things that go way beyond the kibble in the bowl.
Let’s say a piece of your dog’s regular food is a one-dollar bill. Then a biscuit might be a five-dollar bill. A liver treat might be a ten- or twenty-dollar bill. And a bit of steak might be the emergency hundred-dollar bill in the back of your wallet.
When you set out to train, be ready with a variety of rewards so you can command your dog’s attention and keep his interest from start to finish during the session. Don’t be in any hurry to give up the big bucks too soon. They’re what will keep your dog focused from beginning to end and will reward his absolute best efforts. There’s a good chance he’ll be able to smell them in your pocket or bait bag the whole time.
One important thing to remember about using food to gain focus is that it works way better on a hungry dog. Don’t bother trying to get your dog’s attention with treats right after a meal. Instead, try training thirty to sixty minutes before mealtime, when your dog is already starting to think about food and is likely to hone in on any treats you use. If you have a dog who follows you around like a hawk near dinnertime, that’s because his internal clock is telling him mealtime is right around the corner. Those moments when your dog is already mentally bellying up to the bowl provide a perfect opportunity to capitalize on his foodoriented focus by working in a training session before the meal.
Some dogs are more easily motivated by play or toys than by food. If you’ve ever seen a retriever with a cherished tennis ball or a bully breed working over a rope or tug toy, you know what I mean. That was the case with Murphy, a very energetic, very powerful, and very ornery one-year-old, eighty-pound Lab I rescued.
Murphy was the combination of all the things that can make a dog too much for a new owner to handle: size, strength, an adolescent’s stubborn attitude, a complete lack of focus, and enough horsepower to challenge even the most sea- soned trainer. This was a dog who put me through my paces right up until I de- cided to put his fascination with all the dog toys I had around the ranch to work for me. I gave Murphy a big pile of toys and let him choose his favorite. After try- ing (and failing) to fit all of them in his mouth, he finally settled on a Chuckit! ball—he couldn’t take his eyes off it. Instead of me blindly choosing a toy he kinda wanted, I let Murphy pick something he really wanted to motivate him through training. This made him more eager to work and learn. Once that ball was in play and I took control of it, I had Murphy’s complete and total focus. As I trained his commands, I held that ball in my hand, and each time the big, goofy, wildly exuberant dog did something right, I’d throw it for him and give him a few seconds to play. It worked like magic, providing far better results than I’d been able to wrangle from him with treats alone.
So if your dog loves nothing more than a particular toy, don’t hesitate to incorporate it into training, using it first to gain focus, and then as part of a reward.
Every once in a while I encounter a dog trainer who claims to “speak dog,” to have some magical insight into how to communicate with animals that the rest of us don’t. Who knows? Maybe there’s something to that, but I’ve never seen it.
Nor has there ever been any scientific evidence of it.
The truly great animal trainers I’ve met all over the world rely on one thing above all others to get results: technique. And knowing how to apply proper technique requires years of experience.
The fact is the best dog trainers in the world are the most experienced at their craft. They’ve seen the issue they’re trying to solve hundreds of times before, so they know the exact technique to apply and the right moment to use it. It comes down to experience, plain and simple. After enough years of practice working effective techniques, these trainers develop instincts to match their skills—and then I guess it might almost look like they’ve pulled a Dr. Doolittle and learned to talk with the animals.
The bottom line is that dog training is a lot like martial arts in that it’s all about technique and conditioning. Learn the technique one day. Condition with it for days, weeks, and months. The best martial artists in history didn’t “speak” their craft. They became masters of it through a lot of training and practice. Eventually, when you work that steadily at anything, it becomes part of your lifestyle.
Training our dogs helps them seamlessly blend into our everyday lives, living by the rules we’ve set.
This book is full of techniques in almost every chapter—methods like the Double Leash Lock-Off—that simplify and streamline the training process. And just like techniques for anything—karate, cooking, carpentry, anything—the more you practice them, the better you’ll get at executing them effectively. As you choose techniques in the coming pages to use in your dog’s training, keep in mind that they’ll probably seem a little awkward at first. It’s totally normal to feel that way because, much like your dog, you are learning something new here. I promise that over time the techniques swill get easier. Nobody walks into that first karate class and does a perfect round kick.
Nobody makes a perfect soufflé on the first try. And whatever the first thing is you build with your hands, it’ll probably end up in the garage or the basement—not exactly a family heirloom.