What is Dog Training?

1. Teaching Skills

Dog Training is the teaching of skills to a dog, most of which they do not naturally possess or perform in the context we want.

Human calls dog who watches rabbit in the distance


Dog comes running to human


Human offers dog to throw a Frisbee as reward


'Teaching skills' applies when we teach a dog to sit, stay, wait at the door, leave the cake alone, give up a sock, come when called, walk on a lead, roll over, fetch a beer from the fridge or whatever else we come up with. The dog learns which behaviours pay off and which don't.

2. Changing Emotions

The term 'dog training' can also refer to changing a dog's behaviour by changing how they feel about something.

figure: dog growls at approaching woman with outstretched arms screeching 'Come here my darling'


figure: dog happily looks at woman approaching woman with outstretched arms screeching 'Come here my darling'


The dog learns to associate good things with a particular scenario, event, person, location, sound etc. For example we can teach a dog to enjoy grooming, the sound of the vacuum cleaner or visits to the local cafe.

How does Dog Training Work?

When teaching a dog a new skill, we need to proceed step by step. Dogs learn skills just like we learn to kick a football or play guitar. It takes patience and practice.

Teach the dog step by step.

If we don't like a specific behaviour, we teach the dog a different behaviour to do instead. This is much better than simply trying to stop the behaviour we don't want.

figure: person yelling at dog
figure: dog jumping up, person saying 'sit'
figure: dog sitting, person offering frisbee for play reward

Teach the dog what to do.

A much neglected training technique is pre-empting behaviour we don't like. Adding this to your repertoire is very valuable.

Far too many of our interventions or training attempts are reactive.

Why wait until the dog enagages in unwanted behaviour? Let's give them something to do before they even get the chance to "stuff up".

Be pro-active instead of reactive.

A simple example is to ask the dog to sit immediately when a person approaches rather than waiting for the dog to jump up.

Another example is providing the dog with their own arsenal of chew toys to prevent chewing of "illegal" items such as clothes or furniture. By initially heavily reinforcing your dog for chewing on the "correct" items, they develop a bias for those items and are more likely to stay away from your stuff. By additionally keeping your valuable items out of the dog's reach you will have a complete solution.

Motivation is the key when teaching your dog a particular skill. You cannot train an unmotivated dog.

Find out what your dog really likes and when (e.g. play in the morning, food in the afternoon) and give these things as rewards for the behaviour you want to reinforce. Be generous and make sure your dog really craves what you have to offer. Otherwise you are wasting your time.

Motivate your dog with what they love.

figure: whole chicken (food)


figure: Frisbee and ball (play)


figure: people and dogs (social)


Training your dog works best if the dog has a close relationship with you based on trust and affection. Include your dog in your life and spend quality time with them. The more you give them what they want the more you will get in return.

Spending time with your dog and giving them plenty of physical and mental exercise will greatly increase your chances for training success.

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Sometimes we may need to change how the dog feels about something or someone to improve their behaviour. We refer to this process as 'conditioning' or - if the dog already feels bad about something - 'counter conditioning', often in combination with 'desensitisation'.

This is done by repeatedly offering positive experiences, such as food or play, whenever the something or someone appear or happen.

It is not always easy to determine the underlying motivation for the dog's behaviour but the treatment plan could depend on it. Therefore it is always a good idea to consult with a professional, such as a qualified behaviourist or dog trainer, especially if the dog reacts aggressively towards people or other dogs.

The procedure has to be correctly executed for it to work but it's well worth it.

figure: dog growling at skate boarder

Dog not happy


figure: dog gets chicken every time skate boarder appears

Skater -> Food


figure: dog looking happily at skate boarder

Dog happy


Is there No Punishment for Bad Behaviour?

It is important to rememember that "bad" behaviour in dogs is usually just normal dog behaviour which humans find annoying or offensive. It would be highly unfair and illogical to simply punish a dog for engaging in instinctive and natural dog behaviour.

Your dog won't know, and certainly won't understand, why you have a problem with their behaviour. So instead of trying to stop a behaviour with any sort of harsh treatment, it is better to teach your dog an alternative.

A simple example is to teach "sit" instead of jumping up (see above "Teach the dog what to do").

An additional option is to give time-outs for unwanted behaviour, for example walking away and stopping all interaction with the dog for a short while (we refer to this as 'negative punishment').

In many cases we use time-outs after the dog has learned an alternative behaviour, so the time-out is applied only if the dog fails to do the alternative behaviour.

figure: person yelling at dog 'stop!!', dog cowering - wrong
figure: person walking away to impose time-out penalty - correct

Short time-outs for unwanted behaviour.

Being separated from their people can be very punishing for some dogs, so care has to be taken in regards to the dog's stress levels. Time-outs need to be executed properly and consistently for them to work.

Do not use time-outs if your dog is fearful or anxious.

Punishment should never involve any sort of hitting, kicking, pushing, yanking, yelling at, holding down, throwing or spraying something at the dog or any other type of offensive treatment (we refer to this as 'positive punishment').

Here is what veterinary behaviourist Dr Carlo Siracusa from the University of Pennsylvania has to say about the risks of (positive) punishment in dog training.

"Even when our punishment-based training has been successful and the dog has stopped the unwanted behavior, it may not be a real success. Our dog's welfare and quality of life may have been significantly compromised, and his anxiety and stress may have increased. This will probably have a cost in terms of future behavioral and medical problems."

And this is what the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has to say:

"The use of positive reinforcement training methods is recommended for modifying the behaviour of animals. Negative reinforcement and positive punishment methods are not recommended. Although equipment based on these methods is available for use in Australia, its use is not recommended."

"Behaviour-modifying collars that use electric shock should not be used on animals and should be banned. Behaviour-modifying collars that use citronella (or other nontoxic substances) are not recommended."

Read more at: Use of behaviour-modifying collars on dogs by the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA)

More on the trouble with physical punishment:

A Punished Dog Is an Aggressive Dog by Stanley Coren

What about Teaching the Dog Who's in Charge?

So, if dog training is about teaching skills, how does "being the boss", "being the alpha dog" or "being a strong leader" fit into this? The answer is it doesn't. That idea of communicating or sorting out problems with your dog simply by being assertive and showing the dog that you are the head honcho has never been anything but a distraction. Worse, it can make your dog fearful and lead to more problems than it solves.

Read what the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has to say about dominance:

AVSAB statement on the use of dominance in animal training

Instead of engaging in a power struggle with your dog, teach your dog how they can get what THEY want in exchange for doing what YOU want.

I Don't Want My Dog's Behaviour to Depend on Treats

No normally functioning biological being spends their time engaging in behaviour that doesn't pay off in some way. If they did, evolution would very quickly set them on a path to extinction.

All animals, humans included, have evolved to get something in return for spending their energy. We all make efforts to gain pleasures and necessities such as food or social contacts and we try to avoid pain and other scary things.

This gives us two options for motivation in dog training: we can either motivate the dog with rewards (good stuff) or with the threat of punishment (nasty stuff).

In reward-based training we use the good stuff to motivate the dog, not the nasty stuff. Food is the most convenient motivator but sometimes play or toys are also an option.

figure: dog sitting, happy, person handing dog chicken

Reward-based Training

figure: person yells at dog 'do as I say!!';dog cowering

Fear-based Training

Clearly it is a lot more fun to work for the good stuff than to avoid the nasty stuff.

It is also much better for the mental, emotional and physical well-being of an individual to spend most of their energy on gaining rewards than on defending themselves.

If you find that your dog only performs a behaviour when there is food present, it simply means that the training was not done correctly.

When we teach a dog a new skill, food is often used as a lure. During the training the lure is faded out and the food becomes a reward for the correct behaviour, meaning we show and deliver it after the dog has done the behaviour, not before.

Once the dog has fully learned a behaviour the reward is only given occasionally and randomly to keep the behaviour strong.

Why would we expect dogs to follow our every command when we give nothing in return? Loyalty and respect are concepts that only humans understand but even we are not as selfless as apparently we want our dogs to be.

Instead of judging our dogs by human moral standards we should accept that they are dogs and give them all the things they enjoy: tasty food, walks and runs, play and toys and social interaction.

Give your dog the good things in life and they will happily follow you.

Judge them by human moral standards and they will endure you.

Read more about reward-based training and why it is the most reasonable, efficient and humane way to train:

Rethinking the 'do as I say' attitude: Is it really the best way?, by gun dog trainer Thomas Aaron

Dog Training: Praise or Treats?, Jennifer Cattet looks at the effectiveness of different types of rewards

Here are some quotes from a study* by the University of Florida that supports the use of food as reinforcer:

"...the overall response patterns in both groups of dogs indicate that human social interaction is not an effective reinforcer compared to food."

"The greater efficacy of food as a reinforcer parallels the evolutionary origins of dogs as scavengers of human refuse (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001) and supports the use of food as a reinforcer for training."

* Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L.(2012). Relative Efficacy of Human Social Interaction and Food as Reinforcers for Domestic Dogs and Hand-Reared Wolves. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129

Is Dog Training Hard?

Short answer: Yes. There is no "quick fix/instant result/no effort" kind of dog training. Although some skills can be taught fairly quickly, dog training is a process which includes the teaching of many skills. It takes time and work.

Unless you are willing to risk your dog's well-being and creating more serious problems in the future, you simply cannot take a shortcut. Just like you don't want to gamble with your kids' education or your own, you are better off not to look for fast and cheap ways to train your dog. It's not worth the risk and it's not fair on the dog.

If this feels overwhelming, don't despair. With proper management and a plan you can start making effective changes immediately and set your dog and your training on the right path. The earlier you start the easier it will be. But even if you have been putting it off for a while, there is no excuse for not starting today.

Training your dog can be incorporated into your life in a way that suits you and your lifestyle.

How do I get Started?

How you get started with training your dog depends primarily on the time and effort you can or want to spend on this task. If you have the time and energy to do it entirely on your own, make sure you get a really good book which teaches force free dog training using positive reinforcement (see list below). Please do not attempt to train your dog following what you have seen on TV shows. These shows are meant purely for entertainment.

You can save yourself time and work by engaging a professional force free dog trainer. This can be for just one session or several sessions, again depending on how much of the actual training you want to do yourself. The biggest advantage of hiring a trainer is that not only do you learn how to correctly and safely train your dog, but you also receive live demonstrations and support and you get all your questions answered. Make sure you hire only force free trainers who use positive reinforcement and do not coerce or intimidate your dog (see next section).

A third option is to hire a dog trainer who teaches your dog the necessary skills and then transfers to you. Note that even with this option you still have to invest some time and effort. The dog lives with you and you have to learn how to live with the dog.

The input of a qualified, force free dog trainer can be highly valuable to set you on the right track with your dog, no matter how much or how little you want to engage them.

How do I find a Dog Trainer or Behaviourist?

To find competent professional help can be very challenging but is also very important.

The dog training industry is unregulated so anyone can operate under the title "dog trainer" no matter what their qualification or lack thereof. Worse, some trainers adopt the label "behaviourist" without having any formal education in animal behaviour or animal learning.

The title (dog or animal) "behaviourist" should signal that the person has an advanced degree in a relevant discipline such as applied animal behaviour. Veterinary behaviourists are vets with additional qualification in animal behaviour.

If you are looking for a dog trainer your best option is to first search a trainer's website for information on qualification, ongoing education and a precise description of training methods. Look for the terms "reward-based", "force-free" or "positive reinforcement" but beware that these terms can be abused for marketing purposes.

Then question the trainer and have them show you how they handle and train your dog. Do not allow anyone to physically or psychologically harm your dog in any way. Once your dog is fearful it will be a lot harder to modify and improve their behaviour.

Look for qualification and education and read past the marketing spin.

For help reading between the lines and past the marketing spin, check out these links:

Finding the Right Dog Trainer - Harder Than You Think by Anne Springer

How to Chose a Trainer by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)

Caveat Emptor: Bringing consumer protection to dog training, by Maureen Backman

Myths About Positive Reinforcement Based Training. Eileen Anderson dispels some common myths and clarifies what positive reinforcement trainers do.

Check out the Pet Professional Guild (Australian chapter) members directory for companion animal related professions including dog trainers and behaviourists:

PPGA Members Directory

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia (APDT) has a directory of dog trainers, behaviourists, walkers, sitters and more:

APDT Trainers Directory

And here is a list of Australian veterinary behaviourists from the Delta Society

Find a Veterinary Behaviourist

Basic Dog Training

Dogs need a range of basic life skills if they are to succeed in human society.

Without basic training, your dog is more likely to be excluded from your day to day activities. You may find the dog too difficult to handle or annoying to have around. As a result they will become lonely and frustrated which is not just a serious problem for the dog but can cause real problems for you.

Every dog can learn basic skills, no matter what age, breed or temperament. If your dog has never been trained or is lacking in basic skills, start training today!

Please don't deny your dog the chance to fully participate in your life.

All dogs should learn alternative behaviours so they are less likely to jump, charge, pull, nip, grab or bark. This starts with teaching a dog to sit and drop (down) and behaviours that help them to control their impulses, such as wait, stay, leave it, walking on leash and coming when called.

Training is best done according to a proper plan and in well defined steps so the dog can succeed and enjoy the training. Understanding how to motivate a dog and how to control the environment is critical for success.

Note that if a dog displays fear or anxiety, this needs to be addressed sensibly and sensitively via a process called 'desensitisation and counter conditioning'.

photo: Dog on lead sitting, looking up

Advanced Dog Training

Training is not just a way to get a better behaved dog. Training is also a great mental exercise for dogs and ideally should be continued throughout the dog's life. just like in humans, staying mentally and physically active can prevent or delay many age related problems.

What a dog can learn is only limited by the dog's natural abilities, their health and your imagination.

As long as your dog has fun and is a willing participant, training can enrich your dog's life immensely, as well as yours.

For example, you can teach your dog tricks or take part in a sport such as agility, fly ball or lure coursing. Scent work is also a great way for dogs to use their impressive natural abilities. Or, if your dog is very social and relaxed, maybe you could take them to hospitals or nursing homes as a therapy dog.

It is important to consider your dog's breed and personal preferences before deciding on a suitable training activity. Don't force your dog to learn something they don't enjoy. It's not fair and you'll never get as good a result as when you have the full, voluntary cooperation from your dog.

Does Training Make Your Dog Smarter? High-level training in virtually any skill makes dogs better problem solvers. By Stanley Coren, published in Psychology Today 2015

photo: Two dogs chasing after a lure at a pet fair

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