Before I adopted my dog Ghost, my partner warned that I needed to truly understand the responsibility of training a dog properly, with a veiled insinuation that I may not be up to scratch. It’s not a walk in the park, he would tell me. As it turns out, there’s actually lots of park walking involved, but he was right—I underestimated the sheer magnitude of effort involved in dog training.
Neither of us would have predicted that I would turn into the ultimate Tiger Mom, a mirror image of my own Asian mother. I put her to work learning new tricks with as much pride as my own mother did, seeking to please her by becoming dux (top academic student) of my school, seeking her validation. Ghost can “die” when I point a finger gun at her and say, “Bang!”. She can spin in a circle on her hind legs, and she can put her paw on her nose as if to signify shame. Outside of party tricks, she knows how to “go to bed” and relax herself when somebody comes to the door, and she can walk completely off leash with me on city streets without straying far.
“Persistence is the most important part of the whole process.”
Most importantly, training has become a shared language with which Ghost and I can communicate, bridging the gap between us. I adopted a dog with a lot of baggage, and training has helped transform Ghost from a bewildering, stressful animal that I didn’t understand, into my best friend who I can manage and take care of with reasonable control. It keeps her calm, gives her a base to choose behaviors that don’t evoke fear or aggression, and provides an outlet for her mental energy.
I’m not the first person on the internet to espouse the virtues of training, but the act and practice can be difficult to maintain outside of the structures of puppy school or formal dog training with a professional. Professional help can also be incredibly cost-prohibitive. And, as most of us are (hopefully) safely at home these days, training your dog can be a much-needed distraction when you’re not baking bread.
I have gone through multiple personal breakdowns and tantrums along the way, and have trained my dog to integrate into my life in a way that allows me to be a better caretaker for her, and a more compassionate friend to her. By no means is the below advice meant to replace professional dog training—they’re just a few tips on what I’ve learned by integrating training as a shared language for me and my dog.
Consistency is key
You need to harness your inner Tiger Mom to implement consistency in training. Dogs understand clear directives and patterns, and making your expectations as clear as possible will set them up for success.
For example, if you co-own a dog, setting up the same expectations for walks is one example of being consistent. If you don’t want your dog to pull, don’t allow pulling to happen under any circumstance to fast-track good on-leash walking. If one person allows some pulling but the other person doesn’t, the dog will get mixed signals. (In other words, you may have to train your partner, too.)
If you don’t want your dog to jump on people, you have to be prepared to ask guests to behave in the same way that you would in response to jumping. Sure, they may say, “But I want your dog to jump on me—it’s so cute and I don’t mind at all!” But put your Tiger Mom cap on: Be firm and tell your friends that you’re in the middle of training your dog, and that they can help you out by mirroring your behavior.
Training is a lifestyle
One of the most difficult adaptations in my life when I adopted Ghost was the realization that training extends far beyond training hours. Positive reinforcement for behaviors offered by the dog outside of structured “training time” can be some of the most effective times to train. In other words, you are always training your dog.
This is not in relation to teaching a dog how to ‘sit’ and rewarding them for sitting. This is about being vigilant and noticing that if your dog is sitting quietly and not bothering you, that may actually be the time to reward them with a gentle pet or a small treat to reinforce the behavior, so the dog will over time, choose to exhibit those behaviors more and more. You can end up constantly looking out for behaviors to reinforce and opportunities to train, which can be a huge mental strain on yourself. (But hey, training is a lifestyle!)
Managing your own emotions is just as important as training the dog
Training is a relationship between the dog and the owner. As with any relationship and with feedback, you have to set each other up for success. If your dog isn’t properly exercised, they may not be in a calm enough state to effectively learn. If your dog absolutely loves hotdogs, and you’ve scattered hotdogs all over the floor while trying to teach them to hold your gaze with no prior practice, your dog is probably going to end up with a mouthful of hotdogs rather than holding your gaze successfully.
In the same vein, you need to learn when you are too frustrated to be an effective trainer. Frustration and negativity muddles communication, and it is so easy to fall into the trap of scolding your dog or raising your voice. A raised voice or negativity from me does not serve either of us, and actually erodes our relationship. When I wasn’t able to control my emotions effectively, I stepped away or ended the training session. Sometimes, it’s better to try again later.
A skill that I haven’t quite mastered yet is learning to stop calling my dog by her name for no reason. If your dog’s name is being used on a daily basis for no reason, they won’t respond and come back to you (this is known as “recall”) when it actually matters.
Same with using the command, “Come here!”. I haven’t been consistent in my ability to hold Ghost accountable to actually return to me every time I say, “Come here,” so those words are now rendered useless in our shared training language. So, I tried again: I replaced “Come here!” with “Byeeeeee,” committed to being consistent with the training, and now Ghost knows when she has to come back.
Clicker training is an effective shortcut
Invest in a clicker. It has singlehandedly been the most effective tool for training for the two of us. Tricks that used to take us two weeks to learn properly have been reduced to as little as five minutes with the clicker.
Essentially, clicker training uses sharp sounds (the click) to help your dog identify the moment of reward. When combined with shaping (gradually teaching your dog a new action by rewarding it for each small step of progress towards the full action), it can be an incredibly effective tool in communicating clearly and fast-tracking progress.
Don’t give up!
Persistence is the most important part of the whole process. Some dogs learn faster than others, and training is a lifelong commitment, not just a two0week crash course.
Establishing a common language via training is one of the most rewarding tools in bonding and building a shared life together with your dog. Although the mountain of resources and information can be overwhelming and confusing, approaching training as a language that you are learning as both pet and owner in tandem, is a quick way to re-frame what can feel unapproachable and hard.
After years of frustration, Ghost and I can communicate clearly now, and our lifelong journey of training doesn’t feel so daunting anymore. Whether your goal is to be your own personal Dr. Dolittle or to have some cool party tricks, thinking of training as a shared language is a great way to get there.
Photography by Tayler Smith