Training Your Aussie
Here a puppy sits for his favorite toy - Puppy waiting for the next cue
Disclaimer: Information on this page is not to replace taking your puppy to a reward based training class after he's had his second shot. This is just some info to get you started at home and as you raise the puppy in day to day life.
The biggest thing I want to convey is it's never too early to start training your Aussie. This is a smart breed and they will form bad habits if left to their own devices. Keeping those sharp minds busy is a great way to build a bond, and help you raise the dog of your dreams. I also strongly recommend using positive training methods such as clicker training, or other reward based training. I am very against force based training as it undermines the trust you are trying to build. Dogs learn better when they aren't afraid of making a mistake and getting a harsh correction. You can permanently damage your dog by using overly harsh methods, including yanking them around on a choke chain. I also avoid trainers who are afraid to use food. I compare it to a person on a job. Would you go to work each week if your boss only gave you verbal praise or a pat on the back? Or worse yet, if he demanded you to work for these "rewards" and if you didn't perform properly, you got a hard yank by the tie? Wouldn't you much rather have a paycheck of value (which to a dog can be food, a quick game of tug or other fun game, or other high value items)? It's been proven over and over again that dogs and other animals (and people) learn better when they aren't always worried about a correction.
There are many good resources to learn about positive training methods. You can order books on line from websites such as Dogwise (see link below.) Some authors I would recommend are Pat Miller, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson and others. Many cities have trainers who offer clicker classes or other fun, reward based training classes.
HOW DOGS LEARN
The two basic philosophies behind dog training can be summed up with this little comparison.
Imagine a classroom full of kids, and the teacher is asking them to raise their hands and answer questions. In one class, when a child raises his hand and gives the wrong answer, he is hit on the hand with a ruler. The teacher then calls on another child and when he gives the right answer, the child does not get hit with the ruler.
In the other class, if the child raises his hand and gives the wrong answer, the teachers says "oops, wrong answer, try again" and calls on another child. When that child gets it right, she is given a piece of candy.
Which class do you think has children who are more eager to raise their hand to answer questions?
It is no different with dogs being trained with corrective methods (think choke chains) rather than positive reinforcement. With positive training methods the dog may still be "corrected, but the "correction" or "punishment" is simply the lack of a reward the dog wants (food). Dogs trained with this method are eager to offer behaviors and eager to learn, as well as maintaining their trust in the trainer or owner.
Dogs trained with punitive or corrective methods may learn, but not as well, and are much more fearful and less trusting of the trainer or owner. No living creature thrives in an atmosphere of fear and many good dogs are ruined with this type of training. Any dog can thrive with positive training and appropriate, well timed corrections (that may not be more than withholding a reward.
I can't stress enough how important it is to train your Aussie, but equally important is the type of training class and trainer you use. Pick one with a thorough understanding of how dogs learn, not just an average trainer using a choke chain to correct a dog into learning commands. If in doubt, find another trainer.
WHEN TO START TRAINING YOUR PUPPY?
I say it's never too soon. Start the day you get your puppy. By that I mean you incorporate "manners" training from day one. If you don't want an adult dog who jumps on people, don't reward your pup for doing it. If you don't want the dog on the furniture, don't allow the pup to get up. If you don't want your pup biting heels, don't reward it in a puppy. Think about what you want and don't want your adult dog to do, and plan out a training program to fit that. Make sure all family members understand and agree, as it's very confusing and unfair to a puppy to have different people wanting different things from it. I also discourage rough play as that can make a very obnoxious adult. I know men especially like to play this way, and instead urge them to channel that desire into fun training games like fetch or tug (but tug games stop when YOU say so the dog doesn't learn to be in charge.) Tug may not be a great game if there are small kids in the family.
You can start teaching simple things like sit, making it a game. Use a small treat and hold it above the pup's head, moving it toward it's rump. Most pups automatically go into a sit position. As he does, say "sit" and then give the treat. Training can be that simple. Teaching a good sit can be so useful, as it's incompatible with jumping up, dashing out a door or gate, and other unsafe behaviors. I ask my dogs to sit for treats, for their meals, and sometimes before going through the door. I start teaching manners training when they are quite young too. That just means day to day manners I want around the house, not "formal" obedience. That can come later if the owner desires.
If you can find a reward based puppy class, you can start once your pup has had it's second set of shots. It's a GREAT way to start on socializing and building a bond with your pup, and setting him up for a great future with you. I think this breed, more than many, really needs extra socializing starting at an early age. Just be careful not to take your very young new pup out and about in places he could pick up disease (see my "puppy health care" page.) By the time the pup has had the second and especially the third shot, he can start doing more and more out in public.
MY PUPPY WON'T OBEY COMMANDS HE KNOWS:
Often times when you are sure your dog or pup knows what you want, but he seems to choose not to obey, it's not that he is being willfully disobedient, but often that he is stressed. If you see signs such as flicking the tongue out quickly, licking the lips, yawning, turning the head away and even trying to avoid you or raising a front paw, then you have a clear sign your dog is stressed by the training methods or sessions. It may be your body language is too strong, or your methods are too harsh. A stressed dog doesn't learn well except to learn that training is unpleasant. If you see your dog getting to this point, take a deep breath and try something he enjoys doing (such as playing ball or other game at which he will excel), or even stop entirely. Re-evaluate your methods and handling of the pup, and you may want to keep sessions shorter until the puppy is more mature. Many have short attention spans and will shut down past a certain point. For young puppies, several short sessions a day are better than one long one. By that I mean even 5 to 10 minute sessions that end on a positive note. Don't drill a puppy to do the same thing over and over, just a few times where he is successful is plenty. You want to keep training fun and fresh, so the pup looks forward to it.
Remember, the goal of training is not just to have a more well behaved dog but to build the bond between dog and owner. Anything that comes between that is counter-productive.
FUN TRAINING GAMES:
One fun and effective way to teach a puppy to come when called is to play "catch" with the puppy. Start in a calm area, such as a room in the house. Have two people sit or kneel a reasonable distance apart. Also have a stash of yummy treats. Start with the puppy with one person, and have the other person call the puppy in an happy voice. If the puppy comes running, praise and reward with a treat. Turn the puppy around and have the other person call, and once the puppy comes praise and give a treat. After the puppy is doing this reliably, start to add the command "COME". Don't use it before or you will confuse the puppy. I like to teach the behavior and then put it on the verbal cue, rather than the other way around. Also, don't use the chosen command if you don't think you will be able to get the puppy to come, or he learns he can choose whether he wants to come or not. The idea is to make it so fun and so rewarding, that he does it without thinking. ANOTHER BIG THING TO REMEMBER IS NEVER CALL THE PUPPY TO COME FOR SOMETHING HE CONSIDERS "BAD", SUCH AS A BATH (if he hates baths) OR GOING IN A CRATE WHEN HE'S NOT TIRED. He will learn to weigh his options, in that come=good or come = something bad. I always cringe when I see a loose dog, with an owner screaming come, and once they catch the dog they punish it. No one can blame that dog for not coming when called!
If you can think of fun ways to teach basic commands to your dog, you both will find training to be far more rewarding!
One of the most important things you can teach your young Aussie is "watch me." You start out with the puppy in a quiet location, and some really good treats. Let the puppy know you have the treats, and then slowly raise your hand holding a treat up to your face. Ideally the puppy's gaze will follow the treat up toward your face. See if the puppy will look you in the eye and if so, say "watch me" and immediately give the treat. Keep doing this until the puppy reliably looks right into your eyes when you say the command. Make it fun and light hearted, never stern as you want the dog to eagerly watch your face in anticipation. Aussies often learn this quickly, as many will automatically make eye contact hoping you will do something fun with them. Mine do, they watch my face constantly, knowing we are often of the verge of doing something fun.
Later on, this is a great skill to have if the dog ever encounters a situation that makes it uncomfortable. You can then use the "watch me" command to re-condition the pup. What you do is set up a training session with the "scary thing." For this example let's use a man in a hat. Have a man you know but is unknown to the dog wear a hat, and sit far enough away the pup notices but does not strongly react. As soon as the pup sees the man, say "watch me" and if the pup does, give a good treat. Repeat a couple times and then move the pup just a little closer. Repeat the "watch me" command and treat when the pup looks at you and not the man, and does not react negatively. Each time move a bit closer. Over time, the idea is the pup can perform this sitting right beside the man. This teaches the puppy any time it is faced with something scary, the owner will do a training game rather than get stressed himself or herself, or worse yet correct the puppy. It also gives the pup something to do rather than worry about the scary thing, and it conditions the pup to think of a scary thing as a chance to do a fun and rewarding training game with the owner. It sets the pup up to succeed rather than stress or get punished.
DON'T PLAY ROUGH WITH YOUR PUPPY!!
It seems a more common way for men or boys to play with dogs. They grab at the dog, pushing it back or pulling it toward them, roughing up the head and encouraging the dog to get quite over stimulated and rough, maybe even mouthing or chewing on the person. They may also encourage jumping up and grabbing at hands or clothes, or any other rowdy, rough play. I can't stress enough this is NOT a good way to play with your Aussie. All it does it teach it to be rough and physical with people and this is NOT a lesson you want the dog to learn. With a breed like an Aussie, they take it seriously and may think it's perfectly okay to jump up and nip or bite at people and that can get them in all sorts of trouble. For those who want a more rowdy game to play with their Aussie, let me suggest playing fetch with a ball or disc, not wrestling or rough handling the dog. I can't stress this enough! Playing fetch can give the dog and the owner an outlet for more energy than calmer training games, but not teach the dog to interact with people in the wrong way.
I also like to show visitors how my dogs relate to me. I do no formal or obedience training with them, just daily life skills, manners and "we live together" type stuff. I work from home and am with my dogs nearly 24/7 so we live as a real pack though I don't consider myself a dog nor they human. They know the difference. All naturally defer to me and I can use my voice from a long distance to get the desired response, simply from the relationship we have, not from specific training for every behavior. If I am standing in the yard, talking to someone, and the dogs are spread about doing whatever, all I have to do is start walking purposefully in any direction and they all come running over to follow me. I don't have to look at them or say a word. They are tuned into me and naturally follow me, as I am the benevolent boss, the controller of all good things and the leader in all sorts of fun activities. I can also use that voice of authority tone to stop them in their tracks if needed, such as when two are posturing in a dominance interaction or one is digging a hole or whatever. It is amazing really, and it's a cool way to live with dogs. I have to say it's been more fun and more rewarding than all my other canine experiences combined!
You can see in the various photos on this site, how my dogs will easily focus on me even when in large fenced or unfenced areas. I don't pose them for photos (except stacked photos). They just do what they do and I can get their attention with just a word. I believe by having a relationship with your dog, rather than using old style punitive training methods, your dogs will have this kind of connection with you and with just a little guidance will eagerly follow your lead. It's different than "just" dog training.
(I will add much more content soon, but wanted to get this page started!) Also, check some other pages on canine behavior, including:
The Language of the Dog
Canine Social Behavior
A GREAT article on this subject:
This is a GREAT article about temperament and how it works. It is about German Shepherd Dogs but the principles apply to all dogs, and since Aussies are also herding dogs, it's even more close for them. I really encourage anyone wanting to understand temperament and why it is genetic, not "how they are raised" to ready this.
Well trained puppies are well adjusted, happy puppies!
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."