You worked hard to train your dog when he was young, but how do you maintain his good behavior on an ongoing basis?
You adopt a new puppy and enroll him in a basic obedience class that uses reward-based training. He seems to struggle at first, but you don’t give up. You take him to more classes while practicing every day. Eventually, around the age of two, your pup becomes the well-behaved adult you’ve been aiming for. But it doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s really just beginning. Your dog will continue learning throughout his life, so it’s important to keep up with his training to maintain the good behavior you both worked so hard for.
Basic obedience skills
For the first year or two, we lean on basic obedience skills as a way to keep our dogs calm and happy, while helping them stay out of trouble (for the most part!). This small cluster of six to eight behaviors — the “basic obedience set” — helps us develop a system in which we give the commands and our dogs perform them. They also help teach our dogs the difference between wanted and unwanted behaviors. We encourage and reward some behaviors (sit, down, stay) while finding others (pooping in the living room) unacceptable. Using nothing more than our “basic obedience set”, we mold a dog’s behavior, replacing unwanted behaviors with those we prefer, all without any punishment.
Applying these skills in the real world
This training serves another hidden purpose. Each time you thoughtfully interact with your dog, in any setting, you give him real-time feedback regarding his behavior.
If you are on a walk and he suddenly raises his hackles and barks when a new dog comes into view, you may ask him to sit; this tells him there is no danger, and staying calm is the appropriate response. If, however, you are distracted and not paying attention to your dog, you allow his incorrect interpretation of the event to stand. What he learns from this short interaction depends entirely on your response. If you ignore him, he learns this is a dangerous situation to which he needs to respond with arousal and barking. But if you calmly acknowledge the strange dog, and then ask your own to sit quietly, your interpretation of the event – that there is no threat – wins out and changes your dog’s interpretation. Over time, he will begin interpreting all other dogs passing by as non-threatening and will happily walk on with confidence.
A turning point
Having faced the first situation in which your dog wrongly interprets the events around you, and then responds with unwanted behavior, you have reached a turning point that depends on your own actions. If you continue walking him in a distracted state, paying no attention and giving him no guidance, he will continue misinterpreting events and misbehaving while you unknowingly reinforce that behavior. This usually continues until your dog’s responses become enough of a problem that you are forced to pay attention again. Suddenly, you realize that your cute well-behaved puppy has become a full-grown dog exhibiting unwanted behaviors.
What happens next?
What happens from this point forward depends entirely on you. If you attempt to control your dog’s unwanted behaviors by introducing new commands like “stop it”, “no” or “bad dog”, you are off to a bad start. These commands are useless. Dog don’t speak English; they simply recognize a selection of specific words. If you have not taught your dog what the new words mean, they are simply gibberish to him.
Second, the words your dog learns must mean the same thing every time you use them. “Sit” always means “put your butt on the ground and hold it there”. Commands like “stop it”, “no” or “bad dog” mean different things depending on the context in which they are used. “No” can mean “don’t bite me”, “don’t take food off the table”, and “stop barking” — all in a single day. What’s a dog to do?
Go back to the basics
There’s a simple way out — go back to basic obedience skills. Once again, begin asking your dog to “sit”, “down” and “stay”. Do this in quiet places where it is easy for him to pay attention, and then reward him when he complies. Once these behaviors become well-established again, begin to use them in your front yard and at street crossings when things are calm and quiet. You can then begin slowly introducing these skills into more difficult situations, such as when your dog notices another dog he doesn’t like. If you immediately ask for a sit, and your dog is too agitated to comply, you are moving too fast. Go back to the quiet places and practice some more. As you walk your dog, practice the same few commands often.
Keep him sharp by teaching him tricks
Commit to teaching your dog ten new behaviors or tricks each year. For ideas, check out social media or books on dog tricks. Just be sure to keep your training sessions light and fun. Once a dog figures out training sessions are enjoyable, he’ll begin anticipating them. When dogs figure out that learning is fun as well as challenging, they get better at it.
Daily practice is key
You won’t have to backtrack with your training if you use basic obedience skills every single day, and begin introducing your dog to more skills over time. There are an unlimited number of behaviors that are easy to teach, and fun to practice. This simple pattern of continually teaching your dog new behaviors — and then practicing them while you are both out and about — keeps you engaged in what your dog is doing. It also keeps him engaged in you and how you are responding to the world. In this way, you remain the interpreter of all events and your dog learns to take that interpretation and use it to guide his behavior.
In short, perhaps the single most important thing you can do to maintain your dog’s training and good behavior is to pay attention to him. When you are interacting with your dog, he is interacting with you. This doesn’t mean you’re staring at one another all the time. It simply means you are always aware of your dog, and that you occasionally let him know it by practicing a behavior or skill. These simple daily interactions will continually shape your relationship with your dog over his lifetime, and keep him at his best behavior.