The internet can be a dark and foggy maze for those attempting to gather any information on dogs. There’s certainly a great deal available but the quality varies in large degrees. From the thoughtful and informative article to the video filled with ridiculous assumptions on dog behaviors, the internet is rife with confusion.
This doesn’t make it easy for new dog parents seeking to get educated on how to raise their pup. Nor is the human dealing with a serious behavior issue, or a nuisance behavior for that matter, likely to fair any better. They too have to sift through the clouded and often contradictory information.
Now here I come along with my own spin on things.
The advice here is general, meaning it can be applied to every dog living under your roof and not meant to address any specific issue. They’re not easy fixes to any problem you may be struggling with but I can assure you that following these suggestions will go a long way towards eliminating or alleviating your challenges.
These tips are what I consider to be essential best practices for any dog owner.
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. You’re not expected to instinctively know what to do in most circumstances nor to have all the answers. But you do have the responsibility to go out and seek those answers as soon as you can.
The best strategy is to be proactive and ward off any potential difficulties or habits your dog may develop. If you’re currently dealing with your dogs behavior issues then one of the worse things you can do is to allow it to fester and get stronger.
Living with dogs has allowed me to change my viewpoint on life. I’m not kidding. I see things differently largely due to my daily interactions with dogs. You might say that a relationship with a dog can be transformative for the human. But that means you have to go into it with intent and open eyes. You can’t just wing it or accidentally fumble your way through your dogs life.
Keep the list handy and follow it. It could save you months, perhaps years, of frustrations and seemingly dead ends.
Becoming the ideal dog parent and your dogs leader
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 internal struggles which 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 cues. This is how your dog will communicate with you.
It is the only way in which to decipher what your dog is trying to tell you, 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 humans choose to interpret a dogs signals without any prior research or study. In fact, I would say that a great majority of problems are caused by human interpretation of these signals in ways that run contrary to their true meanings and intentions.
For example, a dogs reaction to a humans strong tone of voice or stern look can be a simple negative association she has formed with those behaviors. Meanwhile, the human interprets the dog signals of fear, stress, or insecurity as guilty.
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 a 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. That’s what it means to know another person.
This is the deal….you should know your dog no less than you do any other important individual 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 his or her habits and idiosyncrasies.
Think of it this way, when you learn all you can about your dog you’re not only able to identify issues as they take shape in the moment but you’re also able to anticipate any futures problems as well. And when that happens life with your dog becomes predictable.
Learn who your dog is based on observable facts and not on guesswork or your own biased interpretations.
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.
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.
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.
The best trainers make the process a fluid dance. They know when to motivate, when to push for more, and when to back off. How do they know all this? Because they have a goal for each session and they’re open to reading the dogs ongoing communications.
4. Always be consistent. Half-ass efforts will deliver half-ass results.
Consistency is the key to success in all endeavors in life. Training a dog is no different. Making an effort for a period of time might make you feel good about your attempts but if those efforts aren’t consistent, they will amount to nothing much at all.
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).
In many instances, the #1 cause of most setbacks or failures with dog owners is a lack of consistency in their training. In my experience it’s almost always a failure of the human and not the dog.
5. Be realistic.
Here are three common mistakes a dog owner often makes which will slam the brakes hard on any potential progress they might be hoping to achieve.
First, the expectations we place on our dogs with regards to their behaviors, habits, and personality. The misguided beliefs that our dogs “should” be performing or responding in a certain manner or at a specific 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, whose biggest accomplishment is holding off from eating his vomit, should be able to do the same. Comparisons with others will lead you down a dark path.
Be real. Plant your feet firmly on the ground and be honest about your dogs abilities, or lack thereof.
Pushing the envelope and testing limits is all fine and good, but expecting your skittish chihuahua to become a certified therapy dog is not only unrealistic but can cross the line into the ridiculous. And this example is not a major departure from many of the off-the-wall expectations I hear many humans place on their dogs.
The second is the expectation that training can transform a dogs issues overnight, or at all. Some problems are surface issues and can be addressed and “fixed” quickly. Others are more deeply ingrained (think highly reactive or fearful dogs) and the resolution to those issues may not be far more complex. Believing that a few sessions can help you change the dog entirely is not only unrealistic and foolish but possibly dangerous.
A third mistake is that they have 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.
What’s happening here is simple humanization of the dog and a misinterpretation of their behaviors and actions based on those false assumptions. Again, we’re interpreting behaviors due to our limited understanding. It all amounts to guesswork and we’re entirely wrong.
6. Give your dog plenty of attention and affection.
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. 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.
It makes sense. A dog that gets a fair share of affection feels safe and will look forward to being around you.
This does not mean that it’s all lovey dovey for you and your dog. Problems arise when love, affection, and attention are given at the expense of rules, limits, structure, and accountability. And that means that sometimes you’ll need firmness. Find the balance.
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, but you get the point.
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 devise a plan for dealing with it. But first you must be crystal clear in your mind about what you want your standards of behaviors to be. And then you’re going to be consistent with your plan.
Something to keep in mind: behavior, good or bad, gets stronger overtime due to repetition and continual practice.
8. Meet your dogs basic biological needs
What do you assume will happen if you’re confined to a space with no means of exercise or mental activity? No walks, no cycling, no sports, no Netflix, no internet, no video games, no phone calls, no board games, no books. No nothing. Instead you’re go to lay around, sleep, and wait until someone has the time to take you outdoors for a short stroll. Maybe they’ll have a brief conversation with you and allow you just a few minutes of internet time. How do you think you’ll feel?
Yet this is, in essence, the exact life most dogs live. Many get very limited activities (games, playtime, puzzle toys, etc.) and limited, if any, exercise. It’s been shown that dogs who do not get these two (mental and physical) biological needs met on a regular basis frequently develop some kind of behavior problem. Hyperactivity, a lack of impulse control, a lack of focus, easily excited and stimulated, excessive chewing, excessive barking, to name just a few. To make matters worse, many humans have trouble identifying these problems and drawing a correlation between them and little exercise or mental activity.
Do your dog and yourself a favor and get these needs met regularly. Make a plan and stick with it. The younger the dog, the more he or she needs. You’ll have a happier, more easily manageable dog and hopefully avoid behavior issues.
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 learning. 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 training a mature dog. You’ll need extra patience with the puppy.
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. 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 with their training efforts frequently. We simply realize that if plan A doesn’t work then it’s time to move on to plan B. It’s trial and error folks.
I would have to blame a lack of patience from humans along with unrealistic expectations as two of the primary reasons 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 just because things are getting tough and not going your way. You took on the responsibility, now meet up to it.
10. Don’t be a weak leader
In the absence of a strong leader most dogs will look to fill that void. This means that if you don’t create and enforce your rules, provided that you have them, many dogs will begin to make up their own rules. Those will rarely work out in your favor. You don’t want to be a weak leader.
What does a weak leader look like? The’re excessively permissive with the dog, emotionally unstable (happy one moment, yelling the next), inconsistent in their messages and efforts, their standard of acceptable behaviors isn’t clear, they provide no structure, there is no accountability for the dog. Dogs quickly learn how to get around this person and how to push their buttons.
Being a strong leader doesn’t mean you’re a tyrant or a bully. This kind of thinking is what traps many people and prevents them from making any permanent change with their dogs unruly behaviors. They form an emotional wall that blocks them from being firm and direct.
A strong leader can be calm and soft spoken, but she’s clear in her message, the standards are also clear, she’s consistent, she’s firm yet loving and affectionate, she provides plenty of structure, and she holds her dog accountable for unwanted behaviors. Don’t be a weak leader.
11. Don’t hurt your dog
There’s a major difference between applying pressure and teaching a dog to deal with pressure, versus inflicting pain on him in order to get compliance. Pressure is a normal and expected part of living. We all deal with it.
The best trainers are masterful at applying pressure while maintaining a happy dog who is eager and excited to learn. The worse trainers achieve their aim through fear and intimidation. Don’t be that person.
12. Forget the old “dominance” talk you hear everywhere
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.
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 been proven to be false. Yet it has taken a hold of our social consciousness as a verifiable confirmed fact. It isn’t.
All too often, the term dominance will come to be identified with the dog and define how we deal with him. It’s time to evolve our thinking.
13. Socialize, socialize, socialize
Simply put, socialization is the process of properly introducing your dog to everything you possibly can. By properly I mean that you’re looking to create a positive association with each encounter. It’s not a matter of throwing your dog into every situation imaginable in the hopes that she’ll acclimate to the experience. That kind of socialization, and some people do exactly that, can backfire on you. Think quality, not quantity.
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. Impressions are formed and some are long lasting, even permanent.
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 he has had repeated exposure to. This allows the dog to engage with a minimal amount of stress and discomfort.
Dogs that live in urban settings generally are better adjusted to the world around them than those raised in more rural or suburban settings. The reasons should be obvious by now. City dogs deal with a barrage of sensory overload while dogs living in the suburbs are more isolated and get limited exposure and few socialization opportunities.
14. Forming a strong relationship must be at the top of your list.
Here’s a secret that’s understood by good dog owners and trainers alike…
Establishing the right relationship with your dog should be paramount to all of your caring and training efforts. Relationship is the foundation upon which you will create the dog you want. From the dogs point of view, your relationship should be based on trust, comfort, mutual respect, and an overall sense of safety and stability.
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 and instructions from their humans. To a dog in such circumstances, life can appear unpredictable and scary. A predictable life is good for dogs. An unpredictable life can be frightening and filled with stress.
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. Essentially, you need to be the person who helps the dog make sense of and navigate safely through life.
Give a listen to my podcast episode on the things we do to ruin our dogs.
Spread the love, and knowledge.
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.