• Lisa Mullinax CDBC

5 Habits of Effective Dog Trainers

When it comes to dog training, there is a difference between professional trainers and pet owners. And it's not magical pack leader energy. It comes down to seven habits every single dog owner can develop.

Woman looking at the camera with dog sitting next to her
Lisa and Simon

1. WE CONTROL THE ENVIRONMENT

Unwanted behavior happens for a reason - it works for the dog. Whether it's jumping, stealing food from the counter, or barking at cyclists, the dog gets something they want or need, which reinforces the behavior.


Our goal is to reinforce behaviors we like. In order for that to be effective at changing behavior, we have to prevent reinforcement of behaviors we don't like.


We can do that by controlling the dog's environment and their opportunity to practice unwanted behavior. Most dog trainers call this management. Parents do this with babies and call it childproofing. Management is dog-proofing. But instead of dog-proofing the living room and kitchen cabinets, we often have to practice management inside and outside the home.


For dogs that react to other dogs by barking and lunging, management can look like walking at different times when the neighborhood is less busy, or in places where we are unlikely to encounter other dogs - I like business parks on the weekend.


Empty office parking lot bordered by lawn and tall trees.
Business parks can provide a pleasant and low-distraction environment for walking and training on weekends.

If the dog runs out the front door whenever they get the chance, we put up baby gates to prevent them from getting to the door. This also gives us a safe way to practice and reinforce a nice, calm sit in front of the open door.

Most management strategies are maintained until the dog's training has advanced to a level of reliability in those situations, while others may be lifelong. I still keep a gate across the kitchen entry because of the risk that I might forget to put up something dangerous to my dog before I leave.


2. WE TRAIN BEFORE WE TEST

Training means teaching new behavior. Testing is practicing in gradually more difficult and distracting situations. Trainers don't test before they train and they don't train in the middle of a test.


We don't wait for the dog to pull on the leash to teaching leash manners.

We don't wait for the dog to grab something at the pet store to teach "leave it."

We don't wait for our dog to get hold of something dangerous to teach "drop."

We don't wait for our dog to bark at another dog to practice attention around distractions.

Imagine being punished for failing a spelling test when you're still learning your ABCs!

Cattle dog running off leash in large, open grassy area on a sunny day
Getting reliable off-leash manners in unfenced areas starts with training sessions indoors.

Instead, trainers determine what skills the dog needs to be successful in the situations they'll be exposed to. Leash manners, attention around distractions, fast name response, etc.


We start teaching those skills in the house, then practice in the driveway or a big, empty, boring parking lot. There are multiple sessions in each location before moving on. We let the dog's behavior tell us whether or not they are ready to move forward to a gradually more difficult situation.


And if the dog doesn't perform as expected in the new, more difficult situation? We correct our training plan, not the dog.

3. WE ARE PROACTIVE, NOT REACTIVE

"Don't ask a question you don't already know the answer to." That's advice new attorneys are given before heading into a deposition or trial. If you don't know what the witness is going to say, it could be something you don't like.


Trainers don't wait to see what a dog will do in a new situation - a horseback rider coming up the trail, a mover pushing a refrigerator down the walkway, a group of children running towards us to say hi to the dog.


Large group of young children running toward camera
NOT the time to see how your dog will do with children.

We see new situations that we haven't prepared our dogs for and take proactive steps to ensure things go smoothly. Depending on the dog's level of training, I either give cues or I start reinforcing any acceptable behavior in that moment, even if it's as small as looking without barking. If I'm at all concerned the dog is going to react negatively like lunging, barking, or growling, I turn and walk away, moving the dog to a safe distance.


Trainers always try to control what the dog is learning, not what they're doing. What do they learn about staying at our side when passing another dog? It gets rewarded. What do they learn about pulling in any direction? It gets them nowhere. How do they feel when a loud truck goes by? Good! Because that loud truck predicts good things.


4. WE ARE GENEROUS WITH REINFORCEMENT

When I was a "balanced" trainer, I would use food as rewards, but when I couldn't get the behavior I wanted, I would often fall back on aversives. Once I learned how to use reinforcement with skill, I stopped needing those aversives.


We are always looking for behavior to reinforce. We don't wait for absolutely perfect behavior before rewarding. We are always looking for something the dog is doing right. Something that is better than unwanted behavior. Something we would rather the dog do in that situation. Some moment of brilliance we weren't expecting. And we never stop rewarding behavior we like. We might change what level of behavior gets rewarded or only reward certain behaviors in certain situations. We may integrate non-food reinforcers into our training. But if we like it, we still reward it every time.


For every behavior you want, you have something your dog wants. Looking for opportunities to use those things to reinforce behavior is going to give you better training results. more


Dogs don't do what they're "supposed to" do. They do what works for them. If we stop reinforcing those behaviors, we're more likely to see a decrease in reliability.

5. WE CONSERVE OUR WORDS

When it comes to reliable responses to verbal cues (aka "commands"), dogs don't come pre-programmed. They weren't born knowing what "leave it," "off," or any other cue means.


Effective trainers don't start with words, we start with reinforcement.


I don't teach dogs a cue for "heel." Instead, I focus on reinforcing the components of heel: Giving me their full attention while on-leash, moving with me when I walk backward, then forward, then while making right and left turns.

It's not what you say. It's what you reinforce!

It's not what you say. It's what you reinforce!

It's not what you say. It's what you reinforce!


By being conservative with our verbal cues, the cues we do use have more power.


When we're ready to teach a cue, we are clear about what the behavior looks like. For example, when you say "leave it," do you want the dog to drop something, look away from something, or turn and look at you? If you're not sure, imagine how much harder it is for the dog to figure out!


We don't muddy the cue by repeating ("sit, sit, sit") or mixing it up ("off." "down." "sit down."). Pick your cue stick with it. And only say it once. If you don't get a response quickly and the first time you say it, they don't know it. Repeating it or saying it more firmly doesn't work if the dog doesn't understand what you're saying (same goes for non-English speaking people).


Finally, we make sure the dog has a strong reinforcement history for doing that behavior or, in the case of teaching their name, we make sure the dog has a strong association to the cue predicting good things.


BONUS HABIT: WE CORRECT THE TRAINING, NOT THE DOG

When something goes wrong, we don't blame the dog, we blame our training plan.


I'm a good trainer, but I'm not a great trainer. Like everyone else, I have bad habits and I make mistakes. But that's never the dog's fault. If the dog isn't doing what I need them to do, it's because I didn't prepare them well enough. So, I use corrections....on my training plan.


There are so many pieces of our training plan we can change. What behavior we reinforce. When we reinforce. How we reinforce. What we use as a reinforcer.


Don't correct the dog, correct the training.

Don't correct the dog, correct the training.

Don't correct the dog, correct the training.


This is where working with a trainer makes all the difference. Videos and books are like paper maps. They can tell you how to get from A to B. What they can't tell you is how to get back to A when you suddenly find yourself on H.


DEVELOPING GOOD HABITS

Not a single dog trainer started with these habits. We had to develop them over time. But you don't need to wait 10-20 years to get good at these habits. You can start them now.


You probably have "bad" training habits. We all do. Even now, I have habits I work to overcome. The first step to developing good habits is to recognize what bad habits can be changed.


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