A well-trained dog makes a wonderful family companion, but a poorly trained dog can be difficult to live with and is at risk for re-homing or even euthanasia in extreme cases. Your responsibility as a dog owner is to help your four-legged friend understand their world by teaching them to adhere to specific rules and behave in acceptable ways, which can be accomplished through consistent and positive training methods.

Our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers team in Waller, Texas, strongly encourages all dog owners to provide lifelong training for their pups. In addition to developing a well-behaved dog, training can provide a host of other benefits for you and your pet. The dog training world can be confusing for pet owners, so we’ve broken down the basics to help you get started.

Benefits of dog training

Some of the benefits of training your dog include:

  • Freedom — Well-behaved dogs can go to more places, do more things, and meet more people and pets.
  • Ambassadorship — A well-behaved dog can be an ambassador for their breed or dogs in general and help others learn to love dogs.
  • Life skills — Training gives you a common language that your dog can use when they are uncertain about new situations.
  • Bonding — Training is a bonding activity that will bring you and your dog closer and also will help you avoid the bond breakdown that can happen when dogs have behavior problems.
  • Mental stimulation — Training is mentally exhausting and fun for your dog, helping to tire out young dogs and keep older dogs sharp.

Dog training and learning principles

Dogs start learning from birth by observing and interacting with their litter mates, their mother, the humans around them, other pets, and their environment. Like human baby brains, the canine brain is adept at making connections and associations, whether positive or negative. You can start training puppies as young as five weeks old, and dogs are never too old to learn new tricks. 

Animal trainers mostly use operant and classical conditioning to shape or change behavior. These scientifically proven methods use the following theories to increase or decrease the frequency of a specific behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement — Providing a positive reward (i.e., a treat)
  • Negative reinforcement — Taking away a positive reward (i.e., your attention)
  • Positive punishment — Providing an aversive stimulus (i.e., a painful correction)
  • Negative punishment — Taking away an aversive stimulus (i.e., loosening a tightened pinch collar)

In the past, many dog training theories revolved around dominance—the idea that dogs always try to be the “alpha” and that people must dominate and control them. Through decades of research and new training method development, we know now that dominance theory does not apply to domestic dogs, and that these and other punishment-based training methods actually can make behavior worse. 

The most universally accepted training methods primarily use positive reinforcement to humanely and effectively shape dogs’ behavior. Clicker training is a great example and is easy for most people to learn and put into practice. The clicker is used to mark the exact moment of the behavior you want with a unique sound, which the dog associates with a reward. This method can be used for anything from basic obedience to trick training and behavior modification.

Where to start: Dog manners and basic behaviors

You can start training your dog the day you bring them home. A puppy socialization or adult obedience class will give you and your pet a good foundation to learn the skills you need to start training. You also can hire a dog trainer to work with you in your home—you’ll need only one or two sessions with a professional to get started.

Basic commands, including sit, come, down, and stay, will help you build a foundation. From there, you can work on useful skills, such as loose leash walking, greeting people and pets calmly, going to a mat to settle, and not begging for food while you cook. For more information on how to help your pup develop these skills, contact a trainer or check out the advice on clicker training or Fear Free websites.

How to find a qualified dog trainer

Professional dog training is largely unregulated—anyone can call themselves a dog trainer regardless of their education, training, methods, or experience. Many independent organizations exist to educate and/or certify dog trainers and behaviorists at various levels, leading to a lot of credentials that can be difficult to wade through. 

When evaluating a dog trainer or dog training class, you should take the following into consideration:

  • Do they have any certifications? — Look up the certifying body to learn more about its methods, policies, and requirements to obtain and maintain the certificate. A good organization encourages positive reinforcement techniques and requires ongoing continuing education for participants. A few reputable organizations include the Karen Pryor Academy, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, The Academy for Dog Trainers, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
  • Do they have references you can speak with?—  Talking to other people your trainer has worked with is a great way to get a feel for their methods and outcomes.
  • Do you get a good vibe from them?—  Talk to the trainer over the phone or in person—they should be able to answer all your questions and give you realistic expectations. Choose someone who is kind, knowledgeable, and with whom you feel comfortable working.
  • Do you see any red flags? — Trainers who promise a perfectly-behaved dog at the end of your session, who talk about outdated and disproven “alpha” or “dominance” theories, who use punishment heavily, or who will not disclose their training methods could cause your pet more harm than good.

Ongoing training equips your furry pal with the tools they need to manage their world and interact positively with others. Many behavior problems stem from underlying medical issues, so if you are managing a new problem, contact our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Waller team to schedule a physical examination and behavior consultation. Our resourceful team members also can refer you to a local veterinary behaviorist, professional dog trainer, or canine behavior consultant to get a jump-start on your dog’s training regimen.