Training a dog is harder than it looks—and it does not look easy. Canines don’t speak human language (if only), are driven by instinct and have unique personalities, and responses to “tried and true” training techniques vary widely among dogs. That’s why we decided to lay out some of the best training hacks we’ve heard from licensed trainers. These folks have seen it all and can offer some insider info on tiny things you can do to make dog training so much easier. Be sure to incorporate these hacks in with other highly recommended tactics, like rewards-based training. Every dog is an individual; regardless of breed, each pup will respond in her own way to training. Learn with your dog and meet her where she is, not where you want her to be.
1. Socialize Your Pup Early
Zoom Room Dog Training’s Head Trainer Courtney Briggs says socialization is “the absolute key to start off on the best paw going forward.” Even better? Starting the socialization process before your pup turns four months old. Adopting adult or senior dogs is a wonderful thing (sometimes these animals are already well-trained and housebroken). But, if you’re looking for optimal control over how your pup is trained, beginning the socialization process before four months is ideal.
2. Research Your Dog's Breed
Briggs recommends researching your dog’s breed as much as possible, especially if you’re a first-time dog owner. This can help you understand the nuanced motivations behind their actions. For instance, dogs bred to hunt will have a strong prey drive and could become easily distracted during training sessions. Certain tactics may also click with them better than others, based on their breed’s roots.
3. Research Your Dog’s History
Briggs also adamantly reminds us that there are exceptions to every rule. Breed standards are guidelines and, unless you went to a breeder, chances are your doggy’s DNA test will produce more than a few breed results. This makes dog behavior slightly less predictable. Luckily, more than breed, a dog’s history dictates how they respond to training. If you adopt a shelter or senior dog, it is imperative you understand the circumstances surrounding this dog’s life. Learning about the separation anxiety she developed earlier in life, for example, will have a greater impact on teaching commands than knowing she’s a purebred Doberman.
4. Train After Exercising
Zak George, a celebrity dog trainer and author of Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution, advises owners train their dogs after a long bout of exercise. Canines tend to have a lot of energy, especially as puppies. If you try to teach commands before they’ve had a chance to burn some of this energy and run around the yard, they may be too distracted to learn.
5. Use High-Value Treats
Zoom Room Training encourages dog owners to think of treats as currency, rather than food. To a dog, receiving a treat is like getting paid for a job well-done. You want the dog to roll over? Make it worth her while by offering high value treats (treats your dog absolutely loves). She’s more likely to practice rolling over for a few blueberries than a pat on the head. (This is where really knowing your dog comes in super handy. Experiment with various treats to find out what your dog drools over most.)
6. Use Soft Treats
One key to successful training is immediately rewarding your dog for a specific behavior and then repeating the same process several times to cement it in your dog’s brain. Waiting too long after your dog completes a command to deliver a reward may make it unclear which behavior was the correct one. Waiting too long between commands reduces the impact of repetition. The American Kennel Club says offering soft treats during training sessions cuts down on chew time so you can get right back to the lesson. Think of soft treats as instant gratification for your dog, which you can then repeat right away to ensure the command sticks.
7. Use a Clicker
Speaking of immediacy and repetition, you’ve got to be consistent. A clicker provides all three. By using a clicker between your dog’s action and delivering a treat, you provide an instant and consistent sound your dog will recognize as a job well done that you can easily repeat. For example, you say, “Sit,” and your dog sits. Instead of chiming in with your own voice, which can vary from day to day, click the clicker. Then say, “Good job!” and deliver a high-value, soft treat. Repeat.
8. Practice Proofing
Proofing is the art of training your dog in a wide variety of locations and environments. It’s generally advised to introduce and solidify commands at home, where it’s quiet and familiar. Once your dog nails a command, gradually increase the difficulty by testing it out when in a new space or surrounded by unfamiliar stimuli. Your dog should eventually be able to sit, stay or shake no matter the time of day, the company nearby or the smells floating around.
9. Stick to Rigid Meal Times
Rather than leaving your dog’s food out all day and letting her eat as she pleases, set a specific meal time and stick to it as rigidly as possible. Not only will this help maintain a healthy weight, it will teach your dog that you are in charge of her sustenance. Obedience to a routine leads to obedience elsewhere. It’s also wise to avoid training or teaching new commands right after a big meal. If you time it well, you can squeeze in a short practice session before meals, using kibble as treats to show approval.