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.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE DOG
Both sets of dogs up here are communicating to each other. Can you tell what they are saying? If not, read on!
Dogs have a language all their own. It is not like those used by humans, who tend to be more verbal and less about body language. Dogs have so many non-verbal cues, in addition to the various vocalizations they use. They are experts at noticing and reading body language in each other and in us. I have spent all my life watching canines interact, and find their communications endlessly fascinating! Even after all these years, I frequently learn new things from observing dogs.
I think one of the most important things we as dog owners can do is learn how our dogs communicate. So many people think of their dogs as "human" or "children", often calling them "fur kids" and other names. Well, it's fine to love your dogs as much as you would your human kids, but dogs are NOT human nor do they view the world as such. That is not a bad thing, but if people view them as humans in fur suits, it does a great disservice to this wonderful species. It also sets up the relationship for a lot of frustration and even false expectations. As we learn how to better understand our canine friends, we can also communicate better with them. Think how frustrating it must be for a dog to be treated like a human because no matter how hard he tries, he can not be a human. Many people attribute human emotions or motivations to dogs, such as spite, jealousy and such. How many times have you heard a person say "my dog did that out of spite" or something similar? Those dogs are misunderstood by their owners, who may have the best of intentions but lack insight. This misunderstanding can lead to all kinds of things, including an owner punishing a dog for a normal dog behavior, and even being frustrated with the dog. A dog will sense this and will be stressed, which often causes more "bad" behavior, and the cycle will continue. Also, it can lead to not being able to accurately meet your dog's needs as a DOG and come up with training and manage that accurately address each situation. When you know your dog well as a DOG, you can more totally meet his needs. And I should note, I am not saying dogs don't have emotions that may be quite similar to our own (love, fear, and so on) but often the MOTIVATIONS for many of their behaviors will not be the same of a human in the same situation. That is a key difference. They also perceive the world differently than humans, and various things may have more or less value to a dog than to do to us.
Once you learn how to read your dog, and understand how differently he views the world, it can open up a whole new world to you. It will definitely deepen both the relationship you have with your dog, and also your ability to communicate with him and understand what he is trying to tell you. You will both gain a new respect for each other.
I think dogs are amazing creatures, as they are able to fit in our human world even when their owners are not well versed in canine communication. I think it's a testament to their adaptability, and ability to put up with US! I don't think there is another species on earth that can relate to humans as deeply as the dog.
Something else to consider is HOW dogs communicate. They use a wider range of body language than people, and a lot less vocalizations. Even so, they do have a range of noises they make when "talking" with each other. These would include barks, whines, grunts, growls, howls and other noises. These are just a small part of what dogs use to communicate however. Unlike humans who rely on a complex spoken language, dogs can say all kinds of things without uttering a sound. The positions of their lips, ears, tails and bodies can speak volumes to other dogs, and to people who understand canine communication. They can also use various expressions with their eyes to tell other dogs how they feel. I tried to show quite a few of those things on some of the pages on this subject, which are listed below.
I find that after decades of spending countless hours with wolves and dogs, reading them is so second nature to me that I often feel I know what they are doing to do before they do. It didn't happen over night but only after such close, prolonged contact and thousands of hours spent just observing them interacting with each other.
I remember once when I was doing a lecture at Wolf Park, in the wolf enclosure. Two wolves were walking slowly along the fence line, toward each other. One was the alpha male, one was a lower ranking male. As they passed, the lower ranking male flicked an ear back, which was his way of deferring to the alpha. It was subtle and fast. I pointed it out to the crowd sitting outside the fence, and I am sure they all missed it. Canines have so many minute, subtle cues especially in their facial expressions, that one could miss them without paying close attention. I think some people think the dominant wolves constantly run around physically dominating other wolves, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a waste of energy when a more subtle gesture can work, and same can be said of lower ranking animals who want to defer to their leaders.
Another fun story involves a wolf that was the alpha male for many years. His name was Chinook, and to put it nicely he had a temper. His yearling nickname was the Brat Prince and he was known for his noisy, violent temper tantrums, which could be directed at other wolves or the people he knew. His very wise, experienced handlers (Pat Goodmann and Monty Sloan) learned some very good techniques for working with this wolf and over the years, the wolf and the people worked out some good cut off signals. Chinook did like to be scratched and petted, but at times he got over stimulated and needed people to stop. In his youth he didn't know how to communicate that in a nice way. The people noticed that when Chinook got stressed and was ready to snap at someone, he would lump or bunch up the muscles under his whisker bed, on the front sides of his muzzle. If a person was petting him and saw that happen, they knew to stop and all was well. If ignored, Chinook would snap at them. The other thing he learned to do was nibble groom himself (where a canine nibbles with it's front teeth, as if itching or removing debris from the coat.) That was a cue we learned to respect and took it as the wolf's signal he was done interacting with people. As he learned we would respect that, he could lay at the feet of a circle of people and not be worried at being touched when he didn't want to be. All of this was so deeply insightful on both sides and I still get goose bumps when I realize how profound it is to understand a wolf that way, and have his trust to tell us such things.
I learned so much from the wolves I lived with for all those years, and of course Pat and Monty who are what people these days would call "wolf whisperers!" I use all that I learned in those many years of working with wolves and people who knew them well, in working with my dogs today.
I am adding a number of pages that will help to broaden your understanding of the language of the dog. I will add to this page too, but wanted to get something on here right away.
The pages you may want to read next include:
Canine Social Behavior
Canine Social Behavior 2
Help, My Dog is Growling
Training Your Aussie
Check back as I hope to add a lot more on this subject, which is one that is very dear to my heart!
This website has a lot of great behavior books
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."