Make Training Your Dog Easier: Be Consistent, Be Clear and Be Kind
By Joan Hunter Mayer
There are many things you can do to make training your inquisitive canine easier. In previous posts on this site, we’ve explored understanding what motivates your dog and teaching your pup to generalize. Yet another key facet of training success is consistency.
What is Consistency?
For our purposes, being consistent has a few aspects:
First, it means setting and sticking to clear guidelines that your dog can understand.
Consistency in training also means using the same cue every time for a given behavior.
And it means not using one cue for more than one behavior.
For instance, if the house rule is, No Dogs on the Couch, and to achieve this goal, your partner cues “leave it” and you cue “Hey, get off of there!” your dog may be a little confused. Or, if you use “down” to mean “get off the couch,” but also to mean “lie down,” that can be confusing too. Your dog may eventually learn from context what you are trying to communicate…but why make training more difficult and frustrating for all involved? Dog training should be fun!
Set Expectations in Your Own Mind
For training success, always keep in mind how you want the behavior to look - have a clear sense of what you want your dog to do and in what circumstances. Then (try to) make sure everyone interacting with your dog follows these guidelines (more on that in moment).
As an example, if Fido is allowed to jump up on you when you get home, but not strangers or other family members, that could be pretty puzzling for your pup. While it’s true that dogs can learn a complex rule like this, it’s easier and more efficient to keep things simple.
If you want “no jumping” on people to be the rule, it should mean no jumping – unless cued. If your dog gets rewarded for jumping (with the attention they jumped up to get), they will jump more! If you do want your dog to jump on you (sometimes) this is an easy behavior to put on cue, and your attention- in that very specific circumstance- can even serve as a real-life reward, in place of a treat.
With that in mind, when it comes to keeping dog training consistent, it can be really tricky if there are people in your life who have trouble following your rules. If you feel very strongly about a rule, and there’s someone who seems to be undermining it, your first tactic should be to explain that your dog is in training and ask this person for assistance. Tell them clearly how they can help; for example, “Please only pet Rocky when he is sitting, lying down or has four paws on the floor. Back away if he jumps up and return when he’s back to four on the floor.” Then, remember to thank people profusely when they help! Positive reinforcement is not just for dogs, after all.
Managing the Environment
Once friends and family know the rules, the next step is to make them clear to your dog. There are two parts to this step:
Training your dog. (Your force-free trainer can help you teach the skills in a fun, effective way.)
Managing the environment to set everyone up for success.
What does managing the environment entail? Among other things, it means not giving your dog the chance to make the wrong choice and get rewarded for it. Management is just setting your dog up so that the incorrect choice is impossible to make. This is a big part of consistency, because you never want your dog to be rewarded for making the wrong choice – that’s inconsistent and will create confusion for your dog.
Returning to an example above, if you have a dog with a long history of being petted when they jump up on beloved humans, putting a harness and leash on Fluffy when someone is coming to visit is a helpful management strategy. You can prevent (not correct) the behavior you don’t want by limiting space and access, while working with the human visitor so they know to only interact with your dog when there are four paws politely stuck to the floor.
Avoid This Common Mistake
Lastly – and this is crucial- avoid setting your dog up for a situation where he is sometimes being rewarded and sometimes being punished for a behavior. Say you’re working on recall skills (come when called). On Tuesday, you call your dog to come to you and when he does, you deliver morsels of tasty salmon. But, then on Wednesday, you call him away from some fun he’s having and when he dutifully returns to you, you clip on his leash and leave the fun. That is not consistent. It will leave your dog wondering if today is a ‘salmon day’ or a ‘fun-ending day,’ which can interfere with the behaviors you’re working so hard to train. Instead, to maintain consistency and momentum in your training, work on noticing when your dog makes a good choice (polite greetings, ignoring food on the counter, coming when called), and celebrate these successes via loving attention, a treat, a toy, or anything he finds positively reinforcing. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.
And there you have it. Whether teaching your dog a new skill, mastering an existing one, or even just peacefully coexisting together, here’s to consistently harnessing joy with your inquisitive canine!
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!