This is not a dog training guide, nor am I a professional trainer. There are plenty of great guides on dog training out there. I’m writing this because despite the wide body of knowledge available, everywhere I go I see people struggling with their dogs. A couple days ago eating lunch I was next to two Chihuahuas going batshit insane when other dogs walked by. The young couple wrangling them looked defeated- resigned to a lifetime of anxiety at the paws of their untamable little beasts.
But I could train those dogs, I’m 100% confident. So why haven’t they? The easy answer is to blame the young couple for being bad owners, except I know for a fact that many bad owners have tried really hard to be good owners. So I think the world of dog training deserves some blame too. When students are trying their best but still failing, the teacher needs to try something different.
This is something different.
This is a list of 10 important things I’ve learned over 4 decades raising dogs, and yet rarely see in training guides. My tips are based on the traditional techniques though, so I’ve written up 5 quick refreshers from standard dog training to get us all on the same page:
Refresher #1. You’re the One Who Needs to Learn
Despite what those two frazzled owners might tell you, there was nothing wrong with those Chihuahuas. Nevertheless people with poorly trained dogs will almost always blame the pup for some sort of innate character flaw. The “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan has made an entire career out of exposing this misconception. Each week on his show he magically turns anxious and aggressive dogs into model citizens, and the owners are often shocked, because they assumed something was wrong with their pet. But really it was them.
If you ask most trainers, they will actually admit that their classes are mostly for training the owners, not the animals. Don’t worry though, you can do it!
Refresher #2. Training is Just Positive and Negative Feedback
At a basic level, training is just using positive and negative feedback to shape your dogs behavior. That’s it. It’s a lot like playing the “getting warmer/colder” guessing game with a friend, except instead of temperatures you’re providing positive and negative feedback. It might not seem like much, but your feedback can have a profound impact on your pup, especially in aggregate.
Refresher Tip #3. Training is Incremental
Even dogs that have been trained for complex behaviors didn’t get there all at once, they learned small step by step. A good example is training a “leave it” command, where you put something interesting down and treat them for reacting to “leave it” with even the slightest movement of their head away from the interesting object. Then very gradually you solidify and expand that reaction with positive feedback until you end up with a dog that will drop anything you ask. The same approach works for any behavior. Especially if your feedback is well timed.
Refresher Tip #4. Timing is Critical
At a neurological level, training is basically fusing connections between your feedback and the behavior so that it’s more/less likely to happen next time. But those connections weaken as time passes, especially with dogs because they’re very present-moment creatures (one of my favorite things about them). For example if you punish a dog for something they did an hour ago, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about: Why did you poop in the house earlier this afternoon? NO. Whereas if you’re able to provide your feedback immediately it’s much more effective: Why did you just poop in the house? NO.
An even better approach to house training is giving treats for going outside correctly, because positive feedback is much more effective for learning than negative feedback. Learning via negative feedback is a bit like having a GPS app that only notifies you of wrong turns rather than giving directions. Eventually you would arrive, but wouldn’t that suck?
Refresher Tip #5. Exercise & Socialization are Even More Critical
Dogs need exercise and play time pretty much every day. And I don’t mean a walk around the block, I mean real exercise and real play. Otherwise their bottled up energy will obliterate any sort of training, and probably your belongings too. I understand the deeper problem though- it’s really hard to find play time for dogs that don’t play well with others. It’s a vicious cycle: dogs that show aggressiveness get isolated from other dogs, which makes them even more reactive, which further isolates them, and so on until the relationship spirals down into a jail guard watching after a dangerous criminal. It’s unhealthy for everyone involved.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let us walk the uncommon path.
Uncommon Tip #1. Train the Mind
Most folks associate dog training with physical behaviors like sitting on command, but the most important training you can provide is for your dog’s mental state. The basic idea is to use your positive and negative feedback to steer them towards a relaxed state of mind. The importance of this cannot be overstated because a calm state of mind provides the foundation for all the healthy behavior you want, whereas anxious dogs tend to not listen and react unpredictably.
For example when dogs are freaking out, I often see people petting them reassuringly or picking them up, but from a conditioning standpoint that’s just encouraging their anxiety with positive feedback. A better approach would be to issue slight negative feedback to let them know you don’t approve of their mentality (but not too much because negative feedback itself also causes anxiety).
The best approach however, is providing positive feedback for the simple act of being calm, especially in a potentially anxious situation. When working with reactive dogs, when I see a dog coming, I’ll get a treat out and make sure mine knows about it. Then I watch closely as the other dog passes. If mine reacts anxiously even the slightest bit (note this is before any overt physical reaction) I immediately issue negative feedback and make a clear show of rescinding the treat. Alternatively, if they stay calm as the dog passes, boom they get the treat along with effusive praise. Over time, applying this type of feedback works wonders for establishing a consistently calm state of mind.
The key to this technique is learning to read your dog’s body language. Once you can identify their anxiety you’re well positioned to intervene with feedback to steer them towards a calm state of mind. Thankfully, dogs are very expressive and even come with a cheat code: tails.
In addition to their own non-verbal communication, dogs are also exceptional at reading the body language of others. In particular they watch their owners like hawks, which is why they tend to develop an uncanny resemblance to us.
Although hilarious, this type of mirroring is no coincidence, and holds an important key for my next tip: learning to manage your own body language.
Uncommon Tip #2. Lead Like a Military General
Dogs are pack animals and instinctually very hierarchical about power. You can see this at any dog park where a lot of “play” is actually dogs sorting out dominant and submissive roles. It’s an important concept to be aware of because dogs do the same thing with humans. They will challenge you in lots of small ways, fighting many little power struggles, and sometimes even big ones. They do this because it’s instinctual pack behavior to determine who’s in charge.
For example have you ever had a dog jump up at you? Or ignore you when calling them? Or constantly pull the leash on a walk? Those behaviors are all challenges to your role as leader in the relationship. People who let their dogs win these little power struggles unknowingly communicate weakness, and dogs are very perceptive to that type of thing because a weak leader is a threat to their own survival. Dogs that don’t trust their leadership will try to take over that role, which leads to anxiety and aggressive behaviors. Conversely strong leadership allows them to feel safe and shifts their psychology from a leader to follower mindset, which is exactly what you need for responsiveness to your commands (and a calm state of mind).
When Cesar Milan magically “fixes” dogs on his show, all he’s really doing is leveraging his own behavior and body language to assert himself as a strong, confident, no-nonsense leader, which allows the dogs to relax into a submissive role, relieved of their obligation to lead us through a world they don’t understand. To get a feel for this, imagine yourself as a General working with your new recruits.
How would a General react if a lieutenant ignored them and wandered off? The answer is that they would never allow it, not once, because anything less than 100% compliance is a major problem at war. Role-playing like this will also help you find the strong vocal inflection you need when issuing commands:
It may sound or feel a little over the top, but the fastidiously militant demeanor of a General is exactly the type of structured leadership dogs crave. Also over time something VERY AWESOME will happen- your dog will stop challenging you, and the relationship will develop a relaxed and easygoing cadence. I’ve created the following crappy graph to illustrate this:
Consider Tom Hanks in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Hanks is still very much in charge, but after fighting a war together, his authority no longer requires much effort. It’s just an accepted order operating in everyone’s best interest.
The Military General role-play is also helpful because Tom Hanks would never hit or physically abuse his charges, and neither should you.
Uncommon Tip #3. Keep Your Negative Feedback Positive
Hurting your dog isn’t just cruel, it’s also counterproductive, because physical abuse will scare the crap out of them and obliterate the foundation for all your training: the calm state of mind.
Negative feedback in general is actually pretty controversial in dog training, with many believing it has no place at all. I disagree because I do think it’s useful for orienting your dog away from certain behaviors. But as I mentioned with the wrong turns only GPS, negative feedback suffers as a learning tool because of how far removed it is from teaching the correct behavior. So whenever possible I recommend applying your negative feedback by removing positive feedback. The mental exercise I described earlier offers a good example, because I wasn’t overly punitive if the dog reacted anxiously to the passing dog, I simply took away the reward.
Recently I’ve been working with a dog that whines like a tea kettle when approaching fun places. At first I tried sternly telling him not to (negative feedback), but it wasn’t working. So lately I’ve been pulling the car over and waiting to continue forward until he stops whining. And the results have been spectacular- the whining is almost entirely gone. The key was applying my negative feedback (stopping) as the removal of positive feedback (progress to the destination). The same approach works great for leash walking too.
As an example of what not to do, sometimes I see people pinning dogs to the ground on their back to establish dominance and discipline. And I can see why that would seem helpful- the dog has disobeyed and they’re trying to restore the type of authoritative control I’m advocating. The problem is that by wrestling the dog they are using fear to establish their power, and fear is the least motivational type of power. Fear is also a weak form of power, because as soon as your Dog is in a position where they don’t fear you (eg. 100 yards away) your power over them can dissipate quickly. Great leaders provide structure and consequences, but not in a way that causes fear.
Great leaders don’t bully, they inspire.
Uncommon Tip #4. Set Them Free
Ultimately dogs are just wild animals under cover- wild animals that chose to enter a partnership with humans. As a strong leader you can never lose sight of that, lest you violate the sacred contract formed long ago when man and dog decided to become best friends: Respect them and they will respect you.
In return for obedience it’s your responsibility to provide them a great life, a life where they feel less like a prisoner and more like the member of an awesome team.
Violating the sacred contract can have dire consequences. About a year ago I was driving home and noticed a large Husky running loose down the sidewalk with two people chasing after him, calling desperately. The Husky stopped, looked back for a moment, and then darted into the street. I started honking and yelling but it was no use, he got hit by a car coming the other way.
I mention this awful story for two reasons. First, training your dog is truly a matter of life and death. Second, it’s significant to me that the Husky looked back, because that tells me he knew he was being called but decided against it. Why? My guess is that he wanted to feel free. I’ll bet he spent most of his life locked in controlled spaces or on a leash, and in that moment he wanted to feel truly alive.
In contrast, if I leave a door open Gyspy will look at me quizzically and wonder why the door is open. And again, that reaction has nothing to do with her breed or personality, it’s because I’ve conditioned her psychology to where she already feels free. In practical terms that means continually finding places to let her off-leash to explore the world on her own terms, such as hikes, dog beaches and dog parks. Certainly I can only do that because of how well trained she is, but the concept of setting them free is just as critical for the most poorly trained and aggressive dogs. For dogs caught in the vicious cycle of imprisonment, going for a run or some simple supervised social time with other dogs can be a real win. Feelings of joy are a type of freedom too, freedom from loneliness and suffering.
Wherever your dog is on the spectrum, setting them free basically turns the vicious cycle upside down. Suddenly all the momentum of your relationship is falling forward, building trust, and unlocking feelings of happiness that will benefit all other aspects of their life. But be warned, society will fight you on this. We live in a world that has reacted to so many untrained dogs by severely outlawing their rights and freedoms (not to mention your own from 9–5). As leader of your platoon though, that is your challenge and your adventure- finding ways for them to reconnect with their nature and their autonomy.
And there’s a trick to it, an important key that will unlock all sorts of opportunities to set them free: Recall.
Tip #5. Recall is THE Command
Being able to call your dog is the single most important command to train, for a few reasons:
- It can save your dogs life
- It allows you to set them free
- It allows you to correct any other unwanted behavior
For these reasons, recall should occupy a very special place in your training. And yet many people really mess it up. To understand why, we need to put our positive/negative feedback glasses back on. When owners first get a dog, they generally train recall pretty well, practicing their pup’s name and providing lots of positive feedback. Once the dog learns however, owners often stop training it and transition to using recall as the default punishment for bad behavior. For example, say you’re at the park and your dog starts eating someone’s picnic lunch- you would call it over and scold it, right? Or when it’s time to leave, you call your dog, yes? Because of how recall gets used on a daily basis, it’s easy for negative feedback to build up and destroy the initial learned behavior.
There are a few keys to avoiding this. First, never stop drenching recall with positive associations, especially at the park or somewhere you might normally only call them for bad behavior or going home. I generally won’t bother my dogs for the first 15 minutes at a park so they can burn off some energy, but then I’ll periodically call, reward, and release throughout the entire visit. The quick release is important because of how easy it is for recall commands to get associated with being confined. Each time you can provide a positive outcome is a real win for the command.
The second key is responding correctly when they fail. Many people will react to being ignored by their dog by shrugging helplessly, while others will get angry and yell at the dog until it fearfully obeys. But both are terrible for your feedback training- the first teaches that your commands are optional, and the second attaches a ton of negative feedback to your most important command.
Instead, if they ignore you, I recommend calmly walking over (body language), leashing them, and putting them in a quick 2 minute timeout. Doing this provides important structure and consequences for their behavior, but in a way that doesn’t attach lots of negative feelings to the command itself. This is a great example of tip #4 in action- negative feedback via the removal of positive feedback (play time). Note that if you’re unable to walk over and leash the dog, you’ll need to take a few incremental steps back and practice in smaller spaces.
The last key is to strategically practice recall at times when they’re likely to respond correctly. I like to watch for moments when their attention shifts from something specific to just kinda looking around, and then boom: “GYPSY, COME!” (Note the dog’s name is a cue to get their attention, followed by the command itself, because the command could be something else like leave it.) Choosing that exact moment for recall gives your command an excellent chance of working, and providing a little victory that will build momentum for the next. In a way, training a dog is a bit like starting a fire, and those little victories are your tiny sparks. They may not seem like much, but they hold potential for building a level of obedience beyond anything you could have imagined.
For example, did you know it’s pretty easy to teach dogs not to run into the street?
Tip #6. Teach the Street
Streets are the single greatest threat to your dog’s life, and yet training for streets generally lands somewhere between horrendous and non-existent. For example I often see people making their pups sit down before they cross the street. But what precisely is that sit teaching the dog? And are owners really going to keep that up consistently? (No). It frustrates me because the street is actually pretty easy to teach. There are two things to know:
First, dogs are actually pretty good at recognizing the difference between streets and sidewalks, because the street is an expanse of boring concrete whereas the sidewalk + yards are full of wonderful things to smell. So rather than putting them in a sit, teach them the curb as a boundary, and teach them to never step off the curb into the street without you. To train this I like to walk with a dog right along the curb, essentially tempting them to step off, and once they do I’ll freak the fuck out (negative feedback) to establish the boundary. Then I follow up with lots of positive feedback as we continue walking near the edge together, looking especially for those moments when the dog considers stepping off and decides against it.
Combined with strong recall, this type of training can create all sorts of opportunities for precious freedom. For example normally it would be unsafe to let your dog run free near all these streets:
But training for a relaxed mind + recall + the street unlocks the spaces.
Of course you have to cross the street eventually, so my second bit of advice is that crossing the street is an awesome opportunity to use a Heel command. Specifically, before crossing I’ll stop briefly at the curb to acknowledge the boundary (no sitting needed), issue an authoritative heel command, cross with strict heel enforcement, and then a release command immediately when reaching the other side. Doing this reinforces the boundary on both sides and provides an important element of security when crossing streets, because allowing any sort of leash radius can be VERY dangerous in traffic.
Speaking of leashes…
Uncommon Tip #7. Use a Normal Leash
Walking a dog on a leash seems simple in theory, but it’s actually one of the more complex and difficult behaviors to train. So although I consider my previous tips more critical, I wanted to include a few quick tips on leash walking so it doesn’t become a source of tension in your relationship. 😉
Let’s start with the leash and collar itself, because lately I’ve noticed more and more pet stores advocating fancy harnesses over a standard collar and leash. But the leash was never the problem in the first place, and many of the new devices can cause their own problems. So my first tip is to use a normal collar and normal leash like this one:
Which is to say, I don’t recommend using a harness like this:
Reason being, the leash is a tool for communication and control, and both are diminished by the harness. Located at the back and chest, the harness sits on a very strong part of the animal, so they can counteract your strength much more effectively (ie. pull the bejeezus out of you). And it’s also just a less sensitive area, so it dulls your communication. Granted, any harness is still better than one of these god-forsaken things:
Retractable leashes are the worst possible leash you can have, because once fully extended they’re much too long to exert any control. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the retract mechanism is also too weak to reel them back in, so you’re left to recoil the leash by hand, except the retractable cord has to be pretty thin in order to retract, and will thus cut into your hand. Gah! Total disaster.
So that brings us back to the normal leash. I recommend holding it twice- once at the end, and again about halfway. It’s easiest with two hands but can also be done with one.
The far hand is the main grip, such that the middle hand can slide up and down to either shorten or lengthen as needed.
It’s a bit like playing the violin, and the goal is great communication.
Uncommon Tip #8. Listen to Your Leash Language
Everyone speaks a leash language whether they realize it or not. Some people tense the leash around other dogs, which communicates fear. Other people yank their dogs around, which communicates a lack of respect. Instead I recommend aiming for a nice slack leash to convey a relaxed state of mind. And then, when necessary, correcting them with lots of short quick tugs rather than pulling. Many dogs react to being pulled by pulling back, whereas almost all will react to a series of little tugs by moving to stop the tugs, especially if you stop the second they move correctly.
In the following videos I’m doing some light work to bring an anxious dog back towards a calm state of mind (tip #1), so feel free to skip through them, but they do show some nice examples of the quick tugs technique for providing corrective feedback via the leash.
Rather than yanking the dog around with heavy pulling, I’m using a series of quick tugs to communicate my negative feedback, and a slack leash to provide positive feedback. Not pulling on them is also important because it’s sets a precedent for them to not pull you either.
Uncommon Tip #9. Don’t Let Them Walk in Front of You
There are lots of different tips online about getting your dog not to pull you, but my recommendation is simple- never let them walk in front of you. For one thing, letting them lead you sends a strong signal that you want their leadership and protection, which is the opposite of the attitude and role we want from them. But also, once the dog is in front of you, pulling is basically inevitable as the world prompts them to sniff just a little further out.
Instead I give my dogs all sorts of freedom to the sides and behind me, but never in front. The best way to train this is to literally stop when they go in front of you, prompting them to return to your side (by voice is best) before continuing forward. This is basically tip #3 in action- providing negative feedback (stopping) by the removal of positive feedback (moving forward). Another good way to train this is to stop and go the opposite direction when they start to lead, or to take lots of sharp turns. The goal is for them learn to follow you, not the path ahead.
Holding the leash twice is important for this, because if the dog wants to explore back or to the side, I allow the full length of the leash to slide out, giving them some nice freedom. But as soon as they’re ready to walk forward, I shorten the middle hand back up so they can’t get ahead of me.
Walking correctly is takes discipline though, so my final tip is to acknowledge and respect that effort by providing a release command when the job is done.
Uncommon Tip #10. All Commands Need a Release
All commands need a start and a finish. For example if you put them in a heel and don’t remember to release them, over time the dog will begin deciding when to release themselves. In contrast, clearly communicating the end of a command strongly improves their focus and execution during the command. I personally like to use the language “Ok” or “You’re free”.
No doubt some folks will be critical of this list because most everyone has an opinion about dog training. But my goal here has been to describe something bigger than any individual training technique, which is the nature of anxiety in dogs, and the magical type of relationship that can save them from it.
And with that, you are now free as well. I thank you for walking with me, and I hope that these tips will be help you and your pup live happier lives together.
1. You Are the One Who Needs to Learn
2: Training is Just Positive and Negative Feedback
3. Training is Incremental
4. Timing is Critical
5. Exercise & Socialization are Even More Critical
1. Train the Mind
2. Lead Like a Military General
3. Keep Your Negative Feedback Positive
4. Set Them Free
5. Recall is THE Command
6. Teach the Street
7. Use a Normal leash
8. Listen to Your Leash Language
9. Don’t Let Them Walk in Front of You
10. All Commands Need a Release
Many thanks to my editor Mandy and two cadets Sonny and Gypsy.