Mad About Science: Dog Training

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

There are endless opinions out there regarding how to train dogs into being attentive and obedient companions, and not everyone is going to agree on the best methods. But in recent years, scientific studies have pointed repeatedly to positive affirmation tactics as the best way to encourage wanted behaviors and avoid fear response issues in young dogs.

With adequate time and practice, anyone can understand the intricacies behind training the ideal companion.

Potty training

Gone are the days of rubbing your dog’s nose in their mess on the carpet. Research shows that such a punishment teaches the dog nothing, and honestly, how would you like it if someone did that to you?

The key components to successful potty training are consistency and realistic expectations. When you first bring home a pup, keep a timer on hand to remind yourself to take them out every half hour or so, visit the same place in the yard each time and come up with a key word they’ll learn to recognize as a command for “focus on relieving yourself, please.” With my dog, I chose “go potty,” but feel free to get creative and choose a word that doesn’t sound like any other command.

If and when the pup does his or her business, throw a party. Lose your mind. Praise that thing like it just won you a blue ribbon at a premier dog show. Feel free to incorporate treats, but lots of love should suffice for sending the message: “That was correct. That was good. That’s how to potty.”

But keep in mind: puppies can’t be house trained in a day. They need to be watched during the early training stages. If you see them get into a squat on the carpet, shout “no,” maybe even clap — startle them, then promptly take them outside to their potty spot and once the magic happens, throw another praise party. Physical abuse is unnecessary, and could result in a pup who is simply afraid to pee.

If a pup pees indoors and you don’t see it happen, there is no point in punishment. The dog won’t know what you’re mad about, because it is no longer doing the naughty action. Buy some scent neutralizing spray, clean the area and vow to do better next time.

The science behind potty training comes down to repetition — dogs, like human children, need to experience something several times before it clicks. Above all, keep in mind that your dog will always remember what results in a “good dog” happy dance, so use that to your advantage.

Social training

Doggie high fives are the best of the best. Courtesy photo.

Research suggests that puppies don’t begin developing feelings of fear until about five weeks of age, meaning that until then, anxiety is low in pups. Ideally, breeders will spend the early weeks of a pup’s life incorporating play and plenty of physical touch while stress is almost nonexistent.

By eight weeks, when puppies typically go home to their new families, that anxiety increases. However, it is still immensely important to introduce new experiences to pups each day, but with an understanding that overstimulation could leave a negative imprint. For example, it might not be a good idea to let a 2-month-old puppy loose at a kid’s birthday party, just in case they get mishandled and end up hating children. Instead, take the puppy to a park, let it observe kids and maybe even let the children interact with the puppy in a controlled environment.

It is also helpful to get your dog used to having someone in their face before embarking on veterinarian or groomer visits. Consistent examination of paws, teeth and ears while just hanging out at home will make that experience in the hands of a stranger a little less scary.

Also keep in mind that veterinarian visits are often something dogs come to love or hate, depending on how that experience is introduced at an early age. Ask friends about vets that they trust, and once you choose one, incorporate a ton of treats and praise into the experience.

Basically, if you want your dog to exhibit predictable behaviors while out in the world, make those worldly situations more predictable for your dog.

Advanced training

Dogs can be trained to be more than just trusty domestic companions. Search dogs, police dogs, service dogs, herding dogs and other working canines are living proof that a dogs’ intelligence knows no limits, and people have spent millennia perfecting the human-dog bond in order to make the world a safer place. 

Despite these tasks being substantially more complex than teaching a dog to sit or fetch, fundamental concepts remain the same: repetition, consistency and expectations.

Search and Rescue dog training is a perfect reflection of this simplicity. SAR dogs are taught to find a human scent and then track it. Trainers encourage this drive to “find” in dogs by associating the scent with something the dog wants, like a toy, then hiding that item in all kinds of conditions and encouraging the dog to find it. This training effectively makes life-or-death situations into a game for a highly driven SAR dog, who — through hundreds of hours of repetition — learns to find people in avalanches and collapsed buildings. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, and dogs are already pretty cool.

Stay curious, 7B. 

Or, for our canine readers: Woof woof, woof.

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