How to train a dog to do anything (and prevent bites)

I read Ian Dunbar’s Before and After Getting Your Puppy before and after we got Leo. Unfortunately, I had not yet heard about puppy socialization when we got Isis, whose story I tell in Bark and Lunge.

That’s why, after reading an advance copy of my book, Ian Dunbar said: Prospective puppy/dog owners can save themselves a lot of heartbreak by reading Bark and Lunge, which tells the story of what can go wrong when a puppy is not properly socialized and when unsuspecting owners are bullied into using aversive training techniques. Please read this book so you don’t make the same mistakes with your puppy.

Ian recently came to town for a six-hour seminar at Tails-A-Wagging, where he taught us how to train a dog to do anything in four steps:

  1. Cue
  2. Lure
  3. Response
  4. Reward

1, 3, 4 are the science. The art is in the lure. The simplest example is:

  1. Say, “Sit.”
  2. Show the dog a treat in your hand and then lift it above his nose.
  3. Most dogs, as they look up, will sit down. Some dogs won’t quite get it, and therein lies the art.
  4. When the dog sits, you say, “Good sit!” and give him the treat.

Training Defined

Ian says he’s astounded when people tell him their dogs don’t like treats. They don’t like to fetch. They don’t like tug.

“Training is not just teaching a dog what to do, it’s teaching him to like it.”

Let’s say the dog doesn’t consider treats to be very exciting rewards, but he really likes for you to chase him. Use the treat as a secondary reinforcer, like a clicker, before you reward him with what he really wants — to be chased. The treat becomes mega-secondary reinforcer. (At least, that’s how I understand it. Ian will be discussing this further at his workshop on Biting and Fighting Tuesday in Olympia.)

#1 Training Error

The biggest mistake reward-based and positive-reinforcement trainers make is to not phase out food soon enough. Or ever, in our case. We still can’t get Leo to sit unless we have a treat in our hands.

After a dog is four or four-and-a-half months old, the lure becomes a bribe.

A lure takes a willing dog and tells him what we want him to do. A bribe coerces an unwilling dog to act against its will.

Preventing Dog Bites

You know what the biggest bite trigger is? Grabbing a dog’s collar.

Here’s how you turn it around: Once you’ve already taught sit and come, call the dog to you. Have him sit. Grab his collar. Give him a treat. Let him go back to doing whatever he was doing before you so rudely interrupted. Most likely, playing.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

You have turned the biggest bite trigger into a tertiary reinforcement. (Play is the primary reinforcer. The treat is secondary.)

Girl Problems

Apparently there are a lot of female dog trainers who have trouble walking their own reactive dogs. I saw this happen with Isis because my own anxiety about what she would do fueled her anxiety. Men don’t have this problem, because, in Ian’s words, “Men don’t give a shit.”

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12 thoughts on “How to train a dog to do anything (and prevent bites)

  1. You got an endorsement from Ian Dunbar! OMG, how cool is that! As far as the girl problem — that is too funny. And true. Dammit.

    • I was so excited when he agreed to read my book. And then I got to meet him in person, too. He really is brilliant.

  2. Great piece. I appreciate the information about phasing out the food reward. Very important.

  3. Gonna admit I’m pretty jealous that you got to meet Dunbar in person! Pretty great. Thanks for sharing your notes.

  4. Haha – Yep, my Mum definitely gets more stressed than my Dad does, and I have to admit I play up more with my Mum – Tee Hee

    Maybe she’ll read this book? Uh oh! 🙂

    I hope you’re having a fun day,

    Your pal Snoopy 🙂

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