3 Expert Dog Trainers on Their #1 Rule for Training That Actually Works

A black dog sits in front of trainer with treat.
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We can’t all be certified dog trainers, but you’ve got to think like one if you adopt a dog. Being a good dog parent is more than cuddling up at night or posting cute pics to Instagram. It’s about teaching your dog how to behave in the world so they can live their best life. We asked three certified dog trainers what their number one rules for dog training are. Their answers are simple, easy to follow and a great place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed. At the heart of each one: work with your dog, not against her.

Meet the Experts:

  • Nicole Ellis is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Pet Lifestyle Expert with Rover, a site that connects pet parents with pet sitters and dog walkers. She’s trained all sorts of animals for the past 15 years and detailed these experiences in her book, “Working Like A Dog.”
  • Kait Hembree is the Head of Training at GoodPup, a positive reinforcement training company. Hembree worked with a team of professionals to build GoodPup’s program. Her dog behavior consults are based on science and her many experiences training canines.
  • Chris Ramsay is a dog trainer, behaviorist and designated coach for Training Between The Ears, a specialized dog training program designed for pups with difficult behavior issues. Ramsay also owns Shaker Hound Academy, a doggy boot camp. He’s been in the business of dog training for more than 15 years. 

While each professional trainer has a different number one rule they tell clients to follow, each touches on one fundamental fact: your dog is a dog. If you want them to respect you and follow your guidance, you’ve got to meet them where they are. They’re dogs! Not humans or kids or English-speaking animals out of a Pixar movie.   

As Ramsay puts it, “As a dog owner, you are not a warden commanding a prisoner. You are a coach, and your dog is a player on the same team.”

Young woman training dog in field in sunny day.
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Nicole Ellis's #1 Rule

Reward the Behavior You Want

Positive reinforcement training means rewarding behavior you want your dog to continue. This includes doling out plenty of training treats during training sessions immediately after your dog performs a particular behavior. Note: This doesn’t mean bribing your dog to do something with a treat. Behavior first, treat second.

A 2019 study out of Portugal found this training method worked better than negative reinforcement or aversive-based training methods which involve punishment or withholding rewards if a dog displays bad behavior. In fact, aversive-based training caused more stress and fear in dogs. Ellis says the best thing dog parents can do is reward good behavior.

“By reinforcing desired behaviors it's more likely that those will occur again, and the not so desirable behaviors will occur less,” Ellis says.

She adds that mental enrichment should also be incorporated into dog training whenever possible. “Many dogs are simply bored and by providing some sort of mental enrichment daily, even if it's short, you can not only enrich their lives, but also prevent destruction and other naughty behaviors.”

An African American woman in her mid 20s trains her puppy, a handsome male golden retriever. They sit on green grass in a city park. Shot in Tacoma, Washington, USA.
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Kait Hembree‘s #1 Rule


Consistency offers a predictable routine for dogs. It’s like a behavior road map they can follow.  “Dogs are smart and opportunistic,” Hembree says. “This means that if a behavior results in a positive outcome once for a dog, in their brain it might work again.” To be effectively consistent, you must reward good behavior as soon as it happens. There’s also no room for “special occasions,” especially in early days of training.

For example, if you are crate training your dog or teaching her to sit on her dog bed instead of the couch, there’s no room for exceptions. As humans, we tend to think that breaking the rules can be a reward for a job well done. “I never let Ralphie sit on the couch, but she’s been such a good girl today, I’ll let her up just this once.” Wrong! “Just this once” is not a phrase dogs understand. To Ralphie, if you offer a spot on the couch once, it means sitting on the couch is totally fine forever. She’ll continue that behavior and grow confused if you scold her.

portrait of border collie puppy biting a curtain
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Chris Ramsay’s #1 Rule

Remember Your Dog’s Grade School Level (GSL)

This rule goes back to our advice earlier: meet your dog where they are, not where you want them to be. “We all want our dogs to be good dogs,” Ramsay says. “A dog's GSL indicates what they can do reliably and consistently. Many owners regularly exceed their dog's GSL and get frustrated when the dog doesn't perform as expected. Asking a new excited puppy to sit when ten dinner guests arrive will likely be above the puppy's GSL.”

If you find your dog isn’t responding well to you, Ramsay recommends reducing the distraction level and the physical distance between you and your dog by half before trying again. “Repeat at these new reduced levels, and build the dog up slowly to the levels where they failed,” Ramsay says. “Reward the heck out of them every time.”

This takes a lot of patience and time. Ramsay advises waiting until your dog is super successful at each level before increasing difficulty. “Reducing the GSL when the dog fails and then getting successes repeatedly at lower GSLs will provide consistent results, lower failures, and build confidence,” he says. “Push the dog too fast, and your results will be inconsistent.”

When to Contact a Professional Dog Trainer

You don’t have to tackle dog training alone! This is why trainers like Ellis, Hembree and Ramsay exist. They are professionals willing to help make your life—and your dog’s life—easier. Ramsay likes to work with puppies in the first week or so that they arrive home, to prevent bad habits from forming. But, if you prefer to work with your dog on your own, go for it! Just be sure to follow our experts’ top rules. Another hot tip? Read up on different training methods and techniques. This will help you better understand the dog psyche and you just may discover a method or tool that really clicks with your particular dog.

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Freelance Writer

Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...