training

10 Rules for Training Your Dog

A quick internet search will produce about a million different tips, tricks, and opinions on how to train and get better behavior from your dog. I'd wager that just about all of them have worked for someone, and for some dog, at some time. Rather than tell you, "This is how you teach a dog to... xyz," here are ten rules that should be ubiquitous across any training methodology:

If you aren't using this stuff... YOU SHOULD BE!

Proper equipment is one of the most overlooked aspects of dog training. Low quality equipment never works as well and it shows in the handling performance of the person and the performance of the dog. I thought I'd take a moment to make some recommendations on equipment that we use here at Baltimore Dogworks. You can click on any of the images in this post to be taken to a page where you can purchase the item. I don't do any affiliate programs or anything like that. I just want to recommend good stuff.

Leashes and Lines

We use two main types of training leads for the vast majority of the training we do. The first is the 15 foot longe line, and the second is the 6 foot leash.

Long lines drag on the ground often, and for the most out of control dogs, need to be strong enough to hold up to their shenanigans. The only long line you should ever look at is the Signature K9 Biothane Long Line. The 5/8in width is good for most dogs but the 3/8 inch width is best for dogs under 20lbs or so. For really small dogs, I just make my own long line out of paracord and a swivel snap from the hardware store. But the SK9 long lines don't tangle, they can drag on pavement forever and still look like new, and they can be wiped down with a rag (I throw mine right in the washing machine in a delicates bag). Heavy brass swivel snaps round out this reliable line.

For 6 foot leashes, I prefer leather, but you can get leashes from SK9 out of the same biothane material as the longe lines. Width recommendations are generally the same for a dog in training. Once a dog is reliably walking nicely on leash though, I prefer the thinnest leash that is comfortable, particularly if I'm walking multiple dogs at once. Trying to hold multiple 3/4 or 1 inch wide leashes at the same time is a nightmare. The best combination of quality and price that I've found are the leashes from Bridgeport Equipment. They are pretty soft when brand new, but they turn into butter after repeated use and a little saddle soap when they get dirty.

Training Collars

We use a variety of training collars depending on the class, and more particularly, the dog. The goal is to use whatever collar helps the dog learn to turn pressure off most easily. That is the foundation of all of our training. 

Chain slip collars are generally our go to for our on leash group classes. They are versatile, and effective when used correctly. But for some dogs, they do not provide enough of the pressure sensation, without having to really be forceful with the dog (which we don't want to do). We recommend Herm Sprenger brand slip collars exclusively. Simply put, when appropriately sized and used, I've never had a failure... ever. Slip collars like these should be just large enough to slip over the dog's head, with a little effort, and you should use the heaviest (thickest) links you can in the size that fits your dog. I like the 3mm (heavy) collars whenever possible. They provide great sliding action which is what you need in a slip collar. The 4mm (extra heavy) links are shaped differently and do not slide nearly as well.

For dogs that need a bit more help, we typically recommend a prong style collar. These aren't intended to be punative. Instead, they act as an "amplifier". Think about a person that needs to speak over a crowd. They can yell, which changes the tone of the conversation. Or they could use a loudspeaker (amplify their voice) and keep the same "tone" but better cut through the background noise. These collars aren't meant to be jerked. They are used to apply pressure, and then have that pressure released. Properly used, despite the way they look, they are probably the safest collar to use. We use the smallest size of prong collar (for all but the largest dogs, and then we use medium) and add links as needed. Using the smaller size allows for a more exact fit, and if you're worried about the dainty looking collar breaking, it's probably not being used correctly. We do recommend a back up collar when using the prong collar since they can pop open sometimes. Again, Herm Sprenger is the only brand we recommend. They are sturdy, the tips are blunt and rounded (some lesser quality collars are just cut, leaving sharp edges), and the plates (those flat pieces) keep the collar from getting tangled up.

For folks that need to use a prong style collar but don't like the looks they get from some people, or for dogs who need a bit of the "amplifier" effect but the prong collar is a bit too much for them, I like to use the Starmark Collar. It looks more like a flat collar and offers about 50% of the "amplifier" effect of the prong collar. These collars come in two sizes and extra links are available to get the proper fit. Generally, dogs up to 35lbs can use the smaller collar, and larger dogs would be better served by the larger version.

Remote Collars

Remote collars are great tools for dogs who have been desensitized to other training tools, for reliable off leash training and recall, and for a variety of behavior modification scenarios. They make the often difficult issues of appropriately timing information that you give to your dog much easier as well. We use E-Collar Technologies remote collars exclusively at Baltimore Dogworks. Greg Van Curen, the owner of the company, is known to answer many emails from customers himself. Their collars have a great warranty, are waterproof, dustproof, shockproof, and user serviceable. They are also assembled in America. The only other brand we can really endorse for most training applications are collars from Dogtra. But the amazing customer service experience with E-Collar Technologies makes them the go-to remote collars for us.

Nail Clippers

I struggled to find a good quality pair of nail clippers for a long time. Then Linda Kaim, of Lionheart K9, recommended a pair made by Millers Forge. These nail clippers cut through nails cleanly and quickly, unlike lesser quality brands that tend to crush the nail. That poor cutting quality is what causes many dogs to hate getting their nails clipped. Since I switched to these clippers, my dogs are much more agreeable to grooming time.

Treats

We blow through a ton of treats while training. No matter what other kinds of food rewards I try, I seem to always come back to Stewart Freeze Dried Liver Treats. It's the rare dog that doesn't like them, and they last forever. They are also pretty cost effective when bought in the large buckets. These treats have no fillers or anything artificial in them. Liver is very rich though, so I do break them into smaller pieces for training. 

The Tipping Point

When we're teaching our dogs new things, it's best to do so with limited distraction. The reason you went to the library or some other quiet place to study holds true when your dog is studying as well. But at some point we need to start challenging the dog's reliability and response under increasingly distracting circumstances. I think we take how this process was done in our own lives for granted. In school, you learned to count before learning arithmetic, and then algebra, and then calculus, with multiple intermediate steps in between. Your dog needs that same kind of methodical approach if you want them to be reliable in terms of behavior and obedience out in public.

This idea, what trainers call "proofing", requires the handler to find the dog's "threshold", or tipping point, of response. When you're out walking your dog and they notice something, we typically see a few key indicators of arousal in our dogs: tail goes up, brow is wrinkled, ears are forward, mouth closes. Any combination of these indicators lets you know that you've reached the "tipping point" or "threshold". Continue to move closer to whatever stimulus is present will result in your dog reaching a point where exhibiting self control is not only difficult, but sometimes impossible. Your job if you have a reactive or fearful dog, or are trying to increase the reliability of obedience, is to work at that tipping point (right where they take notice but are still able to exert self control) until your dog shows that they are able to stay calm. The next time you work, you may find you can move a bit closer, and the time after, even closer. 

It's important to note that your dog's threshold will change based on what distractions you are working against. Just because your dog can respond reliably with a person walking by 5 feet away, doesn't mean they can do the same thing with a dog walking by 5 feet away. And just because your dog was able to do something yesterday, doesn't mean they won't have difficulty doing the same thing today. Read your dog, adjust accordingly, and work with what you have in front of you. You will never go wrong if you pay attention to your dog, let them tell you when they are at their tipping point, and then work there. And if they do have trouble, move to a quieter place or ask them to do something easier to remind them how easy it is to be successful. When instead, we work on what "should be" (what we think they should be able to do), instead of "what is" (what the dog is telling us themselves), that's when we run into problems. So pay attention to your dog. They never lie.

Problems? Or Opportunities?

When you are out on a walk with your dog, do they have little quirks that seem to come out? For one of my dogs, Arya, it was any change in the surface we were walking on, particularly metal. Every time we would come up to a metal grate or manhole cover on the sidewalk, she would make an extra effort to avoid walking over the surface. This is a confidence issue, plain and simple. Further, it indicates a scenario where the dog would rather transition to being defensive, instead of comfortable, where we ideally want them to be.  

In order to teach her to be accepting of the surface, I restricted her options every time we were met with a metal surface on our walks. As we would move toward the grate or metal cover, I would shorten the leash and apply gentle pressure to her collar to restrict the directions she could move.  I didn't drag or force her. I just calmly and gently confirmed for her that to move forward, her only option was over the grate. At first, just putting one foot on the grate was enough for me to release the tension on the leash and then we'd move around. After a few reps, she was going over these grate hurriedly but completely. On the next walk and with a bit of review, we were able to walk over them calmly.  And lastly, we started practicing sit-stays for short periods of time.

Running into a situation like this while you are out with your dog might not seem like a big deal.  But these little moments add up.  Every time you allow your dog to take the easy route, you are limiting an opportunity to build trust with you and self-confidence in the dog.  As with everything else in training, follow through is the number one most important factor in your relationship with your dog.  You have to be believable.  If surface changes are nothing to worry about, Arya needed to believe me, and that meant showing her that we could walk over them together. It's creating a mild stressor, that the dog can overcome, and continually building on that success until it's no longer a problem.

We do this in our own lives too. We allow ourselves to just side step small things, avoiding a task (however minimal), uncomfortable conversation, etc., until we have a much larger issue. For me, it's diet. I know what I should eat, but don't, even though the amount of effort it would take to make that change is relatively small on a daily basis. I don't even have to cook, just make a better choice.

So if there is that one house with the barking dog in the window that sets your dog on fire, that one bush that always has a bird in it that the dog wants to hunt... Take some extra time to work through those moments.  Be careful to go in bite sized chunks, treat genuine effort as success, and not to over pressure your dog.  But take the time.  A 10 minute walk and 20 minutes working on an issue like this does your dog FAR more good than mindless trucking down the street for a half hour. These moments... they are not problems.  They are opportunities to resolve behavior issues, solidify obedience, build trust and self-confidence, and show your dog that you are every bit of the leader, teacher, advocate, and cheerleader that they need in their life. All those little wins add up to better habits and better self-esteem.