Basic Training: Start with the Right Equipment and Attitude

Feb 25, 2013 / Behavior / General Care / Dogs

The bottom line in dog training: “It’s all about the positive reinforcement.”

Working with your dog on basic cues such as “sit,” “stay,” “come,” and so on helps your pet behave well in human society. But training is also vital to the health and safety of your pet, allowing you to prevent your pet from running away or eating something noxious. And it’s a great way to provide mental stimulation and build a closer bond with your pet.

Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinary behaviorist with the College of Veterinary Medicine who sees clients in Chicago at Veterinary Behavior at Illinois, strongly advocates training for all pets. She frequently collaborates with Laura Monaco Torelli, of Animal Training Behavior Concepts.

Recently, she and Torelli offered these tips for getting started.

The first step is to choose the right equipment. Some dogs wear collars, while others wear harnesses. Does it matter which you use?

“Take into consideration the breed, age, and size of the dog,” advises Torelli.

“A harness is a good choice for brachycephalic breeds. Those are the dogs with a flat face, like bulldogs and pugs. This type of breed may have difficulty breathing with a collar around the neck,” explains Dr. Ballantyne. “If you have a petite dog, a harness can even be custom-made to fit.”

Some people may think that choke or pinch collars should be used for training. According to Dr. Ballantyne, “Choke and pinch collars not only can damage the neck, but these types of collars can lead to behavioral problems.”

The bottom line in dog training: “It’s all about the positive reinforcement,” say Dr. Ballantyne and Torelli.

Torelli and Dr. Ballantyne advocate only positive reinforcements and interactions with dogs, even when it comes to donning the harness. They recommend using a clicker, initially immediately followed by a small treat, to reinforce the behaviors you are encouraging in your dog.

“We suggest that the training begins with putting the harness on,” says Torelli. “You can turn even that first step into a game that trains a dog to step into the harness without putting up a fight.”

Dr. Ballantyne agrees. “Giving your dog the choice to step into the harness makes him feel more comfortable.”

As you hold the harness, allow the dog to touch the harness and give a click from the clicker and a small treat following the click sound. The dog then is making the choice to move toward the harness. Gradually reinforce the dog’s choices until he is accepting the harness.

“Bending down to get at the dog’s level is another way to make the dog feel comfortable,” says Torelli. Make sure your fingers are between the clasp and the dog to avoid accidentally pinching the skin as you fasten the harness.

Again, contrary to some training philosophies, Dr. Ballantyne and Torelli advise giving your dog full range of motion while on a leash.

“Dogs have an oppositional reflex,” explains Torelli. “This means the pressure that is exerted onto the body, for example, from the person tugging on a leash, is going to trigger the dog’s instinct to go in the opposite direction.”

A loose leash, or a hands-free leash worn around your waist, is a good training option because it negates this natural reflex and helps the dog not to feel confined.

With a positive approach, plenty of treats, and lots of patience, you will set the stage for a rewarding and effective training relationship with your dog.

For more information on how to train your dog, consult with a veterinarian that specializes or has an interest in behavior.

By Sarah Netherton