Contrary to what you may have heard, you absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks. Training is an excellent way to bond with your furry friend, and encourages overall better behavior. From new puppies trying to understand “sit” to adult dogs going for certification in canine therapy, dogs always have room to learn and grow.
Here are 12 tips to help you get started:
1. Invest in puppy classes. If you have a younger dog, don’t underestimate the benefits of group puppy classes. Your little one will learn important socialization skills right along with the basic commands, and it’s a great foundation for further training you want to do at home.
2. Take your dog on car rides. Going on a quick errand to the ATM or Starbucks drive-thru? Let Fido hop in the car and ride along. You can practice “stay” with your dog getting in and out of the car, and the only treat you need to bring is a rolled down window and a breeze. Do remember that you should never leave your dog (or any pet) alone in the car, no matter the weather.
3. Train positively. Respected dog trainer Victoria Stilwell is renowned for her approach to training, which preaches rewards and praise over dominance and submission. “Positive, humane reinforcement methods are much safer and effective in the long run,” she told TAILS in an October interview. [Click here to read the rest of the interview].
4. Use distractions. Practice commands like “sit,” stay,” and “come” in situations where your dog is forced to ignore outside influences and focus on your voice and instructions—this will make her a better listener for when it really counts. So turn on the TV, play some music, or have the kids run around, and work on your basic commands.
5. Get outside. The outdoors is chockfull of distractions. Take advantage of this and work on training exercises in your backyard, at the park, or, if you’re feeling brave, at the dog park.
6. Practice, practice, practice. Dogs learn through repetitive conditioning, so it’s crucial that you reinforce commands and practice often. Stay consistent in your training and you’ll teach long-term habits.
7. Don’t expect perfection all the time. To change an animal’s habits, it’s helpful to see the world from their point of view. Don’t expect your dog to read your mind or to be perfect; have realistic expectations and understand that she may not always get what is expected of her (or, that sometimes, she may just be a little mischievous—that’s okay, too).
8. Keep your dog busy. You know what they say: A tired dog is a good dog! Make sure your canine companion gets plenty of physical and mental stimulation, and he’ll be much easier to handle when it comes time to train. Training itself is a great mental exercise for dogs, which is even more reason to keep it up.
9. Get social. The sooner you socialize your dog and get her comfortable around other dogs, the better. Regular doggie play dates, walks around dog-friendly neighborhoods, and trips to the groomer are great opportunities to encourage your furry loved one to interact well with others.
10. Choose healthy treats. It’s easy to get overzealous with the treats during training. Though it’s great to reward your dog for good behavior, it’s important that you don’t overfeed in the process. Ditch the peanut butter biscuits and try little bits of raw carrot instead, or shred up some freshly cooked chicken meat. If you’re using commercial treats, divide each one up into smaller portions.
11. Give lots and lots of love. For your dog, there are few rewards greater than your love and affection. Let him know what a good boy he is—during training and at other times too—by sharing plenty of praise, cuddles, and kisses.
12. Say what you mean. “No” is a useful for word for your dog to know, but it doesn’t always solve a problem. So instead of saying “no” when she picks up a piece of food from the floor that she isn’t supposed to have, say “drop it” and directly instruct her on what she is to do. Just saying “no” can be confusing to her; telling her exactly what you want is more clear.