Training dogs can be a bit of a chore, but it’s obviously doable if approached correctly. I wrote a bit about this on the Fediverse, but it is a topic worth more than a few sentences.
I’m not a professional dog anything. I’ve just had dogs most of my life and I’ve raised a fair number of them from 8-week puppies. I can confidently say, without bravado, that all my dogs have turned out to be great animals. They’ve been house broken, walk nicely on leashes and come when I call them. That’s the triad of a perfect dog. As long as a dog is taught those three things everything else is trivial.
I was prompted to write my Fediverse post because of a few back-to-back instances of someone else indicating that the way to train a dog is basically by fear; by dominating them and becoming the “alpha male” of “the pack”. Which, quite frankly, shows a depressingly inaccurate assessment of the intelligence and emotional capacity of these animals, and a similarly depressing indicator of that person’s intelligence.
There are reasons why dogs (and cats) are overwhelmingly chosen as pets over every other animal in pet-centric parts of the world. Part of the reason is that they’re anthropomorphs so it’s easy for us to confer human traits on them. Another part is their intelligence allows us to make good companions of them by training out undesirable traits. And an equally important final part is that they’re emotional and therefore make good cuddling and playing pals.
The last two reasons are what make dogs trainable, but those traits have to be leveraged properly. I suppose it is
possible to use those traits to make a dog fearful enough to house break it, but I really can’t imagine why anyone would want a life-long companion that is terrified of them. Making a dog live in fear is essentially abuse in my opinion. A much more intelligent use of those traits is to use them to make the dog legitimately want
to please its master. I’ve never tried to fear-train a dog, but I would guess it takes as much time to make a dog hate than it does to make a dog love. The two-step tried and true process I’ve used over and over again is:
- Create a relationship with the dog so it loves you
- Train the dog
Simple, right? Ok, well...in reality this is about a 6 month process, but if step 1 is done properly it’s entirely possible to train the triad into a dog within the first year.
The critical part of the methodology is to resist the urge to start training the dog before a deep and trusting relationship has been established. If a dog is disciplined by its master before that relationship is in place, the impact is lessened. This is probably because the dog doesn’t care enough about its master yet to be properly distressed that it has let its master down. The master is just some random-ish human yelling at the dog instead of its best friend that it loves.
Another reason that training has to be put off is brain development. Anyone who has raised a puppy will attest that there are two basic phases a puppy goes through in the first 6 months. The “omg this puppy is so cute and cuddly” phase, and the “holy shit, this dog is a bitey, barky ball of fur that is ruining my life”. In the first phase the dog’s brain is too underdeveloped to process complicated concepts like “don’t pee in the house”. In the second phase the dog is just too full of energy for it to focus long enough on you to figure out what you want.
The final reason for that 6-ish month first phase is so that the master and dog can get to know each other. Dogs have personalities - no two are the same. Some of them naturally very sweet and docile, some are precocious by nature, and some are a mixture. It’s easier to train a dog once its personality is understood better and that takes time.
Each dog is different, but somewhere around 6 months is a reasonable time to start to train the dog. Having said that, I am not recommending that the dog be allowed to do whatever it wants for 6 months - that would be too chaotic for everyone. It’s entirely permissible to continuously put the dog outside when it pees in the house, and pull your hand away when it bites during play and put it on a leash to see how it does. That’s all normal development stuff but its important to stop short of disciplining with loud “NO’s” or other strongly negative feedback.
The 6-month rule isn’t a hard rule, it’s an outside guideline. In every case I would begin training a dog at 6 months even if it did not appear ready, but that has not happened to me happened yet. Most dogs will be ready earlier. There are signs a dog has developed enough mentally and emotionally to be trained. Some of them are:
- The dog stops or pulls back during play when I inadvertently wince at a bite that was too hard. This is a sign that the dog knows she hurt me, and also cares enough to notice. Note the word “inadvertently”. I am not deliberately training the dog at this point.
- Most dogs will want to snuggle up to each other or us humans when they nap. At the very least that should be happening from pretty much the first day. But, when I see my puppy roll over onto her back and sleep that way when snuggled up to me, that’s a sign of trust. Note: ridge-backed dogs generally can’t do this but it’s a good indicator for flat-backed dogs like Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, etc.
- The dog will chose to spend time with me when there’s nothing in particular going on. There is always downtime during a day when I am not focussed on the puppy like when I am working in my office. When my puppy deliberately chooses to come into the office and sleep at my feet on the floor instead of choosing one of the nice comfortable beds scattered around the house that’s a good indicator that she likes me.
This list is hardly exhaustive, but it contains some of the key markers that I’ve learned over the years. Once a puppy starts to exhibit traits that it loves you, you can start the training. I am not going into any training processes here because it’s just too controversial a topic. There are a million websites on training dogs and as many different philosophies. But, I will say this, when you train your dog, do not use fear. Be like your parents when they were “not mad at you, just disappointed” and be disappointed with the dog. They’re smart enough to pick up on that and will respond the way you want as long as you’re consistent and do not scare the dog.