how to train a dog

My dog won’t take no for an answer

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“My dog has many good points but does not take no for an answer and is very disobedient when he appears to be totally deaf.”

So wrote a reader of her “challenging” dog.

Well, I’m glad the poor dog’s owner recognises he has good points! But the rest of her statement means that she doesn’t understand her dog or his motivation one bit.

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Disobedient. The dictionary tells us this means “refusing to obey rules or someone in authority”. Now if you’re to obey rules, you have to know what those rules are. And I’m willing to bet this dog has NO idea what the rules are that he’s meant to “obey”!

A common misconception

There seems to be an extraordinary misunderstanding rife amongst dog-owners. They think their dog arrives pre-programmed with English (or Spanish, or Turkish, or whatever they speak themselves). They think that the dog will have a perfect understanding of the meaning of words enunciated loudly and with clarity. So “SIT!” should immediately have the dog sitting.

Furthermore, they think that all their physical expressions and vocal tones will be instantly understood. So “NOOOOOO!” said in a menacing way with finger wagging will clearly mean “Take your paws off the table and go to your basket.”

How is your non-verbal, non-human, dog meant to know this?

Teach first

In the first place, your dog needs to be taught what it is that’s wanted - not left to guess, take pot-luck and hope he gets it right.

You have to give the dog information about what it is you want, not just what you don’t want.

Think of a toddler in your home. You’d be showing her what you wanted, kindly and patiently, naming objects and actions in that motherly chatty way that comes naturally to loving parents. Requests would come as suggestions, (Do you think your teddy bear would like to have tea now?) You wouldn’t bark orders at her! You wouldn’t expect her to understand language before she is verbal herself!

You may treat your dog the exact same way. And it’ll help if you think of how you get your wishes known and followed with your human family.

Cues not commands

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Do you order, or “command” your partner or family?

Or do you perhaps ask them?

Perhaps you drop hints, without even saying anything at all! For instance, you may come home exhausted and throw yourself into an armchair. A sensitive family member may say “I’ll put the shopping away for you - would you like a cup of tea?” Or even, “You make us a cup of tea and I’ll deal with all these groceries.”

We give and take. We assess a person’s mood and act accordingly. We adapt our requirements to the situation. We are kind and patient (if we want to keep the peace!).

In enlightened dog training, we call these communications - not “commands” but “cues”. They can be vocal cues (“Would you like to sit?”), or they could be environmental cues (I’m holding your lead - if you want me to put it on you for a walk you need to sit). And no, they don’t understand every word - neither does your toddler. But they can get the drift.

So if you take the word “command” right out of your vocabulary you may find that straight away you get on better with your dog. Really!

You have asked your dog to Sit and she doesn’t. Instead of shouting SIT ever louder and more urgently, you may ask yourself why she doesn’t sit:

• Is it because she’s in pain?

• Is it because the floor is slippery so she’s unable to prop herself up?

• Is it because it’s wet and muddy and she’s a comfort-lover? (My whippet wouldn’t dream of sitting on wet grass - and I’d never ask her to!)

• Is it because she’s distracted by the dog over the road/the postman/children screaming/the shopping bags on the floor/[insert your dog’s fear or fancy here]?

• … or is it perhaps because you never taught her?

“Disobedient” and other such words

The dictionary gives us related words for disobedient:

unruly, wayward, errant, disorderly, delinquent, disruptive, troublesome, rebellious, defiant, mutinous, recalcitrant, uncooperative, non-compliant, wilful, unbiddable, intractable, obstreperous, awkward, difficult, perverse, contrary, naughty, mischievous …

I’ve heard almost all of those words applied to a dog’s behaviour by a frustrated and thwarted owner! Often it’s new dog-owners talking about their first puppy. They clearly are labouring under the misapprehension I outlined above, and are expecting miraculous perception from this baby of another species.

Usually I suggest they substitute the word they’ve used (often stubborn, difficult, disobedient) with a word which better fits the situation: try fearful, shy, overexcited, hungry, overtired … perhaps the sort of words you may use to describe that little toddler who is not doing what you’d like.

We all have reasons for doing things

Of one thing you may be sure - dogs don’t do things for no reason.

You may not be able to see or understand the reason - but there is a reason! And as we’re meant to be the ones with the bigger brains, and we chose to have this dog live with us, it’s up to us to work out what that reason is.

You’ll find some study of Dog Body Language will repay you well (see Resources below). Your dog will heave a huge sigh of relief when at last you seem to understand his clear messages! And no, they’re not obvious to most of us dumb humans till they’re explained to us.

Once you know whether your dog is just distracted or - perhaps - afraid, you’ll be able to deal accordingly with the situation. Keep in mind that you cannot train an emotion-based behaviour out of a dog. They’re not operating on a rational basis at that moment, any more than your shrieking toddler who wants something she can’t get.

So, as I replied to the reader I quoted at the top of this piece, assess the situation carefully before you apportion blame. Your dog needs your help and understanding, not condemnation.

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Little things DO matter - for your dog everything matters

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“It’s only the dog - he won’t notice.” 


He will.

Dogs notice so much more than we tend to. If you come home with your dog and someone’s left a parcel on the table - doesn’t your dog race over to inspect it immediately? Anything that’s different or out of place will be subject to scrutiny. 

The dog has your home all mapped out in his mind. He knows just where everything is - or where it should be. And reflecting on this will help you “clean up” a lot of the things you ask your dog to do.

Maybe when he first learnt them he seemed to do ok.

Maybe as time has gone by, his responses are slower and woollier.

And just maybe ... it’s not his fault?

“Dogs don’t generalise very well”

You may have heard that statement on your training journey with your dog. It means that if they learn how to sit, in the kitchen, with the oven on their left and the fridge on their right, they may struggle to sit when you ask for it somewhere else. “Where’s the oven? Where’s the fridge? Oh no! Where am I meant to be?” Dogs are, as I said above, very locationally-aware.

So it’s normal training practice to teach an action, then “generalise” it by doing it in lots of different places - the bedroom, the garden, beside the car, on a walk. Gradually your dog realises that Sit simply means placing his bum on the floor, immediately, regardless of where he is (this could be a lifesaver one day).

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While you’re doing this you’ll also be “proofing” his action, so he can do it whether you are sitting, standing, facing the other way, walking … 

This is the way to get an all-weather, instant, Sit.

“I’ve sat, now what?”

Similarly, learning to sit should also include learning when to release. So that “SIT” means “Sit till I tell you otherwise”. No need to yell “STAY STAY STAY Ah-ah!” with accompanying wagging finger, at your dog, if he knows that he only moves from his sit when released. This is a detail that most pet-owners forget to teach - or rather, they don’t know they need to teach it in the first place. But doesn’t it make a lot of sense once you think about it?

If you look at it from the dog’s point of view, is a Sit something you do for a split-second before jumping up again? Or is it a careful placing of the bum on the floor … till you feel like moving? Or does it mean what it says? “Sit.” Just sit!

There's a difference for us in whether we touch a button on our phone, or press it, or hold it down. We have different words to describe those actions, otherwise it would be very hit and miss.

If we’re not clear in what we understand and mean, we’re not going to be able to convey that information to our dog - who will be so happy to oblige once he knows what it is that you want!

Maybe you’re thinking that this is a fuss over nothing - that as long as when you say “Sit” your dog (eventually) parks himself, however briefly - you’re happy? But wouldn’t you and your dog both be much happier still if you were both clear about what you wanted - about what will earn your dog a reward, in other words?

“Whoever said the small things don’t matter has never seen a match start a wildfire”
Beau Taplin

It’s clarity that will transform your dog training from “you against him”, to a team, happily co-existing and walking this earth together. 

Knowing just what you mean when you ask him to do something, will enable your dog to hit the spot every time. He can anticipate your needs (that’s terrific … except in competition, where anticipation will lose you buckets of points!), and he now has a sure way to please you and earn a reward.

So do I have to keep feeding my dog all day long?

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Keep in mind that a reward is whatever your dog finds rewarding! 

For many dogs food of some kind will head the list, with tasty soft food (cheese, for instance, or sausage) way up at the top. But you need to find out what else your dog finds rewarding - Running? Going out to the garden? Sleeping in the sunshine? A cuddle on the sofa? Chasing a toy? Retrieving? Nosework? A car ride?

My own four dogs would list their favourite rewards in very different orders from each other. For Cricket the Whippet, snuggling under the duvet has got to be up there, while Rollo the Border Collie loves every opportunity to stalk and herd his chickens in the garden (don’t worry, he never touches or upsets them). For Lacy and Coco, my more worried dogs, proximity to me, and interaction with me, is highly-valued and a reward in itself.

Do I really need to train my dog all the time?

The easiest way to train your dog (and I’m all for easy answers) is what I call “All Day Training”. And while this doesn’t take up much time - seconds, in fact - it does require you to be clear about what it is you want. 

And keep in mind the sad fact that something you’ve taught, and that your dog does perfectly, will gradually deteriorate. Things don’t stay static, so your dog’s sit is either getting worse or getting better. Think about it - the last few times you asked your dog to sit, what happened? Be honest! Did it take several “Sit’s” for anything at all to happen? Did he jump up again as soon as you moved?

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This sort of creeping disintegration of what you thought your dog knew happens to the best of us if we are not vigilant. I’m as guilty as you are! I noticed recently that while Coco Poodle has a nice instant drop at a distance … it was only most of the time, not all of the time, and he had a tendency to move as soon as I did. 

So back to the drawing board! It’s taken only a short time giving his instant down a bit of focus on walks for us to have his “drop on the spot and stay dropped” back in full working order again.

And whose fault was it that it had gone wobbly?


I had not been clear in what I wanted, and in what was reward-able. Once I restored clarity to the action, it was easy for Coco to oblige and get it right.

Is it me or is it the dog?

So have a critical look at what it is YOU are doing with your dog. It’s so easy to blame the dog - when it’s ourselves we should be looking at!

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Thanks, Beverley! She's really making huge strides. Amal & Neith, GSD mix

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How to speed up your dog training - 6 tips for making your sessions fun and fruitful

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A question I get a lot is this one, from Debbie, a couple of weeks ago: “I’m loving your books, but should I work through one book at a time before starting on the next? Or should I do them all at once? How would I go about that?”

Good question, Debbie. And here are a few thoughts, which I hope will add up to a good answer!


1. Variety

One key thing to remember when you're training - whether a puppy, a new dog, or a dog you’ve had for years - is variety. Dogs, like us, are easily bored. So you want to keep sessions short, be unpredictable, and move fast through your training. 


2. Planning

This means you’ll need to do some planning. Some people like to keep a detailed training planner and diary going, while some prefer a more inspirational approach. This is fine if it works, but you may spend half your allocated time dithering and wondering what to do next. So a little tiny bit of planning goes a long way. A simple way to do this would be to list the things your dog knows, and then list the things you want to teach, broken down into tiny steps. You can see where these overlap (teaching a down stay requires … a Down!) and then pick one from each column for your session. 

You can start off doing a few lightning fast reps of something your dog knows (I hope I don’t have to add “and enjoys” - should be part and parcel of the training), then move into teaching one little step of the new thing. You can vary your rewards - perhaps kibble for the thing he’s already good at, and top treats (cheese, sausage, etc) for the new thing. Always end with a game - even just “Chase me round the garden” is a good game - and make sure your session was very, very short. For a young puppy, ten treats or one minute is plenty; for a more experienced dog you could extend that to three minutes. But not more.

Having some good food ready chopped up in the fridge will make spontaneous sessions much easier. We all live very busy lives - there's no need to make a big deal of a little training session. Most of my training takes place in short, spontaneous bursts wherever I happen to be when the humour takes me. My dogs are always ready to have a game with me, and there is never a time when they cannot earn a reward for something I like - so they’re up for the challenge!

And if you like checklists, you can put a big tick next to what you’ve done. How boring would training become - for both you and your dog - if you always did the same thing? Keeping with our Variety theme, you can choose a different pair of things to train next time, till all your items have a number of ticks by them. Now it’s time to make a new, revised pair of lists!


3. Be unpredictable

Even a very young puppy can learn to enjoy an exciting game with you. Loki is 10 weeks old.

Even a very young puppy can learn to enjoy an exciting game with you. Loki is 10 weeks old.

Along with Variety goes Unpredictability. Who wants to do the same old thing over and over again? And if you stick to doing the same step and never advance it, you’re in danger of your dog getting stuck at that stage and thinking that’s the whole deal. So while you want to keep known actions going, and allow your dog to enjoy knowing what comes next, you also want to pique his interest by keeping him guessing, always pushing on a little bit towards the finished action or trick (it’s all tricks to them).

One day you may be training in your kitchen. Another day you do the same session in the garden. Harder? I’ll say! Your dog has to learn that what earnt him a reward in the kitchen is also guaranteed to work in the garden, or on a walk, or at a friend’s house, and so on. This is called “Generalising the behaviour” if you want to get technical, and it shows your dog, in Sue Ailsby’s words, that “Gravity still applies” even in a different place.

One day you’ll be calm and quiet; another day wildly excited and exciting. One day you work only with food; another day mainly toy-play. Remember to keep it fun and keep your dog guessing and happily anticipating more fun: 

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

4. No confusion

If you were to work on two tricks - say a Spin, and a Roll over - in the same session, there is a danger of thoroughly confusing your dog, to the extent that you end up with a kind of twisting rotation in the fourth dimension, where he muddles up all the actions. So choose two tricks that align with each other perfectly (a Down leading on, after a break, to a Roll over, for instance) or two tricks that totally contrast and cannot be muddled up (maybe a Sit Pretty and Take a Bow).

A common complaint at class is that the dog sits, then immediately lies down. Clever dog! This is the direct result of teaching a Sit followed by a Down. Your dog is just anticipating the next step and getting there first. Dogs love knowing what comes next! So actions like this should always be taught separately. A fast sequence of “Down, Sit, Sit Pretty, Down, Stand, Down, Stand, Spin” but always varying the order, will teach your dog to listen to what you’re saying and watch the signal you’re making, and not just guess or anticipate. 

And what if the dog does anticipate you and make a mistake? This is a bit like the children’s game of “Simon Says”. The dog isn’t wrong - he’s just not right! So ask him “What should you be doing?” and see if he can put himself right. If that’s too hard, just toss a treat away for him, use it as a re-set button, and try again. He missed a treat when he gave the undesired response, so if your timing is right he’ll now be dying to get it right and earn his reward!


5. Step by little step

Remember that you need to break everything down into its separate parts. You can’t teach a dog an accurate, fast, trick all at once, in one session. Parts are going to be woolly and unsure, and it’s getting every part accurate that results in a firm understanding that will keep your trick alive and correct for ever. Whirling fast through it all will result in insecurities, and the trick will break down. Much easier to go slow and get it right - at every stage - from the start. 

So “Patience, Grasshopper”! Make haste slowly, be fussy about precision, and ensure each corner is negotiated with understanding before finalising the whole sequence. 

6. The best teachers ..

The best teachers combine a little of a few things, to keep the student alert, and to demonstrate that they can incorporate their former learning into new things. So the schoolteacher may design a project which requires the student to plan, make choices, write, do some calculations, and maybe construct something. As your dog’s repertoire grows you’ll be able to do similar things. You may start your session with some exciting play with impulse control, followed by a bit of attentive loose lead walking, a sit, then a thrilling fast recall. 

Keep your dog guessing!


Back to the question at the top

So to go back to Debbie’s good question of whether to teach things one at a time or all at once, the answer is … BOTH! 

Ideally you are building up your dog’s knowledge by working on several different, unconfuse-able, areas (hence my books cover four essential but totally different skills), but you are doing this in baby steps, moving each thing forward a little at each training session. As the understanding gained from learning to keep still in Calm Down! will inform the thoughtfulness needed to Leave It!, and the focus needed for Let’s Go! will spill over into your dog waiting attentively to hear his precious name being called (Here Boy!) it’s a win-win all the way.

As your dog learns more of these skills, you’ll find training more fun, more challenging, more rewarding, and your relationship with your dog will build and build!


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How Can You Be So Kind to People and So Unkind to Your Dog?

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It saddens me. So much. 

We see people who are perfectly polite to their fellow humans, who hold doors open and help people with their coats; people who say please and thank you, who don’t interrupt others; who laugh politely at lame jokes and encourage small children. 

All these people are pillars of society, shining examples of the better side of humanity, admired and respected …

Or are they? 

Give them a dog’s leash to hold and you may see another side of them.

They half-throttle their puppy, they’re holding the leash so tight. They yank and jab the leash when the pup is sitting perfectly still. They decide to move so they haul her along behind them. They bark rapid-fire commands at the dog: “Sit. Sit! I said SIT! Off! Down! Siddown!” and when the confused dog sits they say nothing. 

Where have all the pleases and thankyous gone?

I think a lot of this boorish behavior comes from a lack of confidence. 

Somewhere along the line, they’ve seen or heard something about having to show your dog who’s boss. If the dog moves a quarter-inch to the left or the right it must be pushed and pulled (punished, in simple English) to make sure it knows its place.

Their puppy is some kind of alien who must be continually stamped on to prevent it taking over the universe. 

Or perhaps just to stop their dog getting a toehold in their heart?

There’s huge social pressure for your dog to “behave nicely”. And there is an equally huge social pressure in appearing to be in control when the pup misbehaves. To be seen to be doing something masterful. To be the “leader”.

And nowhere is this pressure stronger than in the case of the Growly Dog. You need only remember that your Growly Dog is not kicking up a fuss because he’s stubborn, or obstinate, or nasty, or aggressive. He’s trying to keep away from something he fears. And there are some very simple quick fixes you can put in place to start to change things straight away, and - suddenly appear to be the socially acceptable owner with the socially acceptable dog!


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Science vs. Folklore

There’s a lot of mediaeval claptrap talked about how to treat dogs. 

And sadly people who really should know better, listen to it.

It has been proven scientifically over the last eighty-odd years, without any shadow of doubt or question, that the way to get the fastest and most durable results from any animal, humans included, is to work through positive reinforcement. 

Simply put - reward what you like. 

Killer whales will happily put their chin on the edge of the pool and hold their mouth open to have their teeth brushed; rhinos will place their hip against the bars of their cage so that a vet can draw blood safely from outside; chickens will perform elaborate “agility-style” routines or act as wartime spotters in aircraft. All for an appropriate reward - a fish or a smidgin of grain.

And we’ve all seen dogs doing amazing things - finding earthquake victims, guiding blind people, doing dance displays, being “ears” for a deaf person, detecting drugs, warning their owner of an impending medical crisis - even flying planes. (Yes, really. Flying planes.) 

These dogs are not different, specially-abled dogs - they’re just dogs - often rejected, rescue, dogs. They’re the same as your dog. Your dog can do so much more than you may imagine!

Where’s the Integrity in this?

So these people who are kind to their family and harsh on their dogs are acting out of character. 

There is a dichotomy between their approach to people and their approach to dogs. (Sometimes they are only polite and friendly to people they know, and strangers fall into the sad camp of animals and aliens.) 

This chasm between the two extremes must cause conflict within.

But there’s an easy way to resolve it.

Give your dog the same respect and understanding you extend to your family and friends. 

Your dog has a brain too! And she has feelings! Work with her instead of seeing her as something to be opposed and contained. 

That doesn’t mean you put up with poor behaviour. You need to teach your pup what you want, and reward her when she makes the right choices. If you involve your dog in what you want her to do, she’ll happily oblige - removing the need for the master-slave approach and moving towards a friend-friend relationship. 

The lesson here? Follow your own instincts. There’s no need to listen to tv personalities who tell you otherwise. Don’t have anything to do with so-called trainers who want to hurt or intimidate your dog.

Are we meant to be kind while we’re here? 

If we’re meant to put out kindness, perhaps we are meant to put it out universally, and not just to a select few.





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Are you as polite to your dog as to people?