Train That Bonkers Pup Into a Canine Good Citizen

Bonnie Kreitler
6 min readOct 20, 2020

Five more training GOALS for that wild and crazy new pup.

photo by Daniel Maas in Unsplash

Wouldn’t it be amazing if training a puppy was as simple as downloading an app to your computer?

You just go to a store online. Order the program for Couch Potato, Therapy Dog, Agility Champ, Kid’s Dog, Retriever, or whatever traits you want in a canine companion.

Insert the app under your dog’s skin in a microchip. Or maybe it’s a small device that attaches to your pup’s collar. Install the desired behaviors via your smartphone and voila! The dog of your dreams!

Think of how many dogs would get new homes if dog rescues could offer pre-programmed pups for adoption.

Except… it doesn’t work that way. Training is a process of developing a communication system with your dog that both of you understand. You both agree that this word or hand signal or whistle or whatever cue means “take this action.” As your mutual vocabulary grows, your relationship gets more rewarding for both of you.

Instead of offering a training app for a particular dog job or detailed recipes for a particular dog action, here are a few universal GOALS — think of them as mindsets — that will help you help your pup become a great dog no matter what his personality or genetic inclinations or the job you’d like him to do.

GOOD DOG! Say this every time your pup does something you want her to do. Reward with a scratch in a favorite spot, a tug with a favorite toy, a treat, or a ball throw — whatever floats your pup’s boat. Pretty soon she’ll be put two and two together on her own to earn another Good Dog! reward. Training can be that simple.

Training can also be exasperating. What about the times you catch your pup peeing on your best rug, chewing a favorite boot, scratching cabinet doors, or eating a sock? The list of inquisitively destructive puppy tendencies goes on and on.

Threatening moves like yelling, shouting, shoving, or grabbing are the intuitive default setting for many humans observing them. The message you think you’re sending to the puppy is, “Bad dog! Don’t do that ever again!” The message the pup actually receives is, “Holy cow! Humans are scary and unpredictable! What do I do to appease her?”

Learn to change the subject by redirecting the dog’s attention somewhere else. Find a way to interrupt the activity. Manage the pup’s environment so the pup can’t engage in unwanted activity. Learn to ignore some unwanted behaviors like scratching at you for attention or begging at the kitchen counter so that you don’t reward the dog for doing them.

You’re the grown-up, right?

O is for OBEDIENCE. Obedience school is old school. Since the 1990s dog trainers have been rewriting the training manuals to discourage negative training techniques and emphasize positive ones.

Rewrite your vocabulary and rewrite your relationship with your dog by thinking partnership rather than obedience. Obedience implies status: “I’m in charge here.” Partnership is about developing a communication system that makes it fun for you and your dog to work as a team.

At the simplest level, positive training techniques help you learn how to teach your pup to associate particular cues (words, whistles, clicks, hand signals, body language, etc.) with a particular action. Cool. At its upper levels, it results in the teamwork of humans with service dogs, agility dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, herding dogs, and more. Very cool.

A is for AWARENESS. Study your pup’s body language very carefully. Notice every nuance of eyes, ears, mouth, tongue, muscle tension, tail position, breathing, and more. They telegraph how your dog is feeling at the moment. Noticing these tiny gestures and movements will help you predict what your pup might do next. Before that feeling that you noticed gets translated into an action by the pup, you have a nanosecond to redirect, interrupt, or leave a situation your pup finds stressful.

Now you’re the leader instead of a reactor. Good human!

I thought about calling this GOAL anxiety. Why? Because an anxious, reactive street dog rescue pushed me to pay very careful attention to the predictions of her body language. And that of dogs near us or approaching us.

I prided myself on being well-versed in “reading” dogs when she arrived in our household. She said “Nope” which made me kick it up a notch or two.

Don’t be surprised if becoming aware of your dog’s body language signals begins to creep into your interactions with humans, too. Not a bad skill to have in human relations either.

L is for LEARN LIKE A DOG. Dog’s don’t think like humans. They’re much more Zen, much more “in the now” than humans who plan and plot and ruminate about the past or the future.

You come home to find your pup has shredded a couch pillow and begin scolding him. He slumps to the floor, rolling over to show his belly. A sign of guilt? No, a gesture of appeasement because you’re acting like an unpredictable human.

In an article on the Great Pet Care website, author Lavanya Sunkara reports on research that found dog brains function similarly to that of a human toddler. Like toddlers, they have emotions but not complex ones like guilt or revenge. They respond to rewards and read human faces. Your pup will learn to read your body language for cues on your emotional state, just as you can learn to read his.

Have great expectations for your pup but remember to use a training approach more suitable for a toddler than an adult. Use simple words. Avoid paragraphs. And don’t throw the book at him.

S is for STRUCTURE. Teach each new skill to your pup in a sequence of small steps that are logical to the dog. Show your pup what you want first. Once you’re sure she understands what you are showing her to do, you can ask her to do it. Ask her in different places, at different distances, in quiet or noisy situations. Only after she does what you ask under different circumstances can you tell her to do the behavior.

Each step builds on what the dog already understands. You show your pup how to sit by holding a treat over her head, moving it toward her tail until she sits. Good dog! Gradually you fade the treat movement away until your pup sits whenever you ask for it with just the word. Now you can ask for a sit in quiet places, noisy places, when other people arrive, and when the doorbell rings. When she’ll reliably sit whenever she hears the word, now you can tell her to sit when she starts running across the street while a car is coming. Good job! Your step-by-step training just saved your dog’s life.

At the moment, there are no shortcut training apps available to install in your pup. Training will take your time and attention. It involves lots of repetition. Show your pup what you want. Rinse and repeat. Then ask your pup what you want. Rinse and repeat. As many repetitions as it takes until you can tell your pup (probably a dog by now) what you want and know the dog will give it to you anywhere, anytime.

You’re not stupid if your pup doesn’t “get it” quickly. Your pup isn’t stupid — or stubborn — either. Take the time it takes to train a great dog.

© Bonnie Kreitler 2020. All rights reserved.

Writer Bonnie Kreitler creates content to help fellow animal addicts build rewarding relationships with the critters in their lives. See more at www.ramblingdog.com

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Bonnie Kreitler

Author, journalist, animal addict, observer, and explorer creating connections between our critter relationships and life lessons at ramblingdog.com