K9 Coach – Sweat the small stuff


Whether you are aspiring to take your dog into the obedience ring or hoping to raise a well-mannered puppy, the question still remains: What is the optimum amount of training required for your pup?

One may think that the answer is simple. The right amount of training is the amount needed to get the desired behaviour from your dog, but that turns into another issue in itself.  The question then becomes “What is the desired behaviour, and does the ends justify the means”? Is the desired behaviour the end product or can we be happy with the progress as it unfolds?

Let’s use the word “Stay” as an example. For me, when training a “beginner” puppy, my criteria for the word “Stay” would be to have him stay in the area that he is left in.  This means that if my pup is left to stay in a sit on a mat, and without moving from that mat he chooses to lie down, my goal is accomplished.  For others, the word “sit” might mean that he couldn’t move his body at all, including lying down.

As he becomes more accomplished at the task of staying put, the criteria for reward should be slowly raised.  Instead of being rewarded for being in his place, he would then gain a reward for not lying dying down. Now he has to work a bit harder but not all at once. The details would be slowly added as the puppy becomes more educated.

This may sound controversial or even backward to many dog owners. Surely, if you teach the pup to do it properly in the first place it would negate having to re-teach some of the lessons. While that might be true, there is a much bigger picture to keep in mind. The bigger picture I have witnessed is the over-training of young puppies, and the stress it may cause later on.

For example, if a person were learning Archery, wouldn’t a cheer be valid the first time they hit the board with the arrow? The art of learning how to hold the bow, how to maneuver your own body, and how to aim at and reach a target, takes time. At first there would be many arrows that find themselves on the floor. Picture the instructor waiting until the arrow hit the bullseye before ever praising the student. Motivation would wane and the student might even give up trying. All the steps towards hitting that bullseye need to be celebrated, and by doing so, the student would be encouraged to be more successful, and enjoy the process of learning.

It is the same with the dogs. By teaching a young pup to come to you, and as it comes in front to sit, the owner holds the collar by both sides and instructs the pup to sit straighter, you have decreased the motivation of that dog. Will the dog learn to come and sit in front nice and straight? Probably so, but many will come with ears and tail down, unmotivated and without any joy in learning. To put the pressure on this young dog to complete the exercise successfully before he has a full understanding of what you are teaching can easily take the spring out of his step.

Working with your dog should be fun for both the dog and the handler. If your puppy makes a mistake, forgiveness should come quickly from you.  If the shoe were on the other paw, your dog would forgive you in a heartbeat. To me, seeing a dog work with joy in his body is the best gift of all. Our spirits should soar when we see our dogs doing sports, or playing fetch at home, and see a light in their eyes.

It is important to take the time to let your pup enjoy his childhood. Teach him his lessons, but do so in a fun, upbeat manner. Teach him the overall concepts and add the details later. Your pup will get trained. It might take slightly longer, but the look on his face when he is learning will be well worth the wait.



is the Director of Who’s Walking Who Dog Training Centres in Toronto and Ajax, Ontario.  She has been featured on many radio and television programs and penned  a monthly column in Dogs in Canada Magazine for nine years.  Gillian is also a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto, using dogs to shed light on learning theory to psychology students.  She shares her home with two dogs, and is involved in dog sports and canine performance teams.