What’s The Right Way To Train A Dog? – Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

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Sam Basso
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When I’m interacting with a dog, I always filter my behaviors by asking myself, “what is going to be the effect of what I’m doing on this dog?” Whether I’m just visiting a friend and her dog comes over to be petted, or I’m walking past a dog in public, I am aware of what I’m doing and how that might affect that dog. Of course, I’m a dog trainer, so that kind of thinking comes more naturally to me than most other people. I’m aware of the cause and effects of human behaviors on dog behaviors.

If you know anything about dog behavior, the first question you should be asking is whether this will work for this family, and is what you are doing in accordance with good dog training techniques and behavioral theory. There are a variety of dog training approaches, yet in each circumstance, there will be things that have a higher probability of working than others.

When I was a novice dog trainer, early on in my career, I did a lot of things based upon a faulty understanding of behavioral theory, and I applied methods that were not very effective. Any dog trainer who claims they’ve always had some kind of mystical understanding of dogs, who never made any mistakes, who just knew what to do… is just lying to you. Name one thing you do well today that you didn’t have to learn how to do at some point. Good parenting is learned. So are other skills such as driving a car, painting a bedroom, properly monitoring the chemicals in your pool, or making a blackberry pie. Doing something right once doesn’t mean you have a developed skill. Doing something 1,000 times doesn’t mean you have developed a useful skill… you might have done it wrong 1,000 times. The real change in a skill happens when you decide to learn how to do it right. That means study, practice, reflection, and coaching over a long period of time. It takes about 10 years of practice, doing something well over and over again, in order to develop a valuable set of skills.

There are a number of schools of thought regarding training and managing a dog. It is, however, too simplistic to group them into two or three categories. I’ve seen so much, and followed the dog world so intensely, that I could sit here and write hundreds and hundreds of pages on all I’ve seen and learned. It’s very easy to get into silly debates about which method is right. I don’t debate this stuff any more. Debates, and macho displays of what is the best for this or that, are for novices because they are still trying to compare and contrast one style or one theory versus another. That’s normal when you aren’t yet solidly grounded. I’m done with the debates over clicker training, food / bribery training, leashes, types of collars, dog whispering, dog psychology, dog shamans, wolf ethology, certified dog behaviorists, electric collar training, and so forth. Seems so many out there have their gimmick they sell, and the theories that are so dear to them. I stay out of the debates. That doesn’t mean I stop learning. Far from it. I read scientific papers, study books, study methods, listen to other experts, and spend lots of time meditating on what I see every day. I actively seek to learn new things all the time. For example, I read huge volumes of serious behavioral material every month, and have done so for years.

Good evaluations play a big part in what I do. I’m surprised when I hear that such and such dog trainer company has recommended one of their programs for a problem dog that they’ve never even met. You just can’t do that over the phone or via email. I’ve made it a practice over the years to separate my professional opinions and the money involved. I’ve never made a recommendation based upon my own financial need or want. I want the business… but not THAT much. I walk from training opportunities when I feel the setup is wrong for the dog; I won’t take the job.

So, what is the right way to train a dog? There are some things I can say, regardless of the method involved.

First principle is: people safety first, and dog safety second. I’m sometimes faced with a family that is incapable of dealing with their dangerous dog. Maybe they have an infant and a dog that is unstable and unsafe with small kids. I won’t endanger a kid just to earn a paycheck.

Second principe is: do no harm. I think it best to choose methods that have the least likely chance of backfiring. A novice dog trainer doesn’t have enough experience to see 3 or 5 years into the future with a dog. You need to be able to assess how this is probably going to play out over the long term with that method, that dog, and that family. Some methods might work in the short run, but lead to other problems in the long run. And you need experience to know how a dog is going to turn out in the future with your methods. I get messages from past students, years later, telling me the training is still working and the dogs are doing great. Can you tell me what the likely outcome will be if you use a clicker to train a particular dog with a certain behavioral profile? Or what about if you used an electric collar instead? I can make those predictions. That’s why you can buy a dog training book or video, and do what it says, but that will never substitute for hiring a good dog trainer.

Third principle is: dogs are pack animals. Dogs are pack oriented canines, descended from wolves, and modified through domestication and selective breeding. There is a lot of feel good garbage being promoted about dog behavior recently. Dogs are being treated more and more like they are people by these so-called experts. That’s backfiring and causing some otherwise good and manageable dogs to become bratty, and in some cases, downright dangerous. On the other hand, there’s this new “dog whisperer” phenomenon where everything is being viewed as a pack issue. There is more to dog training than viewing behaviors as if you were managing a wild pack of wolves. I’ve met many well intentioned, and sometimes angry, people who are overly dominating their dogs and paying the price with either fearful cowering or aggressive retaliation by their dogs. The pack needs to be understood and factored into the evaluation of the situation.

Fourth principle is: dogs learn. Dogs can learn attitudes and behaviors, commands and manners, in a wide variety of contexts and through a wide variety of methods. I can work backwards, given time and enough information, how a particular dog came to be the way it is today. I can also then map out how to teach that dog a new way of thinking and behaving. I manipulate environments, how the people act around the dog, set ups for particular behaviors, and design exercises that mimic real life scenarios that the dogs will face.

Fifth principle: don’t forget the people. I know of a dog that attacked someone, a family member. Most novices would just say to put the dog to death, only knowing that much of the story. But, examining the environment I learned that one of the other family members had a terminal disease, and had only a short time to live. The stress in the home was what caused this attack. What was going on in the home profoundly affected how the dog was feeling, and thus, behaving. Our dog’s feelings and behavior will be directly determined by how we carry ourselves, our dog handling skills, our ability to assess the environment and situation we’ve place our dog in, managing the people around our dog, and managing what the dog experiences and learns. All that is beyond what particular method is best to train a dog. No method is going to work properly if the people aren’t good dog handlers. You’ve got to get to know a dog and it’s home life in order to select and design a program that will work properly long term.

So, what’s the right way to train a dog? After reading this, I think you get the idea.