Training: The Basics

By Jo Vale

Dog training has developed greatly in recent years to promote a kinder approach to our dogs and only teach using a force free approach and positive reinforcement. Previously, we have been told that our dogs need to learn to respect us and that we need to be the alpha in the pack. Pack theory and alpha theory have now been disproven in the scientific world and modern dog training is moving far away from teaching that we need to prove to our dogs that we are ‘alpha’ and in favour of positive reinforcement. The basic principle of positive reinforcement, is that if you reward your dog for doing something, they are more likely to do it again. This is not only good for us to efficiently train our dogs, but good for our dogs to build confidence and live happier lives.

When we face unhappy dogs displaying behavioural problems, we need to think outside of the box of what has caused this. Dogs suffer from trigger stacking which can lead them to show aggression when they have had too many triggers stacked over and they are over their threshold and essentially find the straw that breaks the camels back. We explain this using spoons! If your dog starts the day with 10 spoons, 1 spoon may be used for a small stress such as the postman. If they then go on a walk where they encounter lots of scary things such as big groups of dogs, being touched by people they don’t want to be touched by and this uses up the dogs 9 other spoons, when the dog gets home, they have no spoons left and can have a total meltdown at the postman, as they have no more spoons left. Dogs can also take time to build their spoons up again. This means keeping them in their safe zone, away from stresses and may mean avoiding walks for a day or two. 

When we are dealing with aggression in our dogs, we also need to be aware of signs they can give us before they reach full on aggression. There is a ladder of aggression signs we need to be aware of. They may show signs of discomfort by licking their lips or turning their body away initially. It is vital we listen to these subtle signs from our dogs so they do not need to escalate their behaviour further. Growling and snapping usually come before a dog bites, if we punish these behaviours in our dogs they are less likely to do them in the future, which is dangerous as then we have no warning from our dog that they are uncomfortable and likely to bite. If a dog is growling, we need to remove the dog from the situation where they are stressed, fearful and/or uncomfortable and then refer back to thinking about how many of their spoons this has used before we ask anything else from our dogs.

Enrichment is a way of feeding our dogs in a stimulating way which engages them and allows them to use their natural motor patterns. It builds dogs confidence by allowing them to problem solve, aids their mental health, boredom busts and decrease the likelihood of destructive behaviours in the house. It is useful if your dog is low on spoons and isn’t up to a walk that day, if you are going out and leaving them home alone and you want to give them something to do and for just day to day brain engagement! This can be achieved by just using your dogs meals and hiding it around the house or garden, wrapping it in towels for them to figure it or putting it in old recycling bottles and boxes. There are also dog games which you can purchase to hide the food in for your dogs to sniff it out. It is important to start off easy for your dog to keep it fun for them, and then increase difficulty as they get better at it! Have a look at SeBPRA’s top enrichment toys here.

Separation anxiety is also something our dogs are at risk of and we need to do all we can to prevent our dogs suffering from it. We recommend playing ‘the flitting game’. Where you flit from room to room, fiddling with something in between and let your dog realise there is no reason to follow you. You can then build up the amount of time you are away from your dog which your dog is comfortable with this. Separation anxiety is easier to treat the earlier on you spot signs of it. We would recommend when leaving your dog, start with very small periods of time and have a camera set up to watch your dog. Look for signs of pacing, howling, urinating on the floor and scratching at door frames. There is a difference between separation anxiety and just boredom when home alone. Boredom can be fixed to an extent with providing enrichment while you are gone (being cautious not to give anything which could be a choking hazard) and providing exercise before you leave to give your dog a better chance of feeling restful.

If you do decide you would like to do further training with your dog, always make sure your trainer or behaviourist has a professional qualification. Dog training is an unregulated industry and there are a lot of trainers who still promote averse techniques and equipment. Below are links to training organisations we support:

ABPC– Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors

IMDT– Institute of Modern Dog Trainers

CAPBT– COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers

APDT– Association of Pet Dog Trainers

We also recommend all adopters join this Facebook group and read through the guides which are provided free of charge. 

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