Lab doing down command

Dog training can feel daunting, even if we’re just talking about teaching simple commands. Many pet owners set dog training goals that are too consuming and complicated, rendering them unrealistic and difficult to sustain long term. Some pet owners, on the other hand, feel so overwhelmed by the idea of training that they delay it — and then never do it at all.

In addition, your dog’s problematic behavior may make you feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed; this, in turn, may cause you to put off seeking help, hoping the behavior will resolve on its own. Unfortunately, seeing your dog’s behavior as a personal failure can deter you from getting the help you and your dog need.

So, are you a bad pet owner if your dog doesn’t recognize basic commands? Not necessarily.

I’m not going to scold you for being a bad owner if you aren’t actively working to train your dog — the vast majority of people with whom I work love their dogs and want to do what’s right for them, they’re just not sure where to start. Successful training starts with getting past the guilt. After that, it’s just a matter of recognizing how easily positive-reinforcement training can be incorporated into your everyday interactions with your dog, and how helpful simple commands like stay and come can be.

New Things Can Feel Extra Hard

I’m sure you’re thinking, Well, of course, Mikkel thinks training is easy — she’s a trainer!  But, I understand how overwhelming it can be to learn something new. The feelings some pet owners have about dog training are similar to my feelings about domestic tasks. Basic things like laundry, cooking and cleaning were all foreign and terrifying to me when I first left home. If you asked me to make pasta for dinner, I would panic, call my grandma in a frenzy and desperately ask, “How do I boil water?”

I love having friends around, but I am challenged as a hostess. I always forget to serve food because I’m too busy chatting with my guests. I even managed to show up late to a dinner party at my own home! I arrived halfway through the evening to find my gracious friends serving the food themselves, while they waited for me. They still tease me about it.

Yes, in the domestic arena, I am desperately flawed. My talents and passions, without a doubt, lie in other areas. Luckily, I’ve found grace and humor in the learning process, and I’m OK with making imperfect progress. Most importantly, I’m aware that my end goal isn’t outward perfection, but living out my love for the people around me. I’ve made peace with myself, where I am at the moment, knowing I am on my way to where I want to be.

I share this about myself because you may feel similarly when it comes to training your dog. I know that training can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where to start, but like learning to boil water, teaching your pooch a few basic commands can be an easy beginning.

Make Training Part of Your Routine

Successful training doesn’t require fancy classes or structured exercises — the principles of ongoing learning can be used to influence your dog’s behavior during your normal, daily interactions with him. Training is simply a matter of reinforcing the behavior you want to see in your dog via rewards and praise. This is good news for pet owners who feel overwhelmed by the idea of training.

You may think your dog is untrained, but in reality, he has already been trained by you, even if this training was not intentional. The list of things dogs inadvertently learn from us is endless. A problem arises, however, when your dog has learned unwanted or undesirable behaviors. For example, your dog may have learned that when he barks, he gets attention. He may have learned that dashing out an open door leads to unrestricted freedom. He may have learned that pulling dirty socks and underwear from the laundry basket is the easiest way to incite a game of chase or tug.

Not all the behaviors your dog has learned on his own are unwanted, but they may not be particularly useful. Even without training, many dogs know to come — but what brings them running isn’t their name or a specific command, but rather, the sound of a food wrapper crinkling or the fridge popping open. In both cases, the dog is responding to a known cue; with a little training, you can channel that response into something constructive.

How Basic Commands Help

Teaching your dog some basic commands helps build good communication: When your dog learns the commands, he knows what behaviors are wanted and thus, rewarded, making him more likely to do those desired behaviors. Teaching basic commands is also a good way to limit undesirable behaviors that may be natural for your dog, but unwelcome in your home; for example, the leave it command can be used to remind him that the dirty laundry is off-limits.

Influencing your dog’s behavior doesn’t require expensive lessons or special animal-whispering talent. You already influence your dog’s behavior, whether you know it or not, in your interactions with him. Incorporating basic commands into those interactions — upon greeting people, ask him to perform the down command rather than jumping, or have him perform the sit command when he paws at the door —  can mean big changes in his behavior.

Finally, teaching basic commands doesn’t have to be time-consuming. You don’t need to fit marathon training sessions into an already hectic schedule — a little bit of training goes a long way. Rather than giving up because you cannot commit enough time to training, incorporate practicing basic commands into your regular, daily interactions with your dog. For example, ask him to sit when: you open the front door, you put his food on the floor or you put on his leash. Reward him every time he does what you ask. It’s that easy.

When approached properly, using positive-reinforcement training is an expression of love, and it’s well worth the investment. If you need a little extra motivation or guidance, you can always sign up for a class, just to get you started. But, remember to have some grace with yourself and your dog as you work together. It may take a while, but you’ll both benefit from the process.

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