Life with a dog is great. Life with a well-trained dog? Well, that’s even better. Showing off cool new tricks is one thing, but having a dog obey your commands in life-threatening situations is the most important reason to train.
And let’s face it—it’s much less stressful when you know your dog will listen to you, which makes for a better relationship.
We consulted professional trainer and founder of Pawtopia in San Diego, Colleen Demling, for all things dog training. From teaching the basics to the best methods of training to the true cost of lessons, we’ve got you covered.
For more support, we have a complete guide to training your dog at home.
Stay, Come, Leave It
The commands stay, come, and leave it—or any variation thereof like here, drop it, etc.—are the most important commands for your dog to not only learn, but to master.
“If you teach your dog nothing else, teach those three commands because in most crisis situations, those three can get you out of it,” Demling says. “If your dog runs out the front door without permission or sees a dead bird on the street—these are situations that directly address your dog’s welfare, and your dog needs to obey these commands.”
Start by teaching your dog the basic level of these commands in the comfort of his own home. Repetition and practice are key.
“It’s like learning a new sport,” Demling explains. “You don’t go to a tennis class and swing once—you swing again and again. Repetition is how we all learn.”
Once your dog has the command down in the home, it’s time to move to more challenging situations, like the dog park or the pet store.
“If we ask them to sit two or three times at home where it’s quiet, and then we go to the do park and they don’t listen, it’s not because they don’t want to,” Demling explains. “It’s because they don’t have the skill set.”
Trainer’s Tip: Practice commands until your dog can successfully accomplish the command ten times in a row. For example, ten sits in a row at the pet store or dog park is the consistency you’re aiming for.
How do dogs learn best? The answer is—it depends on the dog.
“Find your dog’s motivation,” Demling suggests. “This will entice him to learn. Remember not all dogs are food motivated. Some are play motivated, some are attention motivated, and some just want a good belly scratch when they are paying attention and doing what you want them to do.”
With all sorts of methods preached as gospel by various trainers, how do you know which one to follow? Find the methodology that works for you, and stick with it.
“The best methodology is the one the owner is passionate about,” Demling says. “You want the fastest and most efficient method for you. Find a trainer that will be flexible with your chosen method to help you hit your end goal in the most efficient manner.”
Trainer’s Tip: Choose your trainer wisely. There is no official governing body regulating who can say they are a professional dog trainer. Look for important certifications from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCDPT), the only independent organization that certifies dog trainers.
Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks
While you may think your dog is set in his ways, any dog can be taught new commands or behaviors, regardless of age.
“Old dogs can learn new tricks just like older people can learn new skill sets,” Demling adds. “It’s harder on the owner—it’s changing the habits with the owner and getting the practice in place so the dog can learn. The difficult part is not only breaking down old habits, but establishing new ones.”
The biggest problem for owners set in their ways is communication—or miscommunication!
“We keep trying to make the connection [to teach the command] one way and the dog really needs another way,” Demling explains.
Maybe it’s ignoring your dog for 20 minutes so they really want your attention, and then running through a couple commands before giving them a belly rub. Or perhaps using your dog’s meal time as a treat for executing commands.
“It’s shifting the way that we want to teach to the way the dog needs to be taught,” Demling says.
Trainer’s Tip: Praise the success in the moment. For example, when the doorbell rings, if the dog hesitates to bark three seconds, praise in that moment before he barks instead of waiting to correct the bark.
Healing the Pain
It’s a sad reality that some sweet, innocent dogs will suffer abuse in their lifetime. But you can turn their life around in more ways than one.
Rescuing an abused animal and giving them a second chance at life is wonderful. But helping them adjust and heal emotionally will turn them into a new dog.
“Normally with consistency and kindness, dogs can learn to trust much faster than people do,” Demling believes. “It’s addressing the problem and not sweeping it under the rug.”
If your dog shies away from strangers or from being pet, if he cowers in the corner or behind your legs out of fear, if he hides under the bed or whines when you are away—you should seek help. The amount of help needed will vary.
“It does depend on the level of abuse the dog suffered,” Demling says. “But set up a plan and deal with the issues.”
Trainer’s Tip: Does your dog shy away from men or strangers? Have a friend come to the house, walk inside and ignore the dog while dropping a cookie on the floor. Now a stranger is associated with dropping cookies instead of trying to approach the dog, which may have been bad for the dog in the past.
Price Tag of Safety and Security
A lot of pet parents shy away from professional training because they think it’s too expensive or not worth the cost.
“Consider the return on investment,” Demling suggests.”Put a dollar value on the cost of your time if you do training efficiently versus inefficiently, the cost of your frustration when you come home and something is destroyed, or even the cost of embarrassment when your dog misbehaves.”
Again, make sure you find a trainer with the proper qualifications to ensure you are getting your money’s worth. But also put the cost of a problem dog into perspective with these scenarios:
- Your dog sneaks out the open front door, runs into the street and gets hit by a car—this results in emotional devastation and a potential $2000 vet bill.
- Gashes from a dog fight at the park—$500+ vet bill.
- Dog eats something poisonous in the trash or on the street—$1000+ vet bill.
- Dog jumps up on grandma and knocks her over, causing injuries—medical bills or more.
“We normally spend $2-3 a day on coffee. Think about spending that money over a few months and that’s good for the rest of your dog’s life,” Demling explains. “It’s a priceless investment.”
Trainer’s Tip: If you notice behavioral problems with your dog early on, it’s best not to wait. Get a trainer on board early, when it should only take one or two sessions to fix the problem, rather than allowing it to become a bigger emotional issue.
The Bottom Line
Having a well-trained dog leads to a better relationship between pet parent and furry friend.
“If you have a dog that is not well behaved, that relationship can become strained with frustration, which will become a barrier to a deeper bond with your pet,” Demling says.
Taking the time to properly train your dog—and maybe spending a little money—could help ensure he has a happy, healthy life.