Dog Training FAQs

I've heard that a tired dog is a behaved dog. Will exercise solve most of my dog's problems?

Dogs are natural athletes and as such need exercise every day; however, exercise is not a substitute for training. In fact, for many dogs, vigorous exercise just gets them into better shape. For instance my Jack Russell Terrier can easily run 18 miles and still have enough energy to bounce up and down when he thinks I’ll play fetch. When I’ve taken him out for a 10 mile run, I frequently forget as soon as we’re back that he’s been exercised.

Do I need to be the boss when training my dog, cat, horse or bird?

While you will need to set rules and limits so that your pet knows how to behave, you don’t have to teach the behaviors by using force such as pinning them on their sides or yanking with a choke chain. You can instead train the pet by rewarding the good behaviors immediately as they occur and ensuring the pet does not get rewards for bad behavior. As a result, your approach for getting Fido trained should be more like a game of chess and less like a boxing match. Watch the "How Fido Learns" video.

If I train my pet how long will the training last?

Animals learn and change their habits throughout their life. This continual learning is important because an animal in the wild that stops learning won’t be able to adapt to its environment and survive. Continue reinforcing good behaviors throughout the animal’s life.

What's the most common training mistake people make?

People think they’re only training during planned training sessions when in reality, animals are continually being rewarded for good and bad behaviors all day. As a result of the lack of awareness owners often spend more time accidentally rewarding the undesirable behaviors than rewarding the desirable ones.

What's the most important thing for you to understand about your dog or cat or horse to modify behavior?

The most important point about animals is that animals perform behaviors because the behaviors have been reinforced. In order to change behavior, we have to reward an alternate behavior that you would prefer and remove all rewards for undesirable behavior. This means that you have to recognize what might be reinforcing bad behavior so that you don’t accidentally reward it. Watch the "How Fido Learns" video.

What do you use for rewards for pets?

It’s important to use everything that motivates your pet to your advantage. Food rewards work well because, for instance, if your pet eats 100 kibble a day, you can reward him 100x for the same behavior in one day, which means he can learn the behavior and form a habit quickly. Once he knows the behavior well, you can give the food rewards intermittently and alternate with other reinforcers. Ultimately you want to use what’s most reinforcing to the pet at the instant. For instance if you’re teaching your dog to sit before going out the door, at first reward with a sequence of treats for sitting and looking at you for permission before you let him out. Once he’s consistently good at this behavior, you no longer need treats because his ultimate reward is getting to go out the door once he’s automatically sat for you.

What's the most important behavior you can teach your pet?

In general, for dogs and cats, the most important behavior is to teach them to ask politely for things they want by automatically saying please by sitting and looking at you for everything they want—that means food, petting, being picked up, going out the door, getting leash on, etc. By teaching them to learn to earn everything they learn that focusing on you isn’t a chore, it’s just the way they get what they want. They also learn emotional self control—that no matter how excited they are for the ball or treat, they only get it if they choose to sit and politely ask for permission. Then, in other situations where they want something or are unsure of what to do, they will tend to look to you for guidance. In other words they will start seeing you as a leader. Incidentally, the second most important behavior to teach your dog is to come running when called even with lots of distractions. Watch the following videos:

What's special about horses?

One important reinforcer for horses and other herd animals that is not a reinforcer for dogs and cats is rest. As a result, when working on an exercise with a horse, goat, or cow as soon as it performs the exercise correctly, you can reward it by letting it rest for an amount of time equal to the time and effort the exercise took.

What's special about cats?

Because cats often have their food out at all times and have not been exposed to many different foods you often have to first add treats to their meal so they learn to like the treats. Then you often have to cut back on their regular meal because they are getting too much and train them during mealtimes until their food becomes a valuable resource. Another peculiarity of cats is that they are good at pretending they have a low attention span or don’t get it. They may meow and meow or walk around aimlessly until you just walk over and give them the treat or reward. In these instances, rather than walking over to them when they really want your attention, walk away so they know that if they don’t play your game, you’ll remove all chances of a reward. Usually they will follow you and try harder to do what you want them to do to earn the reward. If they don’t, then stop the session and resume a little later.

What's special about parrots?

Most parrot species are both very social and very vocal. They spend much of their time communicating back and forth loudly with their mate or other members of their flock. As a result, attention and talking are very rewarding to them, even if that talking is yelling. Face it, when we yell at them it sounds a lot like the squawks they give to each other. Be sure you use these things as rewards so that you’re training good behaviors rather than always providing these things freely without thought and consequently, sometimes as a reward for bad behavior.

Are some species such as dogs smarter than others such as cats?

This depends on how you define intelligence. If you define the most intelligent animal as the one that gets its way, then cats are hands down much smarter than dogs. People tend to think that animals that don’t learn what they are teaching must be stupid rather than considering the fact that maybe they themselves are bad teachers or that they are using the wrong incentives or motivators. When animals are trained using positive reinforcement and behaviors are shaped in a stepwise fashion, cats and many animals one might consider dumb, can learn as fast as dogs. Watch the "come When Called" video.

Are some dogs smarter and easier to train than others?

The first part is difficult to answer because intelligence can be measured in many ways. But more importantly, smarter does not mean easier to train. The easiest dogs to train are those that are relatively calm and have a dependent personality so that they want to please you. Because they have a follower personality, they learn what you want despite the gaps in your training and are happy to oblige. Dogs that are more independent and consequently could care less about verbal kudos have to be trained more methodically and with things that are actually motivating to them. When trained in a stepwise fashion you may not notice much difference in speed of learning and they will appear happy and willing to learn too. When you skip steps or use rewards that the dog doesn’t care about, these dogs come off as stubborn and willful. When you combine independence with high energy and arousal such as a Jack Russell Terrier, plus a strong ability to problem-solve or tenacity in getting to what they want, you can be in for a big struggle. If you’re not a step ahead and several IQ points smarter, your cute puppy Einstein may develop into an evil genius.

Do you use only positive reinforcement?

No. While it’s essential that we focus on reinforcing good behaviors, it’s equally important to remove rewards for undesirable behavior (scientific definition = negative punishment). If both are not done equally, then the animal will continue to be confused as to which behavior you want and a good habit will never be formed.

If I use food/treats for training won't the pet only behave when I have food?

If you train incorrectly or incompletely with food then you will always need food around for the animal to perform the behavior. Conversely with punishment you’re likely to always need the punisher (choke chain, pinch collar) on the dog or readily available so that the dog knows that if he doesn’t behave he will get punished.

The way to wean off food rewards is to first reward enough so that the animal learns the behavior well in different contexts. Then the handler should start rewarding with food more intermittently and sometimes switching and using other rewards that the dog wants at that instant, such praise or toys. One mistake is to accidentally make it black and white to the dog that training occurs in specific sessions and at other times they don’t require or reward the same good behavior. In fact they may even accidentally reward bad behavior. In other words they have not made it a habit yet that the dog behaves throughout the day, it’s only habit to behave during training sessions. What owners should do is have the reward available every time during the day that they need it until the dog learns to behave well all the time.

What are the most common mistakes people make when using positive reinforcement?

A common mistake is that people don’t distinguish the difference between a lure/baiting and a reinforcer. A lure is when the animal sees the motivator such as food or a toy in front of his face and performs the behavior because he’s just following it. A reinforcer is when the dog performs the behavior and then he may or may not get the reward after he performs the behavior. In one case—luring—the pet can see the food or toy and decide whether he wants to follow it and perform the behavior. In the second case, he doesn’t always get the reward afterwards and he doesn’t know until after he performs the behavior whether he will get one. Many owners start with luring and never progress beyond needing to bait. A second common mistake is that people often praise or pet animals as a reward when the animal shows no behavioral indication that he finds these rewarding. With wild animals such as giraffes, the training is still paired with food usually so the only negative is that the giraffe has to hear a lot of blabbing. For dogs, the praise and petting is often in lieu of something he would rather have such as food, so the dog ends up getting bored.

Won't using treats train the dog or horse to be nippy?

Your pet will only become nippy if you reward nippy behavior. For instance if you feed the food reward when your dog lunges for the food or horse grabs then you will train the dog or horse to lunge to get the food. The best way to prevent nippy behavior is to reward the horse only when he stands with his head away from you and to reward the dog only when he’s gentle.

Do people have naughty pets because they treat them like their kids?

People should not spoil their kids or their pets. Spoiled kids who have no boundaries tend to grow into depressed adults. Spoiled dogs who have no limits tend to be more anxious or frustrated than dogs with clear rules even though they may have access to everything they want.

Is punishment ever appropriate?

Punishment, which for the purpose here we will define as force or coercion, can range from verbal reprimand, to a painful jerk on a choke chain or pinch collar, to using an electronic shock. It’s anything that the animal dislikes or wants to avoid and it decreases the behavior being punished. While punishment can be effective in some situations, it is generally a more advanced technique and can have many side effects. People tend to use punishment indiscriminately because it’s the first thing that comes to their mind. That is, they use punishment because they are not proactive enough to reward good behavior and prevent rewards for bad behavior. As a veterinarian my job is to recommend the techniques that are safest to both animal and human and that are effective. Consequently, I do not recommend punishment as a general approach to training, because other safer and equally or more effective techniques are available. When punishment is used, it should be used with full knowledge of the potential side effects so that they can be avoided or remedied if they do occur. Here are several considerations when deciding on whether punishment is appropriate.

  • In general, punishment should only be used after the handler has a strong history of reinforcing the good behavior so that the pet has an alternate appropriate behavior it knows to perform.
  • Punishment should only be used as a way to buy time to reward the good behavior frequently enough so it becomes a habit. In general my recommendation is that if punishment is used, it be used for one specific behavior and that an alternate behavior be rewarded 50x to every punishment.
  • Punishment can cause the other pets in the household to become anxious and fearful. Although the punishment may not be directed at them it may still scare them. Since it’s not related to any behavior that they can control, meaning they have no way to predict when or prevent it from occurring, they are likely to become more anxious.
  • Punishment must be strong enough to get a clear reaction and so that the animal does not habituate to (adapt to or get used to) the force used. The problem is that this can also cause injury to the animal if it’s too high. And it can cause anxiety if the timing is not right or the owner doesn’t consistently punish every single time the bad behavior occurs.
  • Generally negative punishment (removing the reward for bad behavior) and positive reinforcement are easier to perform and more effective than using force (positive punishment). Both require the same timing, but as you’ll see, positive punishment may require more strength and more speed.
  • Punishment can cause animals to become more aggressive and aroused. For instance, animals are often scared when threatened with punishment and may become defensive when they can’t flee. When animals are fearful of being hurt, they can run, freeze or fight. If running or freezing doesn’t work, then they are more likely to fight.

For more information on punishment download the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s (AVSAB) Guidelines on the use of punishment.