Are You Speaking Your Dog’s Language?

Dog behavior problems usually stem from some underlying issue in the dog-owner relationship.

How to train a dog? Professional trainers will tell you the dog is the easy part. The real challenge is training the owner.

Often it can seem to owners that behavior problems in dogs arise out of nowhere.

But this is rarely the case.

Dogs don’t behave randomly. They respond to their surroundings.

Behavioral problems that might manifest in one way, invariably have their origin in other parts of the dog-owner relationship.

But the good news is dogs can absolutely learn new tricks — and new behaviors. If you have a dog with behavior problems, it’s a good idea to go back to basics.

Whatever the issue is, chances are it’s your fault.

Don’t get defensive. Bear with me here.

If it’s a rescue dog, you might have inherited some past patterns. But if it’s a dog you’ve raised from a pup, it’s going to be something you’ve done. Yes, you. And me. The human in the equation.

Dogs learn whatever we teach. And we humans send an awful lot of mixed messages.

How to train a dog to be well behaved

Step one is take responsibility. Stop blaming your dog. If pup is not getting something, it’s because you’re not teaching it right.

You’ve got to learn to speak dog. How to communicate with a dog? The key is to realize that everything you do is sending your pup a message. He doesn’t start paying attention when you decide to teach him something and then stop listening for the rest of the day. He is constantly observing you and reaching conclusions about where he fits in the household and what’s expected of him in any given situation. Your dog pays more attention to you and all your subtle cues than any human you’ll ever know.

If things have gone awry, here are 13 simple things you can do to reestablish dominance and get yourselves back on track.

1. Dogs do what works …and what they can get away with

This means you need to be consistent if you want to resolve behavioural problems in dogs. If it’s okay to get on the couch when Dad is home but not when it’s Mom, that’s no good. It’s confusing as hell and if this is how you’re running the show, it’s no wonder pup doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing. Make a clear rule and stick to it. That means everyone. Getting the rules straight before your new pup arrives should be part of how you prepare for a new puppy.

2. Be a good leader (or get ready for dog behavior problems)

Dogs want to know their place in the world.

When they feel uncertain, it can manifest as behavior problems. It’s much more comfortable to be a good follower dog than to be constantly vying for the leadership. Across the board, how to train a dog effectively comes down to clear communication and steady, gentle authority. You’re the owner. You must be the leader. Dogs want to know you have things in hand. That you’ll make the decisions and keep them safe. Rules for a dog (not unlike for a human child) create a sense of security within which they can relax.

You’re not doing your pup any favors if you let him call the shots. Leave no room for confusion in his mind as to who’s in control and what his role is.

Be kind and firm and consistent. But be the boss. Be the leader your dog deserves.

3. No dogs in bed

Judging by all the photos of dogs and humans in bed together on facebook, this is going to be a controversial one. But here goes.

Sleeping together is what littermates do. If you’re a dog, sharing a bed means you’re equals.

Should your dog sleep in your bed? From a training perspective, no.

My dog is so clear that the bed is for humans that you can’t get him up there if you try. His comfort zone is the floor, and he prefers his own bed. It’s what he’s been taught.

If your dog is in your bed it’s not because he needs to be there. It’s because you want him there. That’s okay. Just recognize the message you’re sending and consider rethinking things if you’re getting behavioral issues.

4. No dogs on furniture

Height means dominance. If a dog is allowed up on the furniture it’s signalling to him that he’s equal to the humans.

However if there are clear boundaries, and chairs and couches etc are no-go zones, it reinforces that he doesn’t have free range. There are limits he has to respect.

Having this kind of rule also helps you keep your space less dogified, especially if you’re living in an apartment with your dog.

5. Nothing for free

Your dog should earn everything.

How to train a dog to behave well generally? Insist on good manners at every juncture.

Teach him to sit for dinner. Expect eye contact before giving permission to go out the door or off the curb. Give your pupper lots of opportunities to perform tasks and be rewarded.

Dogs like a routine, they like to think and learn, and they like to please. Channel your dog’s energy into constructive outlets and you will avoid behavior problems.

6. People eat first

This is another pecking order thing. The dominant pack member eats first.

If you feed your dog first from when he’s a puppy, it’s confusing because that’s telling him he’s the leader, over you. Then when you expect obedience to your authority, it doesn’t make sense to his dog mind. You’ve got to be top dog not just when you feel like it or when it matters, but all the time.

This rule extends to most parts of life. Humans go through doors first, too. It mightn’t seem important. But it’s about establishing and maintaining a social hierarchy.

In all these little ways every day you are either confusing your dog or reinforcing the message that you are the leader and he is the follower.

As an adult it might be okay for your dog to go out first, as long as you don’t have any dog behavior problems and only after he’s been given permission. For safety, and for the sake of consistent messaging, you still want him to wait and look to you for the green light first.

7. Embody a calm, positive energy. It’s infectious

Dogs feed off our energy. If you’re nervous, if you’re frustrated, if you’re angry… it’s all going to transmit to your pup.

Don’t train when you’re feeling upset or impatient or negative.

You need to always be on an even keel and in a good mood when dealing with your dog because he’s going to take his cues from you.

If he barks and you yell at him to shut up, you’re just giving him more of the behavior he’s just given you. It escalates the situation, rather than defusing it. Knowing how to talk with your dog when he’s in trouble is important. Take it down a notch.

8. All food through you

This is about sending the message that you are the key to his happiness. If he wants food, rather than stare at the food or grab it.. he should look to you. Because he knows the permission to get the food comes from you. You’re the gatekeeper of all things.

This might sound controlling. It’s not. Dogs thrive on rules. When they know which behaviors bring the rewards, watch them choose to offer you those behaviors every chance they get.

When things are chaotic and they’re confused as to the cause and effect, dogs will try to get what they want any which way. Trial and error makes sense in the face of an uncertain environment. But it’s not conducive to shaping a secure, well-adjusted and well-behaved dog.

9. No stealing rewards

If you let your dog off the leash and instead of coming when you call he runs away and chases a flock of birds or plays with another dog, you’ve missed the moment. He’s already stolen his reward and learned the behavior (disobeying you and running off) delivers wonderful pay-off in terms of fun, excitement and stimulation.

When training recalls or any other behavior, you can’t control what your dog does. But you must control the consequences of his choices i.e. have him on a long line so that when he goes to run off, instead of getting the thrill of the chase, he gets a jerk on the harness and is a correction…after which he ends up coming to you, for which he gets rewarded for the right behavior, instead of the wrong one.

Susan Garrett teaches this principle really well with one of her signature games called It’s yer choice. It’s also about helping your dog build impulse control. As far as how to train a dog goes, I highly recommend reading one of Susan Garrett’s books.

10. A word about how to teach a dog to come

Never make your dog come to you for unpleasant things. Don’t call him to you at bathtime. Go and get him and take him to the bath. Don’t call him to you when it’s time to leave the park and go home. Definitely do not ever call him back to you to be punished.

If you want to deliver a firm “No!” For a bad behavior, you must go to where he is and catch him in the act. Coming to you should always be a thing of joy for your dog. Part of developing a rock solid recall is him knowing for 100% certain that if he comes to you it will end in pats and rewards and play.

11. Catch your dog doing the right thing and reward reward reward

Don’t fall into a pattern of constantly correcting and rousing at your dog. Avoid having the problem behavior taint your whole rapport. The bond between the two of you is crucial. Whatever you’re trying to teach, make sure he’s succeeding most of the time. If he’s not getting it, go back a few steps or reduce the difficulty of what you’re asking so that he can do it, and gradually increase the difficulty as he masters each level.

12. How to train a dog? Ignore bad behaviors

This doesn’t mean let your dog get way with whatever he wants. On the contrary. It means make damn sure he does not get attention for doing the wrong thing.

How to stop a dog jumping on people

If he jumps on people when he gets excited, make sure whoever he’s jumped on immediately withdraws and turns their back on the dog or even leaves the room. Pretty quickly pup will learn jumping is getting him the exact opposite thing to what he wants, which is attention and interaction.

How to stop a dog barking at people

If your dog barks at you when he gets excited, same thing. Drop everything, stop what you’re doing and turn away. Do it every time he barks at you and he’ll make the connection. When he stays quiet, turn back and carry on but be ready to withdraw and halt the fun the moment he barks again.

How to stop a dog biting

The same approach works for how to stop a dog from biting.

How to get a dog to stop biting is pretty straightforward. Withdraw your hands and stop interacting with him. Make the consequence of the undesirable behavior clear and immediate — and not what the dog wants.

It’s not a delivering of punishment so much as a withdrawal of reward and then a resumption of attention/reward once the dog decides to discontinue the bad behavior and offer a good behavior in its place.

How to stop a puppy from biting

If your dog is actually a puppy, just give him some time. He’s a baby. Puppies will bite and their teeth are sharp so it hurts. But it is a phase and it will pass. You can still use the above strategy in the meantime, but don’t expect miracles from an 8 week old puppy. He will learn.

13. Teach a new, incompatible behavior

One principle of cognitive behavioral therapy in humans goes something like this. If you’re having unwanted thoughts — like negative self talk, say — the way to eradicate those thoughts is to replace them with other, incompatible thoughts.

So, if you’re thinking, “My life sucks. I’m really depressed right now”, the idea is to catch yourself and instead of wallowing in the negative thought, deliberately think of one thing you are grateful for. The idea is you can’t think two incompatible thoughts at the same time, and so the positive thought will crowd out the negative. Over time if you practice this technique, it becomes a habit and you start feeling better.

It’s the same when considering how to train a dog.

If your dog is doing an unwanted behavior — let’s say chasing possums up trees — then you can un-train that behavior by teaching your dog to do another, incompatible behavior at that exact moment.

So, when your dog spots a possum, have him sit and reward with a high value treat. He cannot chase possums if he’s sitting down — so the new behavior is incompatible with the old one that you are trying to stamp out. The treat is also a major distraction from the possum.

If you train the new behavior strongly enough, the old one will fade away because your pupper can only do one thing at once. It won’t happen overnight but if you practice practice practice, your dog will learn to associate seeing a possum with immediately sitting down for a reward, instead of giving chase.

Nice work!

Concluding thoughts on how to train a dog

The moral of the story is: don’t give up on a dog with behaviour problems. Don’t get frustrated. Get a strategy.

Problem behaviors are fixable.

You can tweak these rules as you like and you may be able to relax them once your dog’s into adulthood and accepts and respects the pecking order. I don’t always eat first now, depending what’s going on at home. But in the beginning, and for setting up the lay of the land clearly in your dog’s mind, these strategies are powerful.

Keep a grip on any emerging behavior problems with dogs. If you notice backsliding or new issues, go back to square one and reestablish order in both your minds.

More reading

How to leave a dog home alone (and happy)

Mucus in dog poop: Why it’s not necessarily a bad sign