Dog Training Methods

Classical Conditioning

The principles of classical conditioning were worked out early in this century by Pavlov, and thus is also called Pavlovian conditioning. In the original experiments, a bell was rung, and the subject (as it happens, a dog) was given food; eventually, the dog began to salivate on hearing the bell, apparently anticipating the arrival of the food. This is pure stimulant-response stuff, since the signal (the bell) always comes before the reinforcement, and the dog doesn't do anything to make the bell ring.

So we start with:

  1. trainer rings bell (stimulus)
  2. dog gets food (reinforcement)

And end up with:

  1. trainer rings bell
  2. dog drools (response)
  3. dog gets food

How can this be used? A great way to use classical conditioning is to teach the dog secondary rewards. Let's say you want to use a particular word or even a particular sound (such as a click) as a reward just because it is simpler than whatever your dog's best primary reward is. So train your dog by saying the word or making the sound and then treating him with a primary reward. He'll start to associate the two quickly and your alternative will become a suitable interim reward for your dog. You'll need to refresh the association from time to time, of course, but it does expand your possible repertoire for telling your dog "You done good!"

If you're observant, you'll also notice that most dogs are classically conditioned. If you say "Sit!" and they sit, that is a stimulus- response sequence no matter how the sit itself was taught.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner outlined the principles of what he termed "operant conditioning." In contrast to classical conditioning, in operant conditioning the reinforcement cycle starts with some action on the part of the trainee (in Skinner's language, the operant). Operant conditioning is therefore always dependent on behavior, whereas classical conditioning is not. We have:

  1. dog does something (operant behavior)
  2. dog gets food (positive reinforcement)

Under this theory, if we control which behaviors are reinforced, we should be able to get the dog to offer those behaviors more often. If the dog gets good stuff in association with a particular behavior, he's likely to repeat it; if something bad happens, he's less likely to repeat it. In practical training terms, this means that if Andy picks up his dumbbell (step 1), Andy gets some turkey (step 2); if he doesn't, he doesn't get the turkey. The result should be that in the long run, Andy will grab the dumbbell eagerly, even if he isn't a natural retriever.

Positive Reinforcement





Comments on Training Methods

As I've pointed out, there are a number of different training methods available. None of these methods are perfect and none are guaranteed to work on your dog (regardless of what it says on the cover).

People frequently disagree over which methods are "good" and even which are "best." This kind of argument is fairly pointless, as the effectiveness of each training method is subjective. Find one that works for you and don't worry about criticisms. On the other hand, suggestions to help overcome specific training problems may be what you need and you shouldn't reject it out of hand because it's not in the method you chose.

A good trainer will be aware of many different ways to teach a dog how to do something. The best trainers can read their dogs and pick out the best match for that dog to teach him something. Not all of us are brilliant, but a willingness to drop something that is not working and try something else still lets us take advantage of finding the right way to teach a dog something. Over time with a particular dog, you should find that you are more likely to choose the right way to present a new concept to this dog.

Good results in obedience training require large doses of consistency, good timing, and patience. You must be consistent: use the same word for a particular command every time (e.g., don't use "Come" sometimes and "Come here" other times). You must develop a fine sense of timing when introducing new commands and later correcting behavior on learned commands. Patience is needed: losing your temper is counterproductive. Get the whole family to agree on the commands, but have only one person train the dog to minimize confusion for the dog.

Establish a daily training period, preferably just before dinner. It can be as short as twenty minutes, or longer. Establishing a routine helps.

Don't expect overnight success. It can take up to two years of consistent work, depending on the dog, for a properly trained dog. (This is where the patience comes in!)

You must praise often and unambiguously. A smile won't do it. Give abundant verbal praise, scratch your dog on the head, etc.

Try making the command word part of a praise phrase. In this case, whenever your dog is in the desired heel position, you could say something like "Good heel!" in a praising tone of voice. Note that you only give the command once but that the command word is repeated in the praise phrase for reinforcement. That seems to satisfy the objective of the proponents of repeating the command (i.e. letting the dog hear the command often) without actually repeating it as a command. Further, because it is being said when the dog is doing it right rather than during a correction the dog doesn't create any negative association with the command as the latter is likely to cause.

If you have a puppy -- don't wait! Enroll in a kindergarten puppy class once its up on its shots. Don't wait until the pup is 6 months old to start anything.

Training before "six months of age" is fine if you see the puppy having fun with these lessons. Just remember to keep the lessons short, don't loose patience when your puppy suddenly forgets everything it ever knew, and give it plenty of time just to be a puppy. In the long term, the time you spend with your puppy exploring, playing together and meeting new people is probably more important than your short "training" sessions, but both activities are very helpful.


  • Make it fun for the pup.
  • Expect setbacks. Just because the pup understood what you meant yesterday, doesn't mean he'll remember it today. This means lots of repetition. Teach the basic commands: sit, stay, and come for now.

You may find it well worth your while, especially if you are new to training dogs, to attend obedience classes. Most places have local training schools. Be sure to check up on these places. Call the Better Business Bureau and your local SPCA for any specific complaints registered with them. Especially check carefully places where you ship your dog out to be trained: many of these places are suspect, because YOU must also be trained to handle your dog. Beware of advertising that claim LIFETIME warranties on the training, GUARANTEED solutions, etc. It is best for you and your dog to go through obedience training together, so that you both learn from each other.

No matter what kind of class you're looking for: from basic puppy kindergarten for your little puppy to basic obedience for an older dog to more advanced training for a dog that's already done some work, you'll want to pick the class out carefully.

First and foremost, pick out a class where you are comfortable with the methods and the trainer. If you don't start off with this footing, learning anything positive from the class simply won't happen.

Next look at the size of the class and how much time the trainer spends with each person. Ideally, the smaller the class the better, although for puppy classes you want at least four or five dogs since socialization is an important part of the class. Does the trainer allocate time outside of class for questions (either an extra several minutes before or after class or giving you her phone number for class)? What sort of guarantees do they offer? If they say your pooch will be trained in six weeks permanently, no questions asked, run do not walk away from this outfit. If, however, they offer followup help after the class is over or offer a few extra classes for specific problems after or during the class, this is a good outfit.

Check out what their policy is with aggressive dogs in class. It does happen that one of the dogs attending the class frightens and intimidates the other dogs. There should be a clause for dismissing such a dog (or better yet, going into private training with it), or having it muzzled and otherwise restrained to minimize disruption to the class.