Successful dog trainers know the power of rewards. They know to be consistent. And they know dogs are always learning.
But few put all this together to realize the big secret that every dog trainer needs to know–you can use your habits to train your dog.
Your Habits Train Your Dogs
Dog training books and websites focus on what you as the trainer do with your dog.
If you want to train a new behavior, you catch your dog doing it and offer her a reward. Or you lure him into a behavior and reward him for doing it.
Training is an active process. Right?
Except it often isn’t.
In fact, your habits train your dogs when you’re not even thinking about it. Need an example?
Training Your Dog To Be Anxious
Have you lived with a dog suffering from separation anxiety?
You’ve probably seen your dog acting anxious as you comb your hair, grab your phone, and jingle your keys on the way out the door.
Your dog has learned your habits when you’re preparing to leave. And she associates your actions with leaving her alone in the house.
In fact, common advice for coping with separation anxiety is to grab your purse or keys and then not leave to break the association with anxiety.
When we had two anxious dogs, Agatha and Christie, I even climbed out the window a few times so they couldn’t ramp up their anxiety as I approached the front door.
You can probably think of other ways your habits affect your dogs’ behavior. But can our habits train positive behavior as well?
Honey Learns to Sail
Because of our habits in the boat, Honey has taught herself a new behavior that makes her a better sailing dog.
I thought she was smart as she moved around the cockpit following the shade. But when I saw her do this, I was really impressed.
A Little Aside About Sailing
For those of you who don’t sail, I’d like to give you some context to help you understand what Honey has taught herself by paying attention to our habits.
Those of you who do sail, can skip so the next section.
Okay, here we go.
Under motor, our boat pushes through the water horizontally.
But when the sails are up, the boat tilts to the side (or heels) at varying angles, depending on the wind. In high winds, we might heel enough to slide off our seats. If we want to sit on the “high” side of the boat, we have to brace our legs.
Of course, Honey’s legs are too short to brace against the other seat. So she’s better off lying on the low side of the boat, snug against the high coaming of the cockpit.
When the wind is coming over the left (port) side of the boat and blowing the sails out to the right (starboard), we’re on what’s called a port tack.
And when the wind is coming over the right side of the boat, we’re on a starboard tack.
To go in the same direction that the wind is coming from, we need to zig zag a course back and forth across the wind. First on a port tack and then on a starboard tack.
And each time we tack (or move across the wind), the boat heels in a new direction.
Okay, now we’re all caught up. Sailors, you can join us again.
Honey Prepares To Tack
On the boat, we have lots of little checklists and rituals to keep us organized and communicating well.
And we do them every time.
Before we start the engine, we call out a list of items to check before pushing the starter. Docking, the helms person calls out when they’re shifting into neutral or reverse so the person handling dock lines can predict the speed of the boat.
And when we need to change directions, the helms person calls out “prepare to tack.” That’s the signal that the person handling the sails needs to prepare the sail control lines on the other side.
The sail handler replies “Ready” when they’re done and the helms person steers the boat across the wind while saying, “Helms a lee.”
It’s a habit.
The only thing that kept a tack from proceeding easily was when the person on the helm had to guide Honey by her life jacket handle to the new, lower side of the boat while steering at the same time.
But after hearing it over and over, Honey taught herself to start moving to the other side of the boat when she hears someone order, “Prepare to tack.”
By the time we’ve crossed the wind and are heeling on the new tack, Honey is comfortably ensconced on the other seat.
Good girl, Honey. Good girl.
Use Your Habits To Train Your Dog
What does all this mean for you? After all, you may never sail with your dog.
But the dog training secret of the power of habits applies to everyone. If you want to train your dog, be aware of your habits so your dog can train himself.
Here are a few habits you can take up for yourself to make you a successful dog trainer.
Put food morsels aside on the counter when you’re cooking.
Do you get tired of your dog mooching under foot when you’re cooking? Put aside a few chopped vegetables, cheese, or meat on the corner of your cutting board just for your dog. When he lies down away from your work area, toss him a treat.
If your habits have already trained your dog to stand by your feet waiting for “drops,” you may need to stack the deck by placing a tasty morsel on his pillow before you start cooking and quickly tossing more to him ONLY when he’s in his place.
But if you have good habits, it won’t be long before your smart dog trains himself to sit quietly while you’re cooking.
People used to marvel at how Honey laid quietly on her bed when I was cooking. They never realized she was actually begging. And that I was regularly tossing food to her on her pillow.
Play with your dog’s paws while you’re relaxing.
Am I the only person who finds nail trimming stressful?
Luckily, Honey doesn’t mind me touching her paws. Probably because I massage and play with them when we’re sitting beside each other.
I even press her nails.
It’s so much of a habit after seven years, I barely think about it. And when I start clipping her nails, Honey barely blinks.
Streamline your leaving habits.
Honey does not suffer from separation anxiety. But she wants to know if she’ll be going with us when I start my leaving habits, like grabbing my purse or coming my hair.
So I’ve changed my habits. I get ready to leave in spurts and long before I have to leave.
I brush my hair then wash the dishes. I pack my backpack then do a little work. I grab my keys then read my book.
When it’s time to leave the boat without Honey, I simply grab my backpack and go without a fuss.
Honey barely looks up from where she’s sleeping.
Changing my habits keeps me from having to see her disappointed face when I spend ten minutes getting ready to leave and Honey spends ten minutes wondering if she’ll be going with me.
The Secret To Successful Dog Training
Every trainer with the name will tell you to reward your dog when she does something you want. They’ll tell you to be consistent in your training. And they’ll tell you that your dog is always learning from you.
But if you put this advice together and form good habits, you have discovered the secret to successful dog training.
Because your dog is watching. And learning. And if your habits are good enough, your dog might even start training herself.
Your Turn: Can you think of any habits around your home that have helped (or harmed) your dog training?
We are pleased to be joining the Positive Pet Training blog hop with Tenacious Little Terrier, Wag ‘N Woof Pets, and Travels with Barley. Pet bloggers, please join us in this hop by posting your positive pet training stories. The hop remains open through Sunday. The theme this month is “Training Secrets”, however, you may share any positive pet training story, whether it’s on our theme or not!