How Dogs Learn
Use positive reinforcement, which is an effective way to train dogs and does not carry the risks of a punishment-based approach. If you want to know more about the science of dog training methods and how they affect welfare, I keep a list of research articles on my website with places where you can read about them online (look for the page called Dog Training Science Resources).
To translate theory to practice, try to see problem behaviors from your dog’s perspective. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, remove the reinforcement for the problem behavior and/or provide better reinforcements for the behaviors you do want. Think about reward-based ways to manage the situation. When looking for dog training classes or hiring a private trainer, ask about the methods they use and ensure you are happy with the answers before you hire them.
Look for a certified dog trainer who is a member of a professional organization, who takes part in ongoing professional development, and who will use food to train your dog. Well-respected certifications include the Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC, from the Academy for Dog Trainers), the Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP) designation, the Victoria Stilwell Academy Dog Trainer (VSA CDT) designation, and the Pat Miller Certified Trainer (PMCT) designation. All these programs have websites where you can search for trainers.
The Social Dog
Make time to play with your dog. Whether you’re playing with an object or directly with your dog, remember that real play is spontaneous and friendly; it may include praise and petting too. If you’re giving lots of commands, it’s a training session instead, and while it’s great if training sessions are fun, there should be some play that is just play.
If you get a puppy, make sure your puppy has playtime and socialization opportunities with other puppies to help them learn appropriate canine social skills. Safe play opportunities may be especially important for puppies from commercial breeding establishments (i.e., from pet stores and the internet) who may not have had an environment that allowed them to play much with the rest of their litter. The best way to provide these opportunities is via a puppy class that includes playtime.
Recognize that as dogs reach social maturity, they play less with other dogs and they are choosy about the dogs they will play with. They are also less tolerant of dogs with poor play skills. Don’t worry; this is a normal part of canine development. If you are planning to have a dog and a cat, get the cat first. If this isn’t possible, try to socialize your dog around cats when they are a puppy. Remember, dogs and cats can become friends but it’s not guaranteed.
Dogs and Children
Supervise interactions between dogs and children very carefully; you should be close enough to intervene if necessary. At other times, use barriers such as pet gates to keep small children and dogs separate. As young children develop, they have better motor skills and are able to interact more with the dog, so don’t reduce supervision.
Ensure the dog has at least one, possibly several, safe spaces to go to if things get too much. These spaces should not be accessible to the child. For example, a crate that is made comfy with a nice dog bed in it, or a bed or sofa in a room the child cannot go into.
Remember you are a “safe haven” for your dog. Be aware of the signs that they might be stressed (e.g., lip licking, looking away, blinking, moving away, hard eye, freezing, shaking) and be ready to help by ending an interaction, calling the child or dog away, giving the dog some nice food, or petting the dog.
Time for Walkies!
Go for walks. They are good for your dog—and good for you too. If you are not in the habit, try to develop a routine—your dog will soon learn it and come to remind you when it is time! Whether it’s one or two walks a day (not counting toilet breaks) depends on you and your dog.
Use appropriate gear (e.g., a no-pull harness) and train your dog to walk nicely on-leash and to come when called. If you need help to resolve problems such as fear or reactivity, hire a qualified dog trainer. Think about ways to manage the problem while you work on it (e.g., avoiding places where dogs are off-leash or walking at quiet times of the day).
Use reward-based training to exercise your dog’s brain and give them many chances to earn food. If your dog already knows basic obedience, try teaching tricks or Rally-O (Rally Obedience, available in classes and competitions). There are lots of great YouTube videos that show you how to teach tricks like “play dead.”
Ensure your dog has chew toys (because dogs like to chew), food toys (to make them work for their food), and other toys so they can play games with you (like fetch or tug). Toys provide enrichment and satisfy your dog’s needs to engage in normal canine behaviors like playing and chewing. Make sure the toys are safe, and if necessary put them away when you’re not there (e.g., so that squeakers won’t be eaten). Remember that while dogs like brand-new toys, having familiar toys on rotation and/or washing them can be enough to make them new again.
Food and Treats
Ensure good hygiene of both the place where you prepare food and the dog’s bowls to reduce the risks of infection; this is especially important if feeding a raw diet. Raw meat should be frozen first to prevent risks from parasites. If your household includes a child, a senior, or someone with a compromised immune system (including any of your pets), reconsider the feeding of a raw diet.
Avoid too much sugar in the diet, as this is bad for the dog’s teeth. Look out for healthy treats or use human food such as chicken in suitable amounts. Learn about overweight and obesity for dogs. If you’re not sure whether or not your dog is a healthy weight, ask your vet. Reducing calories is the best way to get weight loss: weigh the dog’s food to make sure you are giving the right amount. Treats (including those for training) should be calculated as part of your dog’s daily calorie allowance.
Know that puppies need more sleep than adult dogs. Changes in sleep patterns happen with age, just like in people, but any sudden or significant change warrants a visit to the vet in case of an underlying condition.
Choose whether or not to let your dog sleep in your bedroom or on your bed, and be consistent. Make sure your dog has comfy beds to sleep in. If you have to go to a new location, your dog might not sleep as well on the first night, so bring some bedding from home to make them feel more at ease
Fear and Other Problems
If you have a pregnant dog, try to keep her routine predictable and reduce stress so that she feels safe. This is good for the behavioral health of her puppies. Learn the signs of fear, anxiety, and stress so you can recognize them in your dog (e.g., tucked tail, low body posture, shaking and trembling, seeking out people, hiding or withdrawing, etc.). Make it a priority to help your dog feel safe. A fearful dog is not able to take advantage of positive experiences offered to them.
The End of Life
If your dog has a chronic condition, see if there are adjustments you can make to maintain good quality of life. Discuss euthanasia with your vet well ahead of time so that you know what signs to look out for that might indicate a reduced quality of life, and give some thought to how to manage euthanasia (e.g., at home or at the clinic).
Think in advance about how you would make an end-of-life decision. Quality-of-life scales can be helpful in making the decision, but often apply only to specific conditions. A more general rule, as suggested by Dr. Walton, is when the bad days outnumber the good. Be sensitive to companion animals. Any dogs remaining in the home may grieve for their lost companion and want more affection and attention. If a pet of another species passes away, such as a cat, your dog may grieve for them too.