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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Training Techniques

Stefanie has written before and sent this to me...

You may remember me as having a 14 year old Queensland Heeler/Australian Shepherd mix (Shadow) that had a squamous cell carcinoma on her left tonsil and soft palate. Just days ago I had to have her put down. While her spirit and mind were willing - she was having more frequent episodes of gagging on her tumor - so I made the most humane decision I could for her and rather than have her choke to death on it, I took her to the vet and had them euthanize her. Very difficult to say the least. The silence at my house is deafening. The pain of losing her - physical and emotional in a way I didn't expect.

As I am not ready financially for another dog (not emotionally either - but do want to do something productive rather than wallow in the loss) - I was looking into fostering dogs through a rescue group as these organizations generally cover vet costs so I would be helping out a dog in need without the financial burden I am not quite able to take on again just yet. My question is how best to train any dogs that are in my care so that they are more adoptable. I have to admit that with Shadow - I was definitely a novice in the art of raising a dog. I probably did most things incorrectly - let her sleep on the bed, jump up on the couch, lead in our walks, counter surf, just to mention a few. Now, while I didn't mind these behaviors and we got along really well - I realize that these things are not readily acceptable to most people. Any recommendations on training techniques? There are just so many different books and authors on the subject and they all have widely differing opinions on how to train a dog. Since you have an interest in animal behavior - I thought you might be able to offer some valuable advice.

First, Stefanie, let me express my sincere condolences.  Having been there myself, I know how hard this can be.

There are indeed many different training techniques, and it can be difficult to figure out which ones to use.  Honestly, most of them have at least some validity.  Personally and professionally I recommend techniques that rely on positive reinforcement.  I do not believe in the various methods of dominance training, such as alpha-rolls or similar tricks, and the opinion of most behavioral specialists is the same.  Negative reinforcement techniques are more difficult to use than methods that rely on rewarding good behavior.  These positive reinforcement techniques have been shown to be much more effective and faster in guiding desired behavior.

Also, some people may feel personally more comfortable with the tricks outline in some methods versus others.  Techniques that may be uncomfortable or difficult for you to use aren't going to be effective.  Especially with fostering pets, you want something simple and easy for you to do.  Also, you'll want methods that are easy for new pet owners to learn, as they will need to continue the training.  Pets won't retain good behavior unless it continues to be reinforced.  You can't train a pet and expect them to be forever properly behaved without continued work.

You'll also want to concentrate on basic training, such as housebreaking, simple commands, not jumping on people, and so on.  These are really the behaviors people want, and it's not necessary to worry about more specialized tricks.  So find books and methods that will give you good tricks for these types of behaviors.

All of that being said, I don't have a specific book or trainer that I recommend. You will have to look through the resources you have available and see which works best for you with the guidelines I've given.  Best of luck to you, Stefanie.


  1. I would really urge you to find a good trainer rather than rely on books.
    The reason for this is because it takes allot of time and patients to really help a dog learn. A good trainer creates a plan and then re-enforces your training again and again and again. ( notice I said your training)Most of this is about training you and you pass that onto the dog.
    I agree that only positive reward based traing should be used esp for novices like us.
    If you are willing to do a little selling it is possible to call trainers and work out a trade. You be the helper in exchange for lessons.
    Also there are shelters that have training programs which is less expensive, sometimes they will teach you basic training if you will in turn train shelter dogs.
    To understand how hard training is try this fun test.
    Get a friend to let you "train" them for a session. You cannot speak to that friend, you can only show your friend what you want by using treats.
    It is allot of fun and will give you an idea of how hard it can be to translate an idea to a pet.

  2. Thank you Dr. Bern and Rockjdog for your comments. I'm also in agreement with the positive reward based training - it just doesn't feel natural to me to use the "dominant" sort of training I know is popular with some people. The rescue group I will be fostering for actually advocate positive reward methods as well and offer free training services which I will be happy to use. Books are helpful - but I know there is nothing like learning hands on how to communicate with a dog.


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