Basic Principles of Dog Training

In the course of answering dog training questions, I’ve often come across quite varied questions which can all be appropriately responded to (at least in part) in the same way. This makes sense if you think about it; take your educational background. Let’s say you’re an accountant. You may get a question from one person regarding whether or not a particular type of investment is a good idea and one from another person regarding what percentage of their income they should be putting away. The answer to both questions may end in the same, “because……” Every discipline revolves around certain basic principles. In obtaining a degree or completing an apprenticeship, etc., you will spend years becoming familiar with those principles and their numerous applications. Thinking of things in terms of these principles becomes second nature. Dog training/ animal behavior is no different. But, of course, when it comes to dog training, I’m more familiar with these principles than many of you. I believe that becoming more familiar with them would be immensely helpful to you in being able to problem solve when it comes to your dogs’ behavior.

But… in school, for example, how do you begin to see the scope of the applications of the principles you’re learning? Not by being told about them over and over. By applying them yourself; by seeing how they can be applied in different contexts. That’s what I’m going to try to do this week. I’m going to outline some basic dog training concepts and help you begin to see some of the different ways in which you can apply them.


1. Behavior that’s rewarded happens again, so reward the behaviors you like.

Basic principle of learning theory number one; any behavior which is reinforced is more likely to occur again. Another word for reinforced is rewarded! We humans demonstrate this principle every moment of every day, in every decision we make. Why did you go to work today? Just because? Of course not! Because when you go to work, you get paid! Why did your husband shovel the front walkway before you got home? Because he was daydreaming about doing so all day at work? Doubtful. More likely, it was because it gets him points with you, his wife; it means you do nice things for him too. Or maybe it was just because he didn’t want to forget that it would be icy in the morning and slip and break a bone. Why do parents so often buy Screaming Bobby in the back seat the McDonald’s milkshake he’s screaming for, even though those parents know it’s not the “right” thing to do? Because it makes Bobby stop screaming!

Put very simply; your dog does Thing X, and immediately something good happens, your dog is going to do Thing X again. One caveat, though. Yes, your dog probably likes being petted. However, dogs don’t pet each other. Begin petted by humans is something that’s come along relatively recently in dogs’ evolutionary history. Hence, it doesn’t mean much in an evolutionary sense. The most powerful rewards are things which directly influence an animal’s ability to survive, and hence, to have the opportunity to procreate. These are needs which dogs have had since before were dogs; since before they were wolves; since before they were anything recognizable as canine. In a word, eating and things related to eating. Chase and tug games mimic aspects of the process of hunting prey. Hunting prey hasn’t been necessary for dogs for quite a while, so these instincts are present to a greater degree in some dogs than in others. Hence, for some dogs, tug and chase games, or the opportunity to grab onto something that squeaks, are very powerful rewards; for other dogs, this is less the case. Food is the  most powerful reward for the vast majority of dogs. And then of course, there’s the very, very, rare dog who really and truly loves nothing more than the chance to mush his face against your hand.

So… let’s take a look at some questions and find some opportunities to work on these problems by rewarding behaviors we’d like to see more of:

  • Beverly asks, “My lucy screams her head off every time i leave. She started this when she was around 10 months old and she’s 2 now. I have tried everything possible to get her to stop then a friend suggested a shock collar but i don’t want to hurt her isn’t there another way ?”

    Of course there is! Choose the reward Lucy likes best and set her up. You could start by walking out the door and walking right back in. If Lucy can’t handle this and starts screaming immediately (ie, you don’t get any rewardable behavior), then start a little easier. Maybe grab your purse and just reach for the door. Or maybe all you can do is pick up your purse. Believe me, Lucy probably knows you’re going to leave almost before you do. So if you have to, start with the very first sign of leaving you can think of. When you do that and she doesn’t bark, reward her! Now, another thing to keep in mind here is that at this moment, Lucy really wants you not to leave. This is an example of an exception to the ‘food as the most powerful reward’ rule. Life rewards can be extremely powerful. If you’re trying to get your dog to do something she has no reason to want to do, then food is probably the way to go; or maybe a little game of tug. But when there happens to be a particular thing she really, really wants; use that as a reward if you can! So you might, for example, go out the door, and as a reward for Lucy’s not barking, come back and put your purse down and sit back down with Lucy; give her a little petting time AND a couple of treats.

Keep in mind, folks, that at every moment during his day, your dog is going to be performing some behavior or other: whether its lying quietly on the floor in front of the couch, barking at you to throw the ball, laying on his bed chewing on a bone, or sitting and waiting for you to put down the food bowl. The more you reward the behaviors you like, the more often they are to occur again… and again. And because there are a finite number of moments in your dog’s day, the more frequently the behaviors you want occur, the fewer opportunities your dog will have to perform the behaviors you don’t like!

2. The other way dogs learn is by association. Something repeatedly paired with great things becomes great; something repeatedly paired with bad things becomes bad.

This is the concept behind classical counter-conditioning; in dogs, or in humans. You’ve all seen the reality shows about phobias. There’s a formulaic procedure used on all of them to help people get over their fears. If someone’s afraid of spiders, they are exposed to first a photo of a spider, then a stuffed spider, then a more lifelike plastic spider, then a very small spider in a container, etc. Each progressive step is taken only when the person is comfortable at the previous step. This is actually called desensitization. It works for dogs to a mild degree. But because dogs can’t process the idea that nothing bad is happening quite the way humans can, it doesn’t work nearly as well. Actually pairing the scary thing (here, a spider), with something good works much better. The other aspects of the procedure remain the same. It’s very important to go at the dog’s pace and proceed to each step only when she’s comfortable at the previous step. Even with a reward involved, if the patient is overwhelmed by anxiety, the “good thing” doesn’t really register.

Through careful execution of this procedure, it is possible to actually change your dog’s feelings about a particular thing. Hence the term counter-conditioning. Your dog may be conditioned to be afraid of something (whether by experience or genetics), and you’re working to counter this conditioning and replace it with a new and mutually-exclusive emotion.

  • Cari asks, “I have a 6 month old german sheperd we got when she was 15 weeks old. She was very skittish when we got her. We have tried alot with her. but she is still very skittish. She wont come to us directly when when we call her. She has warmed up a little and is fine when we love on her but still wont come up to us. Will she stay this way?”

    Cari, at 15 weeks, you obtained your puppy at the tail end of a critical developmental period. That period is the best time to get all your dog’s socialization in; to ensure that she develops positive associations with all the things she may encounter later in life. Basically, in socializing during that period, you’re working with a blank slate (if we ignore the influence of genetics); after that period, you’re counter-conditioning; you’re working against associations your dog has already formed through experience. Because shepherds are genetically predisposed to be a little more wary than some other dogs, you’ve got even more of an uphill battle ahead of you. But no, your pup doesn’t always have to be this way. She may always be on the shy side, but you can certainly help her quite a lot. Now, coming when called is an extremely important skill to work on, since it could one day save your dog’s life. The opposite, of course, your dog’s wanting to avoid or move away from you when you need her to come to you, could lead to a very dangerous situation. However, it will also help you, and your dog, if you do some other counter-conditioning work with her to instill some confidence in her with regard to her surroundings. If she’s a generally skittish dog, she’s probably anxious about something like the vacuum cleaner. Let’s say she is. You will need to find first level of exposure to the vacuum that she  can handle; this might mean seeing the vacuum when it’s not turned on, maybe even just for a moment. Whatever it is, do it and heap treats on your pup until she’s excited to see the vacuum and looks for her treats. Then make it a little more difficult.

  • Christina asks, “We have a 11 month aussie/heeler who is food aggressive he also ate really fast but he slowed down with the use of the food ball but he attacks anyone who comes near while he eats how can we end this cause i have an autistic child who doesn’t understand”

    A common treatment plan for this problem essentially involves approaching it as a counter-conditioning exercise. So you’d begin by giving your dog a fairly low-value meal (a little bit of boring kibble). Approach at whatever distance is safe, and toss your dog something great. This way, you’re teaching your dog that humans approaching while he has food is actually a great thing.

  • This is a very basic overview of the beginning stages of a resource guarding treatment protocol. This is one of those situations in which I’d suggest that you find someone to come to your home and work with you. This is simply too serious a problem to mess around with, so to speak. You’ll want to have someone actually show you what to do, because not doing it just right, as I’m sure you realize, could really put you in danger. Having a dog who guards anything in a home with a child is a risk, period; even after extensive training. You’ll want to do some hands-on work and have a lengthy conversation with a qualified behaviorist before you attempt this training. You may, in the meantime, want to take the food ball out of the equation. I’m a big fan, under normal circumstances, and it was a great thing for you to do for your dog. However, for your dog, the ball in and of itself, since it’s fun AND contains food, may be something worth guarding; thus compounding your problem.

3. Management is half the battle.

When I talk about management, what I’m referring to is the efforts you make to manage your dog’s environment in such a way as to avoid problems. I sometimes get the feeling that when dog trainers talk about management, owners sort of feel that it’s a cop-out. On the contrary, it’s an essential part of not just training, but living with a dog. Of course, there’s a big difference between arranging your and your dogs’ lives in such a way as to encourage harmony; and just putting a band-aid on a problem. A crate is a fantastic management tool. Say your dog is in training to be calmer around guests. A New Year’s Eve party may be far too much for her to handle. It’s simply not reasonable to expect a dog who’s currently learning to greet people calmly to be able to do it with 20 rowdy guests at once. This may be an appropriate time to manage the situation by having the dog spend the evening in her crate. However, if your dog greets guests by pouncing on top of them, barking at them, gnawing on their ears, etc., and you’ve never made any attempt to teach her any other behavior; then throwing her in a crate every time anyone comes over is a crutch.

Think of it this way; you can tell your five-year-old that the basement, where all the junk food and cool electronics are, is off limits all you want. And the opportunity to take a guided tour down there now and then as a reward for compliance with this rule may work very well most of the time (remember principle #1?). But do you really expect your five year old to have the self-control not to wander down there if you leave him sitting next to the open door for an hour while you clean out the garage? It may be prudent, in this situation, to simply lock the basement door.

Or how about this one… you like chocolate. You really like chocolate. You like other junk foods too, but over the years you’ve worked up the strength to withstand the presence of most of them and keep your waistline foremost in your mind. But chocolate, man; no matter how hard you try, you can never seem to resist the urge to eat all of it that happens to be around. It happens every time. Are you going to continue to keep chocolate around and just cross your fingers that at some point it magically ceases to be your nemesis? Or are you going to stop keeping large quantities of chocolate in the house? Now for the dogs…

  • Ann asks, “I rescued a Papillion and added him to our other 3 dogs. He is marking everything and has started a peeing war. The previously trained 3 seem to have forgotten that they need to go outside. Help?”

    The problem with this situation is that once it starts, it becomes a habit. The habit persists; and the smell persists. Even if you can’t smell it, your dogs can. And presto! Vicious cycle. There are several things you can do about this issue and they all essentially constitute (or at least involve) management. Your dogs haven’t forgotten that they need to go outside when they have to pee. They’ve added a new behavior to their repertoire. Marking is different from a dog relieving himself. A dog will squeeze any little tiny drop of pee out that he can if he feels the urge to mark. Treatment number one is neutering. Castrated dogs do mark less frequently. Period. However, this is not a 100% curative solution (as you may be aware; I don’t know that any of your dogs are intact). The next order of business is to clean up the places where the marking has been occurring; very thoroughly, and not with ammonia. Then, to the greatest extent possible, limit the dogs’ access to those spots! Remove the temptation, just like with the chocolate! Lastly, another important aspect of management is supervision. When the dogs’ access to the ‘marked’ spots can’t be restricted, they need to be supervised. This way, if marking occurs, you can catch the culprit in the act. Interrupt the behavior with a no reward marker (“Eh-eh!” or “Oops!”) and take him outside. Although if he does pee outside at this point it’s likely just because he needs to finish now that he’s started, reward it, just like you did when he was a puppy.

  • Cherry asks, “A difficult question she may not be able to answer…Aggression. We are fostering a Pittbull/Boxer mix and she has big dominating issues, she tries to boss the other dogs around and has got extremely territorial over the fence attacking the other dogs in frustration when people pass… Help?”

    Cherry’s question is another great example of a situation in which some management is necessary. This is a complicated situation which needs to be addressed in multiple ways, but one of them is a clear management issue. You said it yourself, Cherry; this dog has some barrier frustration issues which she’s taking out on your other dogs. Until some serious training has been done, she’s not simply going to stop being frustrated that she can’t get to people through the fence. Furthermore, barking at people who go by, or attacking your other dogs, probably gets rewarded; the people go away. So this behavior is only going to get stronger. Consequently, outside, unsupervised, is not an appropriate place for this dog to be. Conversely, were you present with her, you could reward mutually exclusive behavior (like sitting, laying down, spinning, or simply being quiet and calm and perhaps looking at you) when people walk by.

4. LIFE is a training opportunity; use it!

A lot of novice dog owners don’t realize how much work goes into training a dog. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to think of the process as “bringing up” a dog. Whether you get your dog as a puppy or as an adult, teaching him the rules of the house, teaching him your language so that you may effectively communicate with one another; this is a lengthy and involved process much akin to raising a child.

Upon realizing how much work is involved in the process, people often become overwhelmed and discouraged. Indeed, were it necessary to set aside an hour or two per day to accomplish the task, as many trainers would have you believe, there would be very few well-trained dogs indeed. Not only do we humans rarely have that kind of spare time available; dogs, just like children, have limited attention spans. Thankfully, the one-to-two-hour-per-day configuration of training time is not necessary.

When raising a child, you certainly set aside some time to play and teach. But a majority of what your child learns comes from everyday experiences. Your two-year-old probably likes to be read bedtime stories. Great! That will help develop her language skills. The dishes need to be cleared after dinner one way or another; requiring your 9-year-old to take part in that process helps to teach her responsibility. Simply seeing you calmly and politely manage an angry client over the phone helps to teach your child important life skills. And, of course, the perennial ‘you can have dessert if you eat your vegetables’ plants in your child’s mind the idea that actions have consequences (provided, of course, that you stick to that rule).

This is the basis for what some trainers call “nothing in life is free”. If you google that term, you may find some pretty Draconian versions of the scheme. I do not advocate, for instance, denying your dog affection unless he goes through an entire day without displeasing you in any way. However, the basic concept of a more moderate “nothing in life is free” plan is sound. Your dog wants things. You want things from your dog. Pair them up. That’s all. Use life rewards.

I’ve talked before about why food is usually the best training reward. Once important exception is any situation in which there’s a particular thing that your dog really wants: to go for a walk, dinner, for you to throw a ball, to go through the door to get outside, to get up on the couch; you name it. These are life rewards. In the course of any day, many of these things will come up. Take the opportunity to teach your dog about the consequences of his actions. Require something of him, and pay him with whatever it is that he’s so desperate for at the moment. If your dog really wants you to put his food bowl down, so he starts jumping all over the place, take the food bowl away. Ask him to sit. Then give him his food. A good deal of the bringing up of your dog can be accomplished in this manner.


  • Amber’s question is a perfect illustration of an opportunity to use life rewards. She says that her pit jumps in circles when she gets home from work, out of excitement and the need to go out to pee. These are common doggie feelings and needs. So when they arise, take the opportunity to do a little training! Amber, if you don’t like the way your dog is asking you for something, then that behavior should make the reward go away. If what your dog really wants at this moment is to go out, he can go out when he asks the way you’d like him to. So when you first walk in and your dog is doing his crazy dance, you can do one of two things, depending on how much compliance you think you can get from your dog in these moments:


  1. Simply ask him to sit and take him out when he does.
  2. If your dog is too riled up to sit at these times, simply walk back out the door when he starts doing his crazy dance. You may have to do this several times. Teach him that crazy dance = possibility of reward (going outside) going away. When you walk back in and he is able to remain calm, then he may go out. Calm behavior when you get home = reward (going out).

5. Be consistent!

My sister, who teaches Renaissance Lit. to college students, commented on the fact that her threats of reduction in grade point totals in response to non-completion of reading assignments don’t seem to be effective. Does she ever act on those threats? Well, no. Need I even say more? We all know this. It’s why many of us rolled our eyes at our parents when they threatened to take away privileges and why many of your children roll there eyes at you when you do the same. Unless the consequence of an action occurs reliably, the threat is meaningless.

Now, substitute the word, ‘threat’ for ‘word’. Just a word. Any word. Because that’s how we try to communicate with our dogs. We often forget that they don’t understand human language. That they must be taught the meaning of each word we want them to “know” through association with an action and a consequence. So; you tell your dog, “sit,” then show him how, then give him a treat. He hears, “sit,” his puts his butt on the floor, something great happens. Eventually, that association is deeply enough engrained that the treat doesn’t need to happen anywhere near every time, but that’s quite a ways down the line. In the beginning, if your dog hears , “sit,” and complies and nothing happens, then he learns that there’s no good reason to put his butt on the floor.

Let’s look at the other end of the equation. You’re trying to impart some meaning to your no reward marker. Your dog really likes tug games, but isn’t always so careful about not grabbing your hand instead of the toy. So when you’re playing tug and your dog grabs your hand, you say, “eh-eh,” and then try in earnest to get the toy out of his mouth, inadvertently causing him to bite both your hands. Your dog is learning, at best, that “eh-eh” has no meaning and at worst, that it means, “let’s play harder!” Whereas if, in the same situation, you say, “eh-eh” and then immediately drop your end of the rope, walk out of the room and close the door behind you; and you do this the next time and the time after that, then “eh-eh” quickly comes to mean that your dog has done something wrong and he will not be getting anything good; in fact, something good may be taken away.

This last point simply needs to be applied to all the others.

Guest Contributor–Danielle Grand has spent the last decade working to parlay her affinity for animals into a dog training career. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, she was involved in an experimental study on canine cognition. She has also obtained her dog training certification from Animal Behavior College and attended numerous dog training seminars conducted by respected behaviorists. At home in New York’s capital region, she works closely with colleagues and mentors to expand her expertise; she hopes to help forge strong, happy relationships between many dogs and their humans.


More Dog Training Q & A

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook