Five Pro Training Tips for Dog Moms - Dana VanSickle, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

Five Pro Training Tips for Dog Moms

by Dana VanSickle, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

Dog moms everywhere rejoice! You have permission to be nice to your dog and still maintain paw and order in your multi-species household. In fact, being nice to your dog is the first step to being a good dog trainer. I would know, I am one. I know, I know. These days, literally anybody and everybody can claim to be a dog whisperer. But too many so-called experts sound off with poor advice that is harmful to both you and your dog. Ain't no dog momma got time for that!

Dog paw-renting is hard enough without following the bad advice of quick-fix phonies and dominance-obsessed hacks. However, sniffing through the dizzying amounts of doodoo advice out there can be time-consuming. If you're a busy dog momager like me, you would benefit from some easy steps for fetching quality advice from qualified professionals. That is why I'm guest blogging today and sharing my pro training tips for dog moms. These force-free mommy mantras will help you be the best #snackleadernotpackleader to your well-behaved pooch.

Ditch your dog’s food bowl.

Ditch your dog’s food bowl.

Pro Dog Training Tip #5: Ditch the Food Bowl

One of the fastest ways to a more mannerly mutt is to ditch the food bowl. Stop feeding meals out of the most mundane piece of equipment ever known to a dog. Instead, start her on the Learn to Earn program. Force-free Behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin wrote extensively about the benefits of using your dog's daily food allotment to incentivize good behavior. I use Learn to Earn principles to teach my dog new skills but also to constructively deplete her daily energy reserves. After all, a tired dog is a well-behaved dog. All you need to know to get started with Learn to Earn is that every good behavior equals one piece of food. It's that simple.

When trying to teach your dog a new skill, start with baby steps. In Learn to Earn, any little thing my dog does that I like is rewardable behavior. You can carry a bait bag - AKA the stylish dog momma's fanny pack - or keep treats in dog-proof locations around the house. Here are some suggestions for how to leverage your dog's daily food allotment:

  • On days that I work outside the house, I set aside time to spend my dog's breakfast or dinner clicker training a new skill.

  • If I work from home, I carry a bait bag to pay out for good behavior over several hours.

  • When I'm in a rush to get out the door or exhausted from a long day at work, there are still no bowls on the agenda!

  • Instead, I fill up one of my dog's puzzle toys to give her the mental stimulation I'm too tired to participate in (while supervising for safety).

Ditching the food bowl allows you to leverage one of your dog's favorite activities for behavior you can live with. Either way, your dog is getting more of a mental workout than she ever did before, which generally translates into better behavior.

Stop finger pointing at your dog! Instead, use a clicker instead to train your dog!

Stop finger pointing at your dog! Instead, use a clicker instead to train your dog!

Pro Dog Training Tip #4: Focus on What You Do Want

I don't know what it is about humans that causes us to focus on the things we don't like. Focusing on what we don't want, out of life or our relationships, can leave us barking up the wrong tree. On the other hand, focusing on what we actually want can help us sniff out clear paths towards well-defined goals. Harmonious pet parenting hinges on us dog mommas shifting our focus onto what we do want our fur-children to do. What does that look like for the average furbaby?

  • Dog sits when greeting visitors

  • Dog lies down quietly on her bed while the family eats dinner

  • Leashed dog looks up at the handler when a bicycle passes by

  • Dog alerts owner when food is left on the counter

The majority of good dog training is actually human training. It's not just about teaching well-meaning dog parents how to speak dog; it is in many ways, reminding them how to problem-solve. I'm frequently asked for advice on how to get a dog to stop jumping, begging, lunging on leash, and counter-surfing. Frustrated parents spend a great deal of energy trying to turn off an undesirable behavior, while forgetting to teach their well-meaning dog what to do instead. Defining what you want from your dog is the first step to getting the results you want. Start here the next time your dog gets on your nerves, and you’ll be on the right track to give your dog what she needs in order to give you what you want.

“Don’t just teach your dog how to act, teach your dog how to think.”

“Don’t just teach your dog how to act, teach your dog how to think.”

Pro Dog Training Tip #3: Teach Life Skills

I don't know why people assume that good dog trainers are impressed by fully compliant dogs who submit to their human's every barking order. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't know about you, but I like for my dogs to know more than just the orders I give her. In fact, I greatly appreciate it if she is capable of making good decisions. On. Her. Own. Not just every now and then, but often. Busy dog moms simply don't have time to always be two steps ahead of the dog.

Both literally and figuratively, our four-legged dogs are always a few steps ahead of us. It's part of what makes them such good companions. However, being a companion that is easy to live with has more to do with life skills than perfect obedience. I want my dogs to know how to think, not just how to obey. What does this look like in our day to day?

  • My dog wants my attention. Instead of jumping or nipping, she sits squarely in front of me and looks at my face.

  • My dog wants up on the couch. Instead of jumping up without asking, she looks at at the sofa, then back at me. If I cue her to jump up, she does; if I don't, she walks away.

  • My dog needs to go outside to potty. Instead of eliminating inside the house, she stations herself next to the back door and patiently waits for me to let her out.

  • My dog would like to go into a play yard to see her furriends. Instead of hurling herself over the gate, she automatically sits in front of it until it opens.

  • My dog, who was not socialized well as a puppy, has never seen a bicycle before, but was startled by one on a recent hike. Instead of barking defensively, which she has been known to do when scared, she ran several yards off the trail, sat and quietly watched until the bike left. Thereafter, she returned to my husband's side.

It isn't possible to train for every possible life scenario, but it is possible to teach decision-making skills that keep our dogs and bystanders safe. Teaching a dog how to ask for what he needs by way of appropriate default behaviors will save you and your dog a lot of headaches. [I go into more detail about teaching life skills and default behaviors in my upcoming post on Confessions of a Dog Mom.] 

“The life of a dog can be very boring. Sitting around the house all day as we work, watch TV, read, go online, use our phones, and live our lives. We owe it to them to ensure they have a life too.”

“The life of a dog can be very boring. Sitting around the house all day as we work, watch TV, read, go online, use our phones, and live our lives. We owe it to them to ensure they have a life too.”

Pro Dog Training Tip #2: Let Them Be Dogs

Would it surprise you to know that the overwhelming majority of "problem dogs" I've worked with were actually very good dogs that were simply bored? Given more opportunities to practice being a dog through species-appropriate enrichment activities vastly improved the behavior of each of these No-No-Bad-Dogs. Not all behavior problems are cured by an increase in enrichment, but I have yet to meet a dog (or dog momma) that didn't benefit from it. Think of these activities self-care for dogs. Good self-care improves mood, attention span, energy, and resilience, which makes learning and “behaving” that much easier!

Although they may be our fur-children, dogs experience the world much differently than we do. The activities that fulfill our dogs, or otherwise prevent them from going insane, are often different than the ones we use for our own self-care. Can any of you relate to the differences between me and my dog? Whereas I look forward to burning off some steam with a HIIT workout, my dog opts to take out her frustration on a fresh antler. I enjoy hiking along nicely manicured trails, but my dog prefers scenting in the muck. While I recharge over a glass of wine with my girlfriends, my dog thrives on regular daycare visits to play with her mangy dog pals. 

In the same way that I make sure to meet my own self-care needs (or try to!), I need to make sure to meet my dog's needs, too. If you aren’t already, consider adding one of these enrichment activities to your dog’s daily agenda. You’ll be helping to tire out your dog in a healthy, positive way, which will only enhance their ability to learn.

Dana and her fur baby.

Dana and her fur baby.

Pro Dog Training Tip #1: Be Kind to Yourself & Your Dog

If you're like me, you struggle with perfectionistic tendencies (or as I like to call it, pawfectionistic). Let's be real. Dog momming is hard work, whether you're stay-at-home, careering, or a little bit of both. Trying to give our pups their best lives, in addition to everything else we are responsible for, is a never-ending effort. On top of that, everybody these days is a self-proclaimed pet parenting expert, adding to the mounds of conflicting dog training advice littering our news feeds.

If there is only one piece of dog training advice you ever follow, please let it be this: Be Kind to Yourself and Your Dog. Make no mistake that kindness is not synonymous with permissiveness. Being kind isn’t about letting our dogs get away with things. It is, however, the assertion that our dog’s sense of safety is far more important than any obedience goal. Just like humans, dogs cannot thrive if they feel threatened or uncertain in their most important relationships. Dogs need predictably benevolent human leaders in order to become their best selves. Being a benevolent leader means that in all things, I choose to avoid forcing, intimidating or hurting my dogs.

This commitment should go without saying, but the use of physical coercion, fear, intimidation and pain is still very prevalent in the dog world. I used to train this way, but since learning the power of positive reinforcement, I have never looked back. In fact, my biggest wish is that we all stop believing the myth that our dogs need a domineering pack-leader. It is only when we stop trying to gain alpha-dog status that we cultivate the strongest bonds with our dogs (and achieve some pretty darn reliable obedience, too!). I would know, I've trained both ways. 

Kindness, then, is about remembering that dogs aren't plotting to gain the upper hand. It's okay to give your dog the benefit of the doubt. Even better, consider how you may have inadvertently contributed to her annoying behavior. The best dog trainers regularly press pause on their frustration and disappointment to reflect on their leadership skills. Did I set my dog up to succeed or fail? Did I believe her when she showed me she was scared? Did I give her a choice in the matter? Did I teach her what she needed to know before expecting her to perform like a pro? 

In a nutshell, Kindness is about taking ownership of our dog's successes and failures. It is about celebrating our wins and forgiving our missteps. Kindness is knowing how to set realistic expectations and when to ask for help (hopefully, from a qualified, force-free trainer!). It is our best attempt to be the person our dog thinks we are. Goodness knows we owe it to our dogs and each other to Be Kind, first, last and in everything between.

Dana is a KPA CTP dog trainer, force-free dog mom, blogger, and owner of Rovercome, LLC in Charlotte, NC. She is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with the CCPDT, Shelter Behavior Affiliate of the IAABC, and Pet Professional Guild member. Dana graduated with distinction from the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Behavior & Training and trained under Victoria Stilwell; she holds a B.Sc. in Organizational Leadership & Management. Dana is dog momager to her adopted dog, Hope Rising, and the occasional shelter dog.