Downeast Dog News

My Dog is a Terrible Dog Trainer

A Few Tenets of Dog Training
By | May 14, 2020

For reasons that have always eluded me, the basic tenets of good dog training seem to be lost on most dogs. One would think that dogs would be especially proficient at teaching other dogs how to behave. Sure, they learn a lot from each other, but they also fail miserably more often than I would expect.

Note: the names of the dogs in this article have been changed to protect their privacy, but perhaps not their innocence.

Tenet #1: Have good timing

The behavior has to be rewarded or punished* the moment it occurs. Too early or too late and the reward or punishment will not be tied to the behavior.

I observed Fitz the other day snarking at Margo when she started moving away from him. Moments before that, she had put her paw over his withers: a clear sign of her wanting a bit of control. Regardless of who was in the right about the control thing, his timing was way off. Why didn’t he snark at her WHEN she had put her paw over him? Why did he wait?

Tenet #2: Reward the behaviors you want to reinforce. In other words, don’t reward the behaviors you don’t want, for heaven’s sake! Reward comes in many forms but must be something the dog is seeking or values.

Dug, the young Doberman, constantly harasses his older housemate Danny by jumping on him, barking at him, and being a general pest. Danny snarks some, tries to escape and resists for a while, then ultimately gives in and plays with Dug. Danny therefore rewards Dug’s bratty behavior with what Dug wants: play. Do you think Dug will use that strategy again? You betcha! He will probably use it with other dogs, too.

Tenet #3: Ignoring the bad behavior isn’t always the best course of action. Take Callie, for example. Callie pretends that she doesn’t notice George humping her. To be clear, humping in and of itself isn’t the worst thing in the world, but if the interaction consists mostly or exclusively of humping, it should be interrupted. George may turn his hump-o-matic tendencies into his “go-to move” and generalize it with interactions with other dogs if it’s left unchecked. Callie is, for all intents and purposes, training George to hump purely by letting him practice it.

Tenet #4: Punishment needs to be dished out in the right dose, with the right intensity, and at just the right time. It’s a tough thing to execute perfectly, especially for humans: if it’s too intense or too long, the dog at the receiving end may be traumatized. If it’s not intense enough, it can negatively affect both parties.

The “snark” is a dog’s standard move when it comes to the preferred method of punishment, and if done properly, it’s highly effective. It usually consists of a very sudden, loud and low bark or series of barks combined with a directed lunge towards the offender’s head. Rarely, is there any contact and if there is, there is no actual tooth contact. With an ineffective snark, the dog snarking learns that he doesn’t have any control over the situation. The dog receiving it learns that he can keep practicing the bad behavior. I’ve seen more dogs on the too much or too little end of the scale than those who can dish it out correctly. How about you?

Whenever I meet a dog who is a good dog trainer, I celebrate her! These good dog trainer dogs are gems and are deserving of medals of honor. Now, if we could just get other dogs to emulate them, we’d have much better behaved dogs in our midst.

In the meantime, it’s up to us to step up to the plate and become good dog trainers, including being good at managing the interactions between our dogs. We don’t have to let our reactive dog train our other dog to become reactive, or our fence-rushing dog set the example for our other dogs; we can and should intervene appropriately to prevent those things from occurring.

*Punishment is something that reduces the possibility that the behavior will reoccur. Technically, punishment can simply be the failure to reward.