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Learn the Rules...

  Learn the Rules of Training

There are three essential elements to building a strong relationship with your dog: responsibility, management and training. All of these elements are equally important in developing what most people consider a "companion dog"...but, if you neglect any of the areas of responsible dog ownership, you'll find yourself with issues that will need to be addressed.


Training using humane, friendly methods teaches an animal to modify his natural behavior in order to succeed in an unnatural environment -- your home.


Management involves attending to the physical and psychological needs of the dog – food, shelter, play, exercise, mental stimulation and social contact, while also preventing him from engaging in behaviors that you find INappropriate in your home or as these behaviors affect others.


You are ultimately responsible... you're responsible morally, legally, and ethically for your dog's behavior when they're around others; you're responsible to make sure your dog is healthy and not causing any possible health threat to others, and you're responsible to your dog for ensuring that he's able to participate in his life in a manner that allows him to express his innate joy (the dog's quality of life).  This responsibility is the basis for all aspects his existence -- you must be both guardian and teacher, always treating him with consistency and respect, utilizing training methodology in a way that promotes all these aspects of his (and YOUR) lives.

Here's something to think about, where dog ownership legalities are concerned: dog laws are not legislated to protect your rights, or your dog's rights... dog ownership laws are enacted to protect the rights of those people who DON'T own dogs... these laws keep dogs from 'molesting' them -- laws to keep dogs off their grass, to keep them from jumping on them, to keep them from running amok and dragging out the garbage all over their yards... to keep them from making a nuisance of themselves.  We (the dog-owning public) might think their behavior is cute... the people who don't own dogs don't think their behavior is so cute, when it infringes on their lives or property.  Protect yourself from legalities, and your dog, by following the rules.


Default Behaviors

We love our dogs, even if some of their behavior is driving us crazy.  Behavior is constantly changing -- by paying attention to, and rewarding the behaviors we like, we will get more and more of those behaviors from the dog.  If you don't reward the behavior you want to keep in some way, the behavior that earns the reinforcement (from your dog's point of view) will be the "default' behavior in this set of circumstances.  So, if your dog has been learning 'sit' for a few days, and he comes over to you and SITS to see what will happen... and NOTHING happens, then he might well revert to behavior that has always earned reinforcement (like jumping on you for attention).  If you want a behavior to become a Default behavior, reward it every single time it's offered in a situation you want to see it (in the example above, it would be offering a 'sit' to get attention).


Dogs do the things they do for 3 reasons:  1) because the behavior is instinctive, 2) because it’s self-rewarding, or 3) because we've rewarded the behavior (either intentionally or unintentionally). If we reward the behaviors we want to keep, we'll have a well-mannered dog – it’s really that simple!

  • Create a signal (good, yes, clicker -- a conditioned reinforcer) that tells the dog when he is doing something right.

  • Be consistent -- not only with the behavior you expect from the dog but also in how you react to that behavior (this means PAY ATTENTION and REWARD it).

  • Train using a consistent vocabulary... cues that will have just one meaning to the dog when he hears or sees them, and that all the humans in his life will use to mean the same thing.

  • Associate rewards with appropriate behavior and you'll see more of that behavior.

  • prevent unwanted behavior or make it un-rewarding and you'll see less of it (management).

  • Change your behavior to change your dog's behavior. (be pro-active not reactive)

  • Consciously decide what behavior you want from the dog, so that you’re prepared to reward it when it happens.

 the Relationship

  • Make a list of the behaviors that you'd like to see from the dog.  Think about your dog's behavior, and what you'd like to change about it, and make notes.

  • Prioritize the list you've created... concentrate primarily on creating and rewarding those behaviors that are most important to you.  For example, if you have a Really Big Dog, it's pretty easy to train what I call an 'automatic sit'... any time the dog wants something (put the leash on, put the food bowl down, pat on the head....) he'll SIT to ask for it.  This means he's rewarded in any situation, because every single time he sits to ask for something, you give it to him..

  • Reward behaviors that you like every single time they occur for the first 3 weeks... you can 'back off' on the reinforcements after this.

  • Spend time with your dog -- playing, training, rewarding, exercise and quiet time together.  

  • Acknowledge your dog throughout the day with eye contact, a smile, touch and talk to him. Don't ignore him if he's not demanding attention.  If you reward that quiet behavior, you'll see more of it.

  • Include your dog in your life -- take him as many places as you can, even if he's just enjoying the ride in the car.  Even if I'm just picking up my meds at the pharmacy, Tory likes to ride along.

  • Understand your dog breed as well as the individual temperament of your dog. For mixed breed dogs...  the dog will behave most like the breed that makes up the most of his genetics, if you can determine this.  Think about what the breed was bred to do generally – this will give you an idea of how the dog will respond to environmental factors; whether he'll resort to things like digging in the yard when he gets bored or stressed.

  • Watch your dog and understand his likes and dislikes.  This is individual, and varies from dog to dog just as it does in humans.

  • Eliminate negative reinforcement and positive punishment in your interactions with your dog.  These parts of the conditioning model contain the application of punishment, and are associated with you (just as positive reinforcement is) and will effect your relationship with your dog in ways that you might not want.  Every time you teach anything to anyone, you're making a series of associations between YOU and the Training Methodology.  You want these associations to be GOOD ones.

  • Be pro-active, not reactive! Pay attention to behavior you like, set up the dog to succeed and use good management to prevent your dog from engaging in unwanted behaviors until you've given him the training he deserves.

Problem Behaviors

Your dog's natural normal behaviors aren't 'bad' or 'problematic'... not to him.  He doesn't consider any of his behaviors a problem -- you are the one who labels it as 'bad' or 'wrong'.  In his mind, your dog is just acting like a dog.  You need to decide what behaviors you want from the dog and use better management to prevent opportunities to engage in the unwanted behaviors while training him to give you the behaviors you like. Every problem behavior has an opposite, desirable, positive behavior: I call these Replacement Behaviors.


Examples of replacement behaviors:


  • eliminating everywhere (not wanted) VS. eliminating outside or on papers (wanted)

  • take objects, run away, guard (not wanted) VS. fetch, drop items on command (wanted)

  • jump on people (not wanted) VS. sit to get attention (wanted)

  • bite hands (not wanted) VS. lick hands (wanted)

  • bark when left alone (not wanted) VS. be quiet when left alone (wanted)

  • be constantly underfoot (not wanted) VS.  go to your mat/bed (wanted)

  • chew on the sofa (not wanted) VS.  chew on dog toys (wanted)

The key to changing your dog's behavior is to stop the behavior you don't like by controlling the dog's environment (management), and rewarding the behaviors you do like. Once you decide what behavior you want from the dog then you have something you can train for.  This process is a lot easier than it sounds.

Learning and Teaching

Any organism (fish, chicken, dog, elephant, human) learns in a very straightforward way -- it responds to stimuli in its environment.  Its responses to various stimuli are initially instinctive in the case of the dog (bark, bite, run, eat it, dig, chase and so on), and the consequences of the dog's response (behavior) determine whether or not the behavior will continue. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated. Behaviors that are not rewarded are not repeated. Rewards for behavior can come from the environment, can be self-rewarding (the dog finds them pleasurable) or can come from you (the trainer).

*In this sense every dog has two trainers:

1. You 2. The environment

Learning is going on constantly, because the environment works for 24 hours a day to train your pet... often in opposition to what *you're* teaching.  (Think about it: if you're actively teaching your dog not to jump on people in greeting, but your sister throws her arms open in invitation when she sees him, then WHO is teaching him?  If you're teaching the dog not to grab food from the kids' hands, but Junior holds his cereal bowl down for him at the breakfast table, then who is teaching him?)  Animals respond to stimuli in the environment and learn what stimuli are important and what stimuli are not. Your dog looks over a situation and instantly understands, based on his history, what in this situation carries the most likelihood of being rewarding... so, your job, in every situation, is to become the single most rewarding entity in his world.  Always.  This involves building up the Trust History (Trust history is simply the history of whether or not the dog is able to trust in the system of rewards... it's this history that will determine whether the dog chooses you or something else in the environment).

Spend an equal amount of time on the three aspects of responsible dog ownership --relationship, training, and management.  Each is equally important. Any time you have a "behavior problem", look at the behavior in terms of relationship, management, and training, and implement a behavior modification program that will make changes to each of these areas that need tweaking.


You are the one who decides what behaviors are okay, or not... no one can come into your home and tell you what you will or won't tolerate.  You decide what behaviors you like in your dog and then work to achieve them with a proper relationship, training, and management program.

Brenda Rushman, CCBC

Default Behaviors...
Great Relationships...
Problem Behaviors...
Learning & Teaching
Replacement Behaviors...


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