The Many Ways To Train A Dog

As Seen In The Patch March 13, 2011

Choosing an approach that's right for your dog…

When my daughter Lindsay was 3, we made a sticker chart. Crafted out of poster board and bright magic markers, the sticker chart was supposed to encourage positive behavior. Every time Lindsay hung up her coat or brushed her teeth without a fight, we’d put a sticker on the chart. My friend Melanie swore by the sticker chart.

Apparently, her kids woke every morning, brushed, flossed, put the dishes in the dishwasher and lined up like the von Trapp children in an ongoing effort to accumulate stickers on the sticker chart.

I spent the better part of one Friday afternoon making the chart, hanging the chart and hunting for just the right overpriced motivational stickers. Unicorns? Daisies? Ladybugs? Saturday dawned and the sticker chart experiment commenced. Before the first pancake hit the plate, Lindsay had located the sticker stash, proactively filled the entire week’s squares with unicorns, daisies and ladybugs, dumped the sugar bowl into the juice pitcher and suggested that I needed to go get more stickers. Preferably dinosaurs. With glitter. What worked so well for Melanie did not work so well for me.

Last week, I wrote an article about choosing a dog trainer. I heard from other trainers who shared their training principles and from dog owners who had had good experiences and some who did not. The variety of responses confirmed one of my primary philosophies: there are many effective and humane ways to train a dog.


Dogs are as varied as snowflakes, thumbprints and children; no two are alike and what works for one, will not work for another. As long as the goal kept in sight—to have a happy, well-adjusted and reliable pet—one who is more like a beloved family member than a crazy relative—then it’s all good in the end.

Most of the emails concerned technique: Is it cruel to use a chain collar? What is the best approach to dog training? How is training a puppy different from training an older dog? To provide useful information for the widest possible audience, in today’s column, I will offer some insight into my Big Three, the first things I consider when designing a training program for my clients.

History? Where did this dog or puppy come from? A young puppy that was born into the warm of loving home had a very different start than a puppy born behind a dumpster or raised in a puppy mill. A responsibly rehomed older dog may have different issues than an abandoned dog. Any training approach should take the dog’s past into consideration. Life experiences have a tremendous impact on a dog’s behavior and receptiveness to learning.

Breed Clues. Much information is packed into a dog’s genetic code so a dog’s breed should shape a training approach. A young, submissive Bichon Frise requires a reassuring, reward-based approach (think unicorn stickers)- one that a self assured, dominant German Shepherd dog would mock. Breeds developed to follow human direction (like the herding breeds and retrieving dogs) are more focused and receptive to encouragement. Dogs bred to follow their instinct (such as hounds and terriers) need more animation and encouragement to keep focused. A good trainer will vary the training approach according to a dog’s breed drive and personality. Dogs learn differently, but the long-term goal is exactly the same: to encourage a well-connected, respectful, happy pet. 

Stress. Like people, different dogs respond to stress in different ways. Stress can come before a dog enters a new home (from abandonment or a puppy mill environment) or it can reflect the current home environment. What can stress a dog? Again, it depends on the dog. Isolation may unnerve a people-pleasing Golden Retriever but barely ripple a more aloof breed. A gaggle of noisy, active children is balm to some dogs but a redline stressor to others. How a dog responds to various stressors will affect the approach used to train the dog and the dog’s receptiveness to it.

In short, there is no holy grail of dog training…no universal, magic sticker board that will work for everyone. I salute my fellow dog trainers and clients everywhere who are working to communicate with and train dogs.

And to all those dogs out there who try so hard to understand us – who reward us with their patience, loyalty and love – big, shiny, glitter-covered stickers to all of you.