Pets: Seven lessons in teaching

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Pets: Seven lessons in teaching
Kevin Gilliam is the lead obedience trainer at Frolick Dogs.Photo/Kim Gilliam
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By Kim Gilliam

Our dogs bring us joy, but a disobedient dog or one with behavioral issues can also be a constant source of stress for both ends of the leash. Dog training creates a common language that can help you communicate with each other. It also provides the all-important mental stimulation that tires dogs out and keeps them happy. No matter your pup’s age, breed or temperament, every dog can benefit from instruction.

Training has a number of other benefits as well. It builds your relationship with your pup, can be a great source of exercise as you open up opportunities to take them along with you on adventures, improves your dog’s safety as they are under control and looking to you for behavioral cues, helps them handle different social situations with more confidence and a relaxed demeanor and can help when you leave them with others – like at the vet or boarding – making those visits less stressful. Plus, it’s fun!

So you’ve dedicated time to training, great. But do you ever feel like your dog is just ignoring you? That can happen sometimes. Just take a step back to think through the possible reasons why and how you can address them.

1. Be clear on what you want. Make sure you are giving clear, concise cues. Dogs tend to understand “sit,” but may have trouble with “please sit, darling, so I can put your collar on and we can go outside for a walk.”

2. Use high value treats. Food gets your dog excited about training and can actually rewire their brain to feel calmer and happier in stressful situations. Use delicious, aromatic treats to ensure your dog doesn’t ignore you, then reward your dog regularly to keep them motivated.

3. Mix it up. Your dog may hesitate to come when called because they don’t know whether they’re getting a treat or a bath. Try to make rough experiences more pleasant. For example, visit your vet just to say hello; they’ll be happy to pet your dog and offer them a treat when you pop by.

4. Be considerate. Your dog may prefer to do their “roll over” trick on a soft carpet, not the hard kitchen floor. They may be refusing to sit if they’re on hot sand or gravel. Think through any environmental or physical conditions that may cause them to refuse.

5. Build up to distracting environments. Pups listen perfectly in your living room but act totally differently at the park as noises and other distractions make it difficult to focus. Practice in your backyard or somewhere a little bit more distracting than your living room and keep training short and easy. As you increase distractions, use higher value treats. Have your dog work for a minute, then release them to sniff freely.

6. Help them generalize. You tell your dog “sit” in your living room while you’re sitting on the couch. That doesn’t easily translate to “sit while I’m standing, holding your leash, while I’m catching up with my friend at the park.” You’ll need to practice in different scenarios to drive that cue home.

7. Keep it fun. The stress of training can make your dog anxious. If you’re feeling frustrated with them, they can pick up on that. They may yawn, sniff the ground and avoid eye contact. Keep training sessions short, light-hearted and fun and give treats generously. It should always feel like a game, not a chore.

Working through these issues will not only help to strengthen your bond with your dog, but just think how impressed your friends and neighbors will be when they see you out training in your hood or showing off your pup’s tricks at your next get-together.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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