Here are some tips to help you get started or get a fresh start with the pet you already have. Most of these apply to cats as well as to dogs.
Remember that all animals learn by association. In attempting to understand the world around them, dogs build associations. Jumping on the couch is followed closely by a feeling of soft comfort, so an association is built between jumping on the couch and feeling good.
Your animal is constantly learning. The couch consistently rewards his jumping on it with softness and comfort, which encourages more jumping (unless you give another message even more consistently). If your dog runs through a screen door and gets slammed on the nose as it closes, he'll be less likely to try that again.
Be careful about what you teach your animal unintentionally. Our pets learn from all their interactions with us, not just the ones we think of as training. When your nervous dog barks fearfully at something and you pet him to calm him down, you have just unintentionally told him, "Good dog, that was a good response to that situation." Do you want your dog to respond that way all the time? If not, you must tell him so in some other way.
Teach your pet that you're worth learning from. At first your dog will listen to you because your voice is new and interesting. But if you don't capitalize on that initial interest and consistently reinforce his paying attention to you, don't be surprised if your dog starts to tune you out unless you raise your voice or take strong action.
Make it real. Take pleasure in your dog and your role as his teacher and leader. You can't fake it for long. Your dog provides an excellent excuse for you to be enthusiastic, silly, playful and creative. Using treats helps to pique a dog's interest in new things, but unless you link your praise and enthusiasm with this initial motivation, he'll end up responding to food but not to you.
Be clear about what you want and show him exactly what it takes to be a "good dog" in your eyes. You don't want your dog to rush up to visitors and bark at them, but what do you want him to do? A dog will find it much easier to learn "When the doorbell rings, I go and sit quietly on my bed" than the vague concept "I can do anything but rush up at people and bark too many times." The simpler and more consistent the association, the more likely it is to build. Doorbell-bed-sit is much easier than "Anything but ..."
Put a beginning and an end on your requests. Called a "release," this important dog training idea often gets neglected in practice. When you teach your dog to stay, watch or heel, teach him that your command continues till you say it's over with a word like "okay." This signals that he now may get up or look away or stop heeling. If you let a command end without a release, he learns that you're in charge of when things start, but he can decide when they end.
Have high expectations of your dog, but be sure they're reasonable ones. Do expect your pet to listen to you the first time you make a request that he has learned thoroughly. Correct, don't punish, if he doesn't. But don't expect him to make judgment calls. If he's allowed on the couch at home, don't get mad at him if he jumps on the couch at your in-laws'.
Use gentle training aids. There are new halters for dogs that can be especially helpful for gaining control gently. We wouldn't think of trying to lead a horse around by the neck, but that's what we do with dogs.
Individualize your training to suit your dog's temperament. Breeds and individual dogs differ widely in their interest in and responses to training and handling. Is your dog a timid Sheltie or a gregarious Lab? Adapt the intensity and timing of your corrections and praise accordingly. Terriers require lightening-quick responses. Hounds welcome extra enthusiasm. Notice what kind of activity your dog especially loves, such as playing ball or going for a walk, and use that as a reward.
Use repeated cues to help get your point across. To praise your dog, speak in a varied and interesting voice, petting him and showing your affection. To discourage undesired behavior, give timely corrections with a leash and use a no-nonsense tone of voice.
Use proper timing. Always correct your dog while he is misbehaving, never after the fact, while he is partially behaving well. He will associate your correction or your praise with what he did a half-second ago, not with what he did or thought before that. For instance, if you scold him as he's taking his sweet time ambling over to you after you've called him, he won't know that you're unhappy about his slowness, he'll just think it's a bad idea to come at all.
Think of training your pet as an exercise in cross-cultural communication. We are a highly verbal species, but dogs are not. You are helping your pet understand the language of the dominant culture (human). To do so, you must try to become at least a little bilingual, taking the time to learn dog (or cat) culture. You may sometimes feel more comfortable interpreting your pet's behavior in human terms than in trying to grasp the perspective of another species. But it will be easier to get past that obstacle if you embrace the challenge of showing your pet how to fit into this world successfully.
Be patient with yourself. You're learning something new, too. Building a solid relationship with your pet is a great investment, and it does take plenty of time and energy. You may feel awkward as you ease into the task. It can be emotionally challenging at times to be firm, patient and clear, or to keep from venting your anger at your pet's mistakes.
Hold on to the deeper parts of your connection with your pet. Don't let your leader role be an obstacle to your companionship. You're not dominating or taking advantage of your dog; you're showing you care enough about him to learn a way to interact that makes his life happier and more successful.
Dr. Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD is a licensed veterinarian who co-wrote Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats with Susan Hubble Pitcairn. Dr. Pitcairn's introduction to holistic medicine over 20 years ago began with experiencing the effect of changing his dietary habits. After obtaining his PhD in advanced studies in immunology, he converted his practice to the use of homeopathy and nutrition. Recently, Dr. Pitcairn has turned his attention to training other veterinarians in this system of healing.
NATURAL HEALTH DISCLAIMER: Holistic/Natural veterinary health care is a specific approach to treatment of pets that may differ from the advice or practice of your licensed veterinarian. Information and advice contained in this section is for your consideration only, and for use in conjunction with the advice and treatment of your regular veterinary care. Please consult your veterinarian before implementing a natural health/holistic treatment program for your pet. Copyright 1995 by Richard H. Pitcairn & Susan H. Pitcairn