Key to the Dog’s Mind

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A good dog is the best friend you could ever have but a bad dog can be a real disaster. The bad dog destroys your garden, barks all night, jumps up on guests and never does what it is told.

Sadly, many dog training techniques leave a lot to be desired, yet all dogs can be trained quite easily. No matter whether you own a Maltese or a Mastiff, a Bulldog or a Basenji, it can be trained. What follows are a series of insights and ideas that have been forming in my head over the last 30 years or so.

Dogs’ minds differ
In virtually all dog training manuals it is assumed that all dogs are the same and that one training method will suit all dogs. This is wrong. Dogs’ minds differ and you need different training methods for each type. The normal dog training techniques are designed for dogs like German Shepherds and they work very well on this sort of dog but not as well on others.

A ballistic setter
A few years ago we showed on the ‘Burke’s Backyard’ TV program a ballistic Red Setter. People say these are stupid dogs and the owner said that this one was untrainable, silly and destructive. She said that nothing could be done to fix this naughty animal.

It took 12 minutes to teach the dog to come and sit on command and to stop barking. This was a very bright dog who had been trained to be a nuisance by his owners. How was it fixed? The dog was obsessed with his ball. All he wanted was to have it thrown so he could return it. The ball was the key to the dog’s mind. Hold the ball in your hand and you control the dog’s behaviour.

So I held the ball while the dog ran helter skelter and barked. As soon as he stopped and shut up, I threw the ball. Each time he had to be still and quiet for a longer period before I would throw the ball. Then I said “sit” and made him sit. No sit, no ball. He caught on straight away. About 12 minutes elapsed and he came and sat on command, didn’t bark and stopped going berserk. You didn’t read that one in a training manual.

Nine personality types
Now, how do we go on from here? Well, to train your dog you need to assess his or her personality. We could conveniently divide dogs into nine major groups and these are given below. Now obviously, most dogs are a combination of two or more of these types. Once you have assessed your own dog, then training it is much easier. What we have done under each group is to explore training ideas for each type. Remember, the basics of each personality type are born in the dog. These are genetic traits and you must come to grips with them prior to training.

1. The Guts: some dogs, especially those developed in colder climates, will do anything for food. Examples here are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Beagles, Bulldogs.
Training: so easy to train – these dogs will do anything for food. A pocket or packet full of small treats will guarantee you his or her attention. Cut up small pieces of chicken or use something like Vet’s Best Rewards (available from vets). Reward the dog only if it does what it is told.

2. The Chaser: these dogs love to retrieve items. Examples of chaser breeds are Kelpies, Cattle Dogs, Setters, Retrievers and Border Collies.
Training: use the tennis ball or stick as a reward for good behaviour.  “Sit for me and I’ll throw the ball” is the basic idea. So say “sit” and if it does, then throw the ball and say “fetch” (or whatever). Never throw the ball if the dog initiates the game. That is, if you walk outside and the dog spontaneously finds the ball and brings it to your feet – ignore the dog and the ball. Walk away three metres and tell the dog “get your ball”. When the dog obeys – then throw the ball. If the dog trains you to play the game, then you have a nuisance dog.

3. The People-lover: these dogs adore humans and often need constant attention. They prefer humans to other dogs. Classic examples are most terriers, Pugs, Chihuahuas and lap dogs in general.
Training: this dog is all over you when you get home – “where have you been, I’ve missed you!”… “can I come with you?”. Friendly as these dogs are, they can be very dominant too. Never let this sort of dog initiate contact. When you get home if the dog bounds up to you, ignore it. This sounds cruel, but just wait a few seconds till it is away from you then call it back. Then pat and cuddle it. Never let a dog train you to respond. If you do, the dog is in command and you will not have control of it. One day it could ignore your commands and be run over by a car. If the dog is bad, if it barks, if it jumps up on you or other people – ignore it. Don’t scold it, ignore it. The dog is desperate for attention and even a few harsh words is a reward for the dog. Ignore it and make sure that there is no eye contact. As soon as the dog stops barking, as soon as it stops jumping up, wait a few seconds then give it attention. Soon the dog learns that if it comes up and sits quietly beside you, it will get a pat. You will have a perfect dog. Most dogs do bad things because their owners ignore them when they are being good. Reward people-lover dogs with your time and affection.

4. The Loner: the opposite of people-lovers, these aloof dogs live in their own world or relate well to other dogs. Humans don’t figure in the equation too much. Breeds typical here would be Afghans, most sight hounds, Huskies, Malamutes, Basenjis and Chow Chows.
Training: these dogs don’t want your time. Ignore them and they think this is great. “The bossy idiot has left me alone – you beauty!” You must find another method of reward for these dogs – food, retrieval games or whatever. Once you find the reward that the dog likes, then you must do it at least intermittently for life.

5. The Cringer: these timid little dogs are afraid of everything. They need constant reassurance and lots of love. Examples are some Chihuahuas, some Poodles, some Tenterfield Terriers, many toy breeds, some Whippets and Italian Greyhounds, and most Maltese.
Training: these dogs must never be hit and really should never be yelled at. One tap on the bottom and they may sulk for days. All commands should be gentle and you must be patient. If the dog is a slow learner and if you get annoyed or frustrated – walk away and train it another day. Training is the same as for people-lovers.

6. The Clutz: some dogs lack sensitivity and are devoid of social graces. They are accident-prone and go where angels fear to tread. Examples are Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Mastiffs.
Training: most of these are mastiff-type dogs. They were bred for fighting and killing. They fought lions, bears, bulls and people. Part of the breeding of these dogs was to breed out normal reserve as well as breeding in a high tolerance of pain. These dogs love people and do respond very well to love and attention. They are intelligent but socially inept, so the odd slap on the rump or a good shaking focuses their attention very well. They don’t mind punishment and are almost never cowed. Never use physical punishment unnecessarily. Nor should you use it frequently. A quick shake or slap and they look at you as if to say “Oh – were you talking to me?”

7. The ADHD Dog: these animals have inherited attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. They can’t concentrate for very long and are over-active. Examples are Pugs, some small terriers and some toy breeds.
Training: these dogs are scatter-brains. They almost never focus on one thing at a time. Training should be fun and brief. Don’t expect one of these dogs to sit on command and to hold it for 10 minutes. Bum down and bum straight up again. You could try teaching them several commands at one time. Try “sit” and then “come here” in the same session. Harsh discipline is an absolute no-no with these dogs. They would be devastated.

8. The Peter Pan Dog: the Peter Pan dog never grows up, it’s a puppy mentally for life. Examples would be Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Pekingese, most toy and lap dog breeds.
Training: most of the Peter Pan dogs are also ADHD dogs. Their whole lives are fun and games. Training must be done as a series of games over very short periods – not more than three to five minutes at a time (less is ideal). Instead of making the dog do some artificial command, you are far better off to reward existing behaviour and add a word name to it. That is, if the dog naturally lies down, reward it with food or attention while saying ‘play dead’. Food and attention work very well with the Peter Pans and soon the dog will play dead on command.

9. The Grown Up Dog: these dogs do mature pretty well, not as fully as a wolf, but nearly so. They are much better equipped for survival and have long attention spans. Examples are German Shepherds, Huskies, Malamutes and most working dogs.
Training: here you can use the normal dog training methods: leads to make them come, longer training sessions, etc.

Feedback and thanks
I would be very grateful for any feedback, criticism or further information from anyone. I am indebted to Associate Professor Judith Blackshaw of the University of Queensland for reading this article and for offering criticisms where appropriate. All errors nonetheless are the responsibility of the author.