These tips are what I consider to be essential steps and best practices for any dog owner. Some pertain to training and others are general tips. They are not in any particular order.
While some appear to be repetitive, be assured that they are not. Certain tips blend easily with others. However, there are subtle but important differences between them.
These are starting points and each rule can be researched in more detail. If you wish to do so, I’ve provided links with additional in-depth information.
Before reading this list it’s important to realize that you will go through a learning curve before feeling you have a handle on being a conscientious dog owner. Learning curves are full of mishaps, failed attempts, and even regrets. Be patient. With your dog and with yourself.
Bringing a dog into your life is a major commitment. You’ll need to deal with the bad times as graciously as you do the good times. And there will be bad times.
Raising a dog is a lesson in living. I believe that the caring of a dog or human who can do little for you is transformative and provides you with a growth of character and spirit that is its own reward.
Keep the list handy and follow it. It should save you months, perhaps years, of frustrations and seemingly dead ends.
Becoming the ideal dog owner
1. Learn to read your dogs body language
Since no dog I know of is able to mosey up to the kitchen table, pour himself a cup of coffee, and confess to all of the things that annoy, frighten, and stress him out, I suggest that the next best thing is to learn to read your dog’s many signals and body language. This is how your dog will communicate with you.
It is the only way in which to decipher what our dogs are trying to tell us, and it isn’t as difficult as you may think.
At any given moment, dogs give off a multitude of body signals.
Moments of fear, anxiety, joy, and insecurity, among others, can be known to us…if we bother to learn the meaning behind the signals.
Problems arise when a dog owner chooses to interpret these signals in his or her own way without any prior research or study. In fact, speaking as a trainer, I would say that a great majority of problems are caused by a human interpreting a signal in a manner that runs contrary to its true meaning and intention. We all suffer from confirmation biases at one time or another but when we do it with our dogs the effects can be disastrous.
What you want to do is observe and not interpret dog behavior.
While our knowledge of dogs continues to expand, the study of a dogs body language is backed by years of scientific observations and research and not simple guesswork.
Learning the basics of such signals is not complex and there are many books and videos that provide insightful glimpses into how to do so.
Do yourself and your dog a huge favor…learn to read your dogs body signals.
Here’s a worthwhile post with many videos and illustrations from the folks at Tails from the Lab.
2. Learn everything you can about your dog’s habits and behaviors.
If you and I were having a conversation over coffee and I asked you to tell me about your significant other, or your kids, or any other special person in your life, chances are good that you could say quite a bit about them. In fact, you may know more about them than you think.
You would most likely know their likes and dislikes, what makes them happy and what makes them sad. If you wanted to motivate them to action, you probably know how to go about it. And if for some reason you were set on giving them a fright, you may likely figure a way to do that as well. This is because you know their triggers. You know how to push their buttons if you needed to, for good and bad. In other words, you know what makes them tick.
This is the deal….you should know your dog no less than you do any other important person in your life. Your dog deserves that level of thoughtfulness. In fact, considering that your dog is unable to communicate verbally, it becomes of vital importance to learn all you can about him or her.
Think of it this way, when you learn all you can about your dog you’re able to anticipate potential problems and thus life with that dog becomes predictable. This single tip will give you a greater sense of control, increased peace of mind, and set you apart from the average dog owner.
3. Don’t cheap out on training time. Make training fun and frequent.
Keep training light and fun. Don’t get demanding with your dog. Instead, go with the flow. See what develops. Trust that if you do this long enough, you’re going to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Training doesn’t have to be a chore. That’s actually the big secret to training. Good trainers know that training should be short and sweet. That translates into brief 5 minute sessions that are kept light, easy, and fun. 5 minutes too much for your busy schedule? Try 1 minute sessions. I’m not kidding.
Dogs have trouble remaining focused for an extended period of time, as do some humans. Trying to engage a dog’s attention for anything longer than a few minutes is often futile and only leads to frustration for both of you.
Don’t become a task master or drill sergeant barking out orders. Your dog will tune you out and may even become frightened. Instead, think of a loving parent giving out wise and caring lessons to a child. Nice and easy.
Short sessions will deliver great results over time. And if you’re liberally dispensing with the treats, you’re going to find that you have a dog that loves training and will be eager to comply with your request.
4. Always be consistent. Half-assed efforts will deliver half-assed results.
Consistency is the key to success in all endeavors in life. Training a dog is no different. Learning about your dog is also a consistent effort. Quality time with your dog should be consistent and ongoing.
Making an effort for a period of time might make you look good to your friends but if that effort isn’t consistent, it will amount to nothing much at all.
Do you get the key word here?? CONSISTENT.
Will power is only good for the short term. Trying to muscle your way through any attempt isn’t going to last. Pushing yourself to achieve a weight loss of twenty pounds is nice, but if your mind isn’t in it for the long haul, success will be short lived.
Long term success requires commitment and a vested interest in the ultimate goal. Always be consistent in all things related to your dog (and anything else you want to accomplish for that matter).
5. Be realistic. Unrealistic goals will only prevent you from growing.
Here are two common mistakes a dog owner can make that will slam the brakes hard on any potential progress you might be hoping for.
First, the expectations we place on our dogs and ourselves. The misguided belief that your dog “should” be performing or responding at a certain predetermined level.
Maybe you’ve watched a few episodes of Lassie (I don’t know why anyone would want to) and you feel your dog, who’s most active part of the day is the few minutes he spends licking his privates, should respond to circumstances no different then the TV dog.
Or your neighbor’s dog has learned a few fancy tricks and is now participating in agility trials and you feel your dog, who is again working on lathering his miniature johnson, should be able to do the same.
Be real. Plant your feet firmly on the ground and be honest about your dogs abilities.
Pushing the envelope and testing limits is all fine and good, but expecting your skittish chihuahua to get the guard dog certification you hoped for or even becoming a simple therapy dog can cross the line into the ridiculous.
Think baby steps. Go about training your dog gradually and don’t expect him to make the leap from beginner to expert overnight. It takes time.
Good dog trainers perform countless repetitions (read hundreds or thousands) with a dog before they consider the dog proficient at any skill. Your dog may not learn as quickly or as willingly as your neighbor’s dog. That doesn’t make him dumb. A dog may have a different temperament and disposition that can make him or her unsuitable for certain activities. First-rate dog owners know this.
Another mistake many owners make is having unrealistic assumptions. Many of us assume that our dog understands what we want and that he knows what we’re asking of him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of us assume that the dogs failure to perform means he’s either rebelling, stubborn, or just plain stupid.
We blame the dog when things don’t work out our way. Rarely do we consider our unreasonable expectations and false assumptions as the source of the problem. This lesson also ties into the second point about knowing your dogs habits and behaviors.
Don’t expect perfection from your dog or anything near it. You’re not perfect and neither is your dog. Deal with it.
6. Give your dog plenty of attention and affection. You get back what you give out.
There are some owners and trainers who still believe that expressing signs of warmth and affection to your dog is not advisable. The belief goes that if you’re going to demonstrate that you are the leader and a superior being that things like affection and love need to be rationed out sparingly, like cheese during the Depression. I don’t buy that for a second and neither should you.
Not long ago, if you were a dog owner and sought information on how to best raise your dog you might find very few books discussing the importance of relationship building.
These days more is being written about the bond between dogs and humans and the impact of a strong relationship. My experiences tell me that there is a direct correlation between the amount of positive attention a person gives their dog and the dog’s willingness and eagerness to comply with requests and otherwise respond to that person.
It makes sense. A dog that gets a fair share of affection feels safe and will look forward to being around you. Try it.
7. You’re going to get what you reinforce
This isn’t rocket science, folks. The principles of reinforcement are simple. They’re essentially the same for dogs as they are for humans.
If you receive positive reinforcement or a good consequence for any given behavior, you’re bound to repeat that behavior. The reverse is also true; a negative experience or consequence is likely to discourage you from trying it again.
I’m oversimplifying it for the sake of the example since there really are many other variables that factor into a person’s decisions. However, it’s not so complex with dogs so the example is still applicable.
A dog that is allowed to jump on people, nab food from the counter, and chase after the cat without being stopped and redirected or corrected is likely to continue the behavior because the actions typically prove to be reinforcing or rewarding. Period.
When you see your dog doing something ask yourself, “Is this an action I want him to continue doing”? If the answer is no then it’s best to remove him from the area and redirect his efforts to a behavior that is more acceptable to you.
8. Walk with your dog regularly
A dog needs exercise as much as human do. And like humans, a dog that is not accustomed to getting regular exercise is prone to developing health problems and to becoming downright lazy.
Regular exercise and social engagement are two of your dog’s basic needs. Neglect to meet those needs and you’ll assuredly end up with a dog that develops behavioral problems. That’s a bad thing. You don’t want that.
Walking with your dog is a fantastic way to bond and build a strong relationship. Your dog will associate you with the enjoyable walk thus contributing to a closer bond between you. As simple as it may appear, this is how leadership takes form. And how a good dog owner operates.
Having said all that, let me add that the walk is not truly the best form of exercise for many dogs. Of course this is relative to the dog’s age, physical level, breed, and size but many dogs don’t burn off much energy from a walk alone and will require more rigorous forms of exercise. Walking is, however, a great start and perhaps the best way to build a friendship.
9. Have patience with yourself… and your dog
You’re not expected to know everything about owning and caring for a dog. There is just too much to learn. Don’t let that overwhelm you.
If you’re a caring and loving dog owner then trust that you’ll be able to redirect yourself when you make a mistake. Making mistakes is part of the process of caring for a dog. Be patient with yourself.
It’s just as important to have patience for your dog. Dogs go through phases of life just like humans. There is a big difference between training a puppy versus a mature dog. You’ll need extra patience with the puppy.
Here’s a great insight…when your dog gives you a behavior you don’t like, look to yourself for the solution. Don’t resort to the fallback position that many people do by blaming the dog.
If your dog lacks focus, has too much energy, or doesn’t listen to you, understand that you can come up with a way of solving the problem. Frustration, and all the other emotions that follow, are usually a result of feeling that you lack control over a situation. Trying alternatives and still not coming up with the answer adds to the hard feelings. Take a breath and believe that you will find the answer. Giving up, assuming it’s the dogs fault, or taking the frustration out on the dog are all dark alleys you don’t want to go down.
Professional trainers run into obstacles and hit a wall in their training efforts frequently. We simply realize that if plan A didn’t work we then need to try plan B. It’s trial and error folks.
I would have to blame a lack of patience along with unrealistic expectations as two of the root causes as to why dogs get relinquished to shelters.
Dogs are not toys. They have emotions. They are capable of forming strong attachments to their humans. When you bring a dog into your home and into your life you make a commitment to him or her.
Don’t be a quitter and a whiner just because things are getting tough and not going your way. You took on the responsibility, now meet up to it.
10. Realize the importance of training your dog
Training shouldn’t be an option. A good family dog ought to, at the very least, know skills such as sit, down, stay, drop it, off, and a strong recall.
These skills are helpful to teach good manners in the house and are also effective for dealing with fearful or shy dogs at a basic level.
If you want to establish strong rules of conduct at home (and you should) then it becomes essential that your dog have the necessary skills to follow along. Teaching good manners and self control are part of that.
Owners complaining that their dogs are too wild, hyper, spoiled, out of control, or simply do not listen don’t understand that the solution often lies in teaching the dog basic cues, holding them to a behavioral standard, and practicing consistently. Instead, many look for a magic wand or command that will make everything right. It doesn’t work that way.
So what does all this add up to?? STRUCTURE. Give your dog plenty of it.
11. Never lay a hand on your dog unless it’s for good stuff
No person should feel it necessary to inflict pain on an animal. If you feel compelled towards physical toughness with your dog in order to get what you deem is good behavior, you have a problem. Either the dog is beyond your capability, in which case you need to seek the help of a professional trainer. Or the idea of hurting a living, feeling animal in order to get compliance gets you off, in which case seek professional psychological help.
Not knowing any better or applying a strong-arm technique because Uncle Bobby Jo told you this is how you deal with dogs is inexcusable. Better information is out there.
If you’ve been told that it’s necessary to manhandle your dog in order to get the behavior that you want you have either been fed a line of crock by a trainer, read the wrong book, or are getting outdated and harmful information from the wrong source.
It is incredibly easy to get well researched and practical information and tips with a minimal amount of research. Don’t be lazy. Do the work or give the dog over to someone who cares.
I’m referring to abusive behavior so having said all that, this does not mean that you should be soft and wishy washy with your dog. There is a place and time for firmness, and some dogs need it more than others. Firmness and pressure can make the difference between a respectful dog and one who flips you the birdie each time you enter the house.
A good trainer works with the least amount of pressure possible and doesn’t dispense with it maliciously.
12. Forget the old “dominance” beliefs you hear everywhere
Yes, this one is tough. It’s never easy to go against a long held belief that is commonly accepted as fact by the majority. People are often very resistant to change. This is especially so when changing means admitting to having gone about it the wrong way all along.
If you buy into the dominance idea, there is still hope for you. Why? Because you are reading this and that demonstrates that you care about your dog and are open minded to new ideas, approaches, and concepts. I don’t write for idiots. My readers are intelligent, thoughtful and progressive.
The idea of dominance as a behavioral norm is not only outdated but also based on extremely weak studies and unscientific observations. In other words, the concept is flawed and erroneous. It’s also been proven wrong. Yet it has taken a hold on our social consciousness of almost mythical proportions.
It’s sad and scary how the average dog owner, knowing little or nothing of the science behind actual dog behavior, can observe any given interaction and diagnose a dog as dominant. In many cases, the term dominant will come to identify the dog and define how we deal with him. It’s time to evolve our thinking.
13. Socialize the hell out of your dog
There is no way that I can convey through writing the tremendous importance of socializing your dog. Simply put, socialization is the process of properly introducing your dog to everything you possibly can. By properly I mean that you’re doing this in an affirmative manner so that the dog builds a positive association to the person, place, or thing.
It’s widely advised to socialize a dog as young as possible. Research is teaching us that after a period of time a dog’s ability to form positive associations to novel sights, sounds, people, and events diminishes.
The window of time is roughly given as the first 12 to 16 weeks of life. Some trainers believe that once the window closes, it slams shut. I don’t necessarily buy into that, but I do agree that a dog’s willingness to be open to new experiences shrinks very early on.
However, it’s equally as important to understand that socialization never ends. Even a dog that was well socialized as a puppy can grow fearful if socialization efforts aren’t ongoing.
Why is this so important? A well socialized dog experiences a level of comfort and familiarity with the object, person, place, or situation that allows it to engage with a minimal amount of stress and discomfort. This is a good thing. It’s possible that any bad reaction your dog is having to people or children could be due to a lack of proper socialization. Yes, it’s that serious.
14. Building a positive relationship is at the foundation of having a great dog.
If you want to know a secret that is understood and followed by the good dog owner and trainers alike it’s that establishing a strong bond with your dog is at the foundation of all healthy relationships.
A great relationship is a two way street. It means that the dog feels calm and relaxed around you at all times. That she doesn’t feel anxious or scared in your presence. And that she places a great deal of trust in you and has formed positive associations with your presence.
As in human relationships, it also means that communication is open. You make your messages clear and you understand the signals your dog gives out. See tips #1 and 2.
15. Establish house rules and stick with them.
Dogs need structure; we all do. We have a great deal of structure in our lives, whether we realize it or not. Our society is made up of systems that organize how we carry out our days and lives.
It’s long been recognized that children who grow up in a healthy and structured environment are better able to function in society when they mature. Structure in the form of rules and boundaries also provides us with a sense of security.
This is no different for dogs. A dog with little or no structure may not feel entirely safe and secure. They also live in an environment where they make up their own rules because they get little to no guidance at all. To a dog in such circumstances, life can appear unpredictable and scary. Predictability is good, for dogs and humans.
I’m not suggesting you go gung-ho with the rules and the manner in which you enforce them. Nor does it mean that you become oppressive or rigid. That isn’t structure. That’s being tyrannical and plain stupid.
I mean that you establish acceptable standards of behavior, set boundaries, rules of conduct, and stick to them. Consistently.
Throughout this article I use the term dog owner to define the person(s) primarily in charge of a dog. But dog owner can also be worded as parent/leader/coach/mentor/teacher. Take your pick, it all means the same.
I hope this has helped in some sense. If just one tip resonated with you, then it was well worth my time to write it. There is no doubt that someone you know can also benefit from this, so please share freely. Consider it your good deed for the day.