Dear Old Trainer: My wife and I just rescued Sal, a one-year old female Lab, from the local shelter. I am in love with her already and I am willing to spend the time to make sure she is well trained. How long does it take and where do I start?
A: Like all forms of education, Mark, dog training is a process, not an event. It begins the day you get your dog and it never ends.
The dog trainer has to think like a coach working with young athletes. Set a goal of making sure that Sal improves a little every training session. Add new commands, become proficient at the old commands, and discover new ways to communicate. There is no official starting place when it comes to training a new dog. Every trainer has his or her own method. The Old Trainer prefers to start with the "sit" command. It is easy to teach, easy for the dog to learn, and is a departure point for several other commands, including "stay," "come," and "down."
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The first step in learning to train a dog is to understand canine psychology. The best way I know to do this is to buy a DVD of the brilliant documentary, "Wolves at Our Door," a study of a wolf pack in the wild over an extended period of time.
Canines are pack animals, and their entire thought process is based on conforming to pack rules. When they come into your family they do not think, "Well, here I am, a dog in a family of people, I'd better act like a dog." They think, "Hey, this is a wonderful new pack I'm in. I love them all, but I think I will just run the pack and do anything I like unless someone stops me."
A dog is perfectly willing to follow a leader, but if there is a vacuum at the top the dog will assume leadership without a second thought. Once you are familiar with canine psychology incorporate it in your training sessions with Sal.
To teach Sal the "sit" command use the Five Steps of Dog Training listed below. And remember, the most important part is not the command, it is the affection you give her after she completes the command.
Five Steps of Dog Training:
1. Show her what you want her to do
2. At the same time, give the command in your "normal" speaking voice
3. As you give the command give her the hand signal that goes with the command
4. Give her 10 to 15 seconds to think about what you are asking
5. When she does what you are asking, praise her and pet her.
Take Sal for a walk or run to burn off excess energy, find a quiet place to conduct the training session, and put a leash on her. Call her name to ensure you have her attention and that she is looking at you. Say the word "sit," give the hand signal you want to use with the command (The Old Trainer extends his arm, palm down, forefinger extended, and motions toward the ground), and push down on her hindquarters with your other hand until she sits.
Repeat the sequence several times, then come back and do it later in the day. Hold several short training sessions per day. Dogs will progress at different rates, but as long as the trainer is patient and rewards the dog with affection he will succeed.
Send questions for The Old Trainer to firstname.lastname@example.org.