Training should be a fun experience for you and your dog. He learns some new tricks, you learn how to communicate with him better, and the bond is strengthened on both ends of the leash. Training can also be very frustrating, especially if your dog is not interested in focusing on you. Here are some tips for keeping your canine companion engaged, from AKC GoodDog! Helpline program manager Penny Leigh, CPDT-KA.
The High-Energy Dog
Dogs with a lot of energy can seem distracted during a training session and more interested in chasing something or jumping on you than learning a new behavior. “The challenge with very high-energy dogs can be that they do not enjoy learning the basics, like sit, stay, and down, because they want to keep moving,” explains Leigh. “Impulse-control exercises [like sit-stay or leave it] are recommended for high-energy dogs. I also recommend that high-energy dogs be exercised before coming to class, so they can concentrate better.”
The Non-Food-Motivated Dog
Does your dog seem unimpressed with treats? A canine companion that doesn’t want your reward will often disengage during training. “My first thought when a student tells me this about his or her dog is that they have not found the right treat — or a high-enough-value treat — or that they are feeding their dog too near the start of the training session,” shares Leigh. “I advise students never to feed their dogs a meal before training.”
In addition, she says that almost every dog has some food that motivates him, but it’s not always his kibble, or a dry, hard dog treat. Smelly, soft treats, like cheese, pepperoni, or even salmon, can entice a dog to want to work. “For dogs that turn up their noses at even the most enticing food, I advise owners to try toys — tug toys are awesome, and many dogs prefer toys to food,” Leigh continues. “Playing with your dog can also be a reward. Sometimes you need to get very creative as a trainer. For instance, if your dog loves to chase squirrels in the backyard, you can find a toy that looks like a squirrel, put it on a tug line, and you have a great motivator for that canine.”
The Easily Distracted Dog
Dogs that get distracted may be reactive or nervous. Or maybe your pup can’t stop looking for a scent to track. For these dogs, Leigh says the length of a training session is very important. “Keep training sessions very short (10 minutes) and do more short sessions throughout the day instead of one long session,” she advises. “Use lots of reinforcement and make it very high value, in the form of enticing treats and toys.”
For dogs that are anxious around new people, dogs, and/or strange noises, you should start your learning sessions in quiet, non-distracting locations. As your dog becomes comfortable with conquering new skills in familiar settings, you can gradually add distractions, starting with mild distracters and slowly increasing distractions as he becomes consistently successful at each level.
In the case of any of these types of learners, you may find your dog getting bored if you are asking him to repeat the same behavior or you might get stuck in one spot while shaping a behavior. When this happens, Leigh suggests shortening your training sessions down to that 10-minute mark with a few repetitions throughout the day.
“Find the right motivators,” she adds. “Having something that really turns your dog on can make the difference in a dog that wants to repeat behaviors and a dog that is yawning after one rep of an exercise. Too many owners approach it like a job. If you and your dog are both having fun, then the dog will be much more engaged. Move around; use a lot of verbal praise in addition to the food and toy treats. If you lose your dog, then do something very short and easy that you are sure your dog can do successfully, and end the session on a positive note.”
Knowing these expert tips will help keep training fun and set you and your dog up for success.