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  • Tuesday, July 07 2015 @ 09:31 pm UTC
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BY Erik Hoffer

Most dogs understand their name and commands but not much else. To them words, unless associated with understandable meaning have no real effect on the animal. So how do you convey your commands to your dog who hears Blah Blah Blah Fluffy? How to you effectively reward him such that the communication is clearly understood and associated with the desired command?

This article will deal with the communication techniques we use in training to set the stage for more sophisticated hand signals and snap training later on. Training can only take effect after the pet understands a communication methodology between you.

When your dog was just born, his mother would move him by grasping his scruff. Dogs have a sensation memory in their neck of this as a positive corrective action and they respond to that stimulus well. They can be corrected and trained using this stimulus far more readily than such old school methods like yelling, hitting, shocking or even punishing. Unless discipline are corrections are administered at the time of the bad behavior or command, the dog has no clue why he is being corrected. Timing is everything in corrections and rewards. Dogs remember positives and negatives, and what you surely don’t want is to have your dog or puppy remember you as his tormentor.

When training your dog always use a positive voice command in a rather high pitched voice if possible as that gets their attention far quicker than a low deep almost threatening voice. Dogs like happy voices and know you are happy when your voice comes across as such. Dogs hear the inflection and tone of your voice and respond to it because they don’t understand the words, besides their names. When you praise the dog for an action use your happy voice and always repeat the praise with the command so he associates the voice, the tone, the command and the word together. An example of this would be “good sit” “good boy” “good sit”. Another example would be “good girl Ava” “Good sit” “Good girl”. Animals associate their names with actions, the action with a reward and a happy voice with pleasing you for doing what you asked. At some point in their training treats are eliminated or drastically reduced in lieu of voice praise which is why starting them with treats and voice makes the most sense in achieving training success.

Let’s begin with the tools. You should first consider the dog, the size, the age, the breed and other factors in deciding what collar and leash to use. For German Shepherds it is advisable to start with them as small puppies with a fixed collar and graduate to a martengale when they reach 4 months. From that point, and as they begin beginning obedience, use a baby prong or pinch collar, NEVER A CHOKE, EVER FOR ANY REASON. A choke collar can crush their larynx and do permanent hard to them. It is ineffective as a correction tool in many cases because if they are pulling and you are pulling in reverse directions the only outcome is the dogs neck is crushed.

A pinch collar looks ominous. The prongs make many people fearful of the pain and torture inflicted by this draconian tool. That is actually the exact opposite of what the pinch does and does very well. The collar is designed to only pull its sides together. If fitted well, which is slightly under the dogs chin and used perpendicular to the dogs body, the correction is maximized. The collar is never pulled on but rather a correction is administered by a quick snap (under a second) and release which allows the collar to separate and not touch the neck. The collar never squeezes the skin but rather touches it slightly to administer the correction. Make sure when fitting it you can get a few fingers under the points to insure that the prongs do not squeeze or scratch the skin. The collar can only go so far so it cannot ever pierce the skin. The stimulation derived by the collar allows the dog to understand that you want his attention and is the best method to administer a correction in a quick, painless and positive manner. This type of collar will allow you to control a dog of most any weight and save your back while effectively communicating with the dog.

Communication is only effective if it is understood. Just because you can speak doesn’t mean the dog understands what you are saying. If someone speaks Russian to you and you don’t speak Russian, then the communication is worthless. If the dog hears his name he knows that something is coming after it. If you can’t figure out how the make the words have meaning then of course he will not learn. Yelling doesn’t make it easier to communicate. Just imagine that the Russian is yelling at you. You sense his frustration but you have no idea what he is saying.

Your pet needs to understand you and can only do so if there is a means by which your words have meaning to him. Training brings out the understanding because it associates words with actions. Saying sit and teaching the dog to sit are mutually exclusive events. Having him sit and rewarding that behavior with praise such as ‘good sit’ ‘good girl’ ‘good sit, make the sit command somewhat understandable. Rewarding the behavior with a treat enables him to understand the command by associating the reward, praise, food and command as one single unit. Treats are to be administered immediately and at times are used as bait to make him sit or down until he associates the word with the action. More about treats later.

Treats are essential training tools at first because you need to establish bench marks in terms of what the dog can understand and associate with. Food always comes from your mouth. Never treat the dog from your treat pouch. The dog needs to make eye contact with you before any treat is offered. If you do training get a fanny pack so that the treats are immediately available and can be collected while watching your pet. If you have to fumble to get them, the treat is usually administered too late to be effective and simply reward the dog for what is happening at that moment, negating their original intent.

Corrections are much the same. Try and correct your dog when he is looking at you where possible or use a quick snap and release of his pinch collar to get his attention and only correct immediately after the event and not more than 1 second later. Associate positive behavior with treats and make sure corrections are followed by showing him what is expected and then treat the positive behavior as quickly as possible.

Turning a negative into a positive is the best way to enhance training effectiveness. Teaching by yelling, getting upset, punishment of any sort or negative behavior on your part, including voice, makes the learning experience a negative one and usually results in poor or lasting negative understand by the dog. Dogs who are repeatedly shocked, corrected without showing the expected behavior or dealt with harshly are easy to spot. They become fearful of you, their tails are tucked, they expect the worst to happen and they usually are unhappy pets. Ineffective training or no training is why we get so many dogs in rescue!

Communication in the form of treats needs to come as quickly as possible after the action is accomplished to your satisfaction. Behaviors can be modified to make them better so if the dog doesn’t do a perfect sit or is skewed to your side in lieu of being next to you… don’t worry. Start with what he knows you want and then improve on that as time goes on. Forming a basis of understanding sets the stage for future success.

As I said, all treats come from the mouth or nose and should be brought up to your face prior to giving them to the dog. Never treat from your pouch as his eyes will always look at the pouch and not you which makes providing praise, commands or correction very difficult as he is not paying attention to you. Make him look in your eyes and then treat. We use chicken, hot dogs and string cheese as a general rule. Packaged treats, so long as they are soft are OK, but they can make your dog fat. Some dogs will work for food so use their own kibble for certain training. Soft, easily swallowed treats are best because training is typically done on the run and there isn’t much time for the dog to chew anything. My dog gets some of his kibble in the house when he gets the newspaper in the morning. He is more apt to have time to chew at that time then in the field. Treats should not be bigger that ¼ inch cubes. Biscuits are not appropriate training treats ever.

Communication in the form of corrections using a pinch collar are effectively administered by a quick (under a second) pull and release. The dog will immediately be reminded of what he did and then should be shown what is expected. When the correction is administered for pulling, the correction is followed by ‘no pull’ so he associates the ‘no pull’ command with a correction. Bring him in on your side and put the treat under his nose and say ‘come’ or whatever command you are using and then when he does so, reward him, so he knows where his head is supposed to be.

Repetitive rewards for expected behaviors, and demonstrations makes for effective learning. If your dog doesn’t get a command at first, don’t over correct, but rather drop back to what he does understand and reward that. By making training a consistently positive experience you enhance the time you spend with your best friend and make him happy to go to training. He will get the command with the help of your instructor but it is your job to refine and reinforce the required behavior each day until it becomes automatic. Training is for life, so don’t stop until the dog understands, it will be in everyone’s best interests to have these basic skills under your belt from the get go. Old or young dogs can always learn. They want to please you so make that happen by spending the time you have together happy. Training is dog depending so no one can say that in ‘x’ weeks your dog will be an expert. Take your time and have patience.

Leads or leashes are the means by which you communicate actions and corrections to your pet. If your lead is more than ½ inch wide it is the wrong leash to use. Nylon burns your hands when your dog pulls and typically gets stiff and course when wet. Leather leashes are the best tools for handling most any animal. 6 food leads are best for training while retractables are typically not allowed as they are inappropriate in most every situation.

Martingales collars, as previously mentioned, are typically cloth, leather or nylon and should be no bigger than ½ inch for most dogs and ¾ of an inch for larger dogs. Martingale collars, like pinch collars come together at the size of the dogs neck and are worn in about the same spot. They allow you to somewhat correct the dog but are not as effective as the pinch in communicating with the animal. The best martingales have a clip to put them on and take them off. The clipless collars are bad as they have a tendency to stretch and can come off when they get too loose. This can be a major problem if the animal gets free at the wrong time. If you cannot adjust it and it doesn’t have a snap clip, find one that does.

Using the proper tools correctly makes for a more effective training session and a far more successful outcome.