Dog Training Methods: Which Is the Right One?

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Some dog training methods are more effective under certain circumstances than others.

There are multiple meanings to the term “training.” It’s important to understand that when you’re deciding what you need to do with your dog.

1. Behavior training

This is the kind of training in which a dog is taught to be a “good citizen.” Typically this includes house-training, good behavior around other people and dogs, reasonable leash manners and other small things that make a dog a much more pleasant companion. A well behaved dog attracts no special notice from the public (aside from amazing some with their good manners).

2. Obedience training

This generally teaches the dog how to perform specific activities. This can include traditional “obedience” exercises such as heeling. The emphasis here is on prompt and precise performance. While there can be many overall benefits to such training, the training is usually for the training’s sake and not necessarily to improve the dog’s behavior.

Dogs that have been obedience trained will perform specific tasks when their owners ask them to do so. (And as a matter of fact, some obedience trained dogs may well behave poorly; an excellent herding dog that nonetheless barks quite a bit for no apparent reason would be an example.)

3. Activity training

Finally, activity training refers to training for specific activities — this includes hunting, herding, search and rescue, lure coursing — any of a myriad number of activities designed to showcase the abilities of the dog and his handler, particularly in activities for which the dog has been bred to do. These days, such activity also includes sports such as Frisbee, flyball, agility, and so on.

Of course the lines tend to blur between all of these distinctions. A certain amount of obedience training will help with behaviors. For example a dog that is heeling will not pull on the leash. Still you want to keep this in mind when selecting a training class so that it best matches your needs. For many pet owners, the behavior oriented classes are the best way to learn how to understand and control your dog. For those of you who want to enjoy a sport or compete in an activity with your dog will need to move along to more complex training.

You need to be aware of whether your dog needs behavior modification (where you will have to find out the underlying reason why your dog digs and not just put chicken wire over everything) or obedience training (to understand commands). Certainly, the two may be related: a dog that digs because it is bored may become less bored with obedience training and stop digging. It is important, however, to understand that the dog stopped digging because it was no longer bored than because it now knows how to heel. You will need to modify your approach, or select a trainer to help you, with behavior vs. training in mind.

So much for the type of things being taught! Another factor to consider is that there are many methods for teaching any of these.

Help! Which Dog Training Method Is the Right One?

There really is no right or wrong. There are methods that are more effective under certain circumstances than others. Things to take into consideration when choosing the most effective method for you and your dog include: your personality, your dog’s personality, your goals, your abilities as a trainer, and your experience as a trainer.

For example, if you are not happy with a particular method of training, for whatever reason, then it is unlikely you and your dog will do well with this method. Your dog will pick up on your reluctance and either share your dismay or take advantage of the situation to do as he pleases.

If your dog is the strong, take charge type, a method that does not deal with this trait will result in his walking away with the training sessions, getting very little done. Conversely, if your dog is very sensitive, there may be a variety of methods you can use so long as you are very careful about how you correct him. Or, a very submissive dog may need a particular method that emphasizes learning something new very thoroughly so that they may be as confident as possible when doing it. You have to observe your dog closely and figure out what his strengths and weakenesses are.

Your own abilities as a trainer come into play, as well. Some people have a natural sense of timing and an almost instinctive understanding of what their dog is thinking and how to react to it. Most people do not have this ability but can learn it to some degree over time. Others just do not. Recognizing your particular strengths and weaknesses will let you use each more effectively. Another ability some people seem to just have, others can develop, etc. is the ability to “read” a dog; that is correctly guess what the dog is thinking or feeling during training. This ability is valuable as it allows you to make appropriate adjustments on the fly to increase the effectiveness of your training.

Some methods are very effective but can be abused if the wrong person uses them. For example, the Koehler method of dog training worked very well on many dogs, in the hands of its originator. Koehler reportedly had an astute sense of timing and a keen awareness of how to present something fairly to a dog, but the “Koehler Method” as applied by others was so often abusive that today this method of training dogs is in disrepute.

Obviously, therefore, a good trainer is one who helps you figure out how to train your dog. A good trainer helps you learn to observe your dog for important clues to his behaviors and actions. A good trainer watches you and your dog work together and helps you learn where you are letting your dog down.

A trainer’s job, in short, is to teach you to become a trainer of your own dog. It is not a trainer’s job to teach your dog. Typically, you only see your trainer for one hour a week. Training requires short, daily sessions. You are the one training your dog. (Sending a dog away to be trained is a separate consideration, with its own set of potential problems.) A good trainer has several methods under their belt and helps you figure out which ones work best with your dog.

Don’t worry, there are some constants in dog training. Consistency and fairness.

Theory of Learning

Let’s start off with an examination of current theories behind learning.

Most training methods actually use a little of everything even if they are weighted toward one method or another. And some teaching methods are actually making use of the same principles even if they appear to be widely different. So it’s worth going over this.

Classical conditioning

The principles of classical conditioning were worked out early in this century by Pavlov, and thus is also called Pavlovian conditioning.

In the original experiments, a bell was rung, and the subject (as it happens, a dog) was given food; eventually, the dog began to salivate on hearing the bell, apparently anticipating the arrival of the food. This is pure stimulant-response stuff, since the signal (the bell) always comes before the reinforcement, and the dog doesn’t do anything to make the bell ring.

So we start with:

  • Trainer rings bell (stimulus)
  • Dog gets food (reinforcement)

And end up with:

  • Trainer rings bell
  • Dog drools (response)
  • Dog gets food

How can this be used? A great way to use classical conditioning is to teach the dog secondary rewards.

Let’s say you want to use a particular word or even a particular sound (such as a click) as a reward just because it is simpler than whatever your dog’s best primary reward is. So train your dog by saying the word or making the sound and then treating him with a primary reward. He’ll start to associate the two quickly and your alternative will become a suitable interim reward for your dog. You’ll need to refresh the association from time to time, of course, but it does expand your possible repertoire for telling your dog “You done good!”

If you’re observant, you’ll also notice that most dogs are classically conditioned. If you say “Sit!” and they sit, that is a stimulus- response sequence no matter how the sit itself was taught.

Operant conditioning

B.F. Skinner outlined the principles of what he termed “operant conditioning.”

In contrast to classical conditioning, in operant conditioning the reinforcement cycle starts with some action on the part of the trainee (in Skinner’s language, the operant). Operant conditioning is therefore always dependent on behavior, whereas classical conditioning is not.

We have:

  • Dog does something (operant behavior)
  • Dog gets food (positive reinforcement)

Under this theory, if we control which behaviors are reinforced, we should be able to get the dog to offer those behaviors more often. If the dog gets good stuff in association with a particular behavior, he’s likely to repeat it; if something bad happens, he’s less likely to repeat it. I

n practical training terms, this means that if Andy picks up his dumbbell (step 1), Andy gets some turkey (step 2); if he doesn’t, he doesn’t get the turkey. The result should be that in the long run, Andy will grab the dumbbell eagerly, even if he isn’t a natural retriever.

Combining elements of each

In contemporary dog training, a lot of attention is paid to operant conditioning — “clicker training” is nothing more or less than the real-world application of one small part of Skinner’s research. But classical conditioning is almost always present, and should be kept in mind: think about the dog who hears the bell — his drooling represents the kind of happy anticipation that we want in a working dog.

Classical conditioning, in its practical application, is all about training for attitude. If he associates good stuff (positive reinforcement) with training situations (think of that as the bell ringing) he’ll show the same kind of eagerness that you’d expect if you extrapolate from Pavlov’s droolers.

In addition, even with operant conditioning on a dog, you will eventually associate a command with the behavior, so that you can elicit the behavior from a stimulus!

Such a sequence would be:

  • Dog offers behavior (say a sit)
  • Dog is rewarded
  • Cycle continues until dog continually offers behavior
  • Trainer now says “sit”
  • Dog sits
  • Dog is rewarded

Which combines elements of both operant and classic conditioning.

Rewards and Corrections

Keep these firmly in mind:

  • A reward results in an increase in the selected behavior.
  • A correction results in a decrease in the selected behavior.

Well that seems obvious enough, why did I bother putting those down? Because all too often, obvious as they may be, an astonishing number of people ignore them. How many times have you seen someone call their dog over and over and over again while the dog blithely ignores them? How many people wind up automatically rewarding their dog all the time until they find that the dog is either bored and wanders off, or won’t do a thing unless the food is held in front of them? How many people smack their puppies when he soils in the house but never wind up with a house-trained dog?

Let’s examine each of these scenarios in detail. The person who calls their dog repeatedly without doing anything is in fact teaching their dog that the “Come” command is meaningless. The dog is neither being rewarded for the correct behavior nor being corrected for the unwanted behavior. Therefore “Come” has no particular meaning for this dog.

If you consistently reward the dog no matter how he performs the selected behavior, you will have two things happen. First, the behavior will never improve as the dog has no feedback on which is “better”. Second, the dog learns that he always get rewarded, so the incentive to keep working (unless the dog is very food motivated) will decrease. Or, if the dog is strongly food motivated, he may flat out refuse to do anything the moment he realizes that he will not get food. In this latter case food has stopped being a reward and is now an entitlement and no longer will increased selected behavior.

A puppy that is smacked for soiling in the house has no way of associating the correction with the action, particularly if it happens well after the act. Furthermore, hitting a dog is interpreted by the dog as aggressive rather than corrective and so will not reduce the selected behavior.

Back to rewards. Rewards should be given in such a way as to increase the behavior in question. This means, to begin with, that it should be something your dog enjoys and is motivated by. For some (many) dogs, food will do. Toys, squeakies, tug toys, tennis balls, are often good bets. A few dogs seem to be motivated by verbal praise, although to be honest, not so many as people would like to think. In most cases dogs learn to accept verbal praise as a secondary reward, through association with a primary reward. You can also use multiple reward methods, especially if that interests your dog.

(A primary reward is something that is inherently rewarding to your dog — food, petting, toys, etc. A secondary reward is something that the dog learns is a reward. For example “Good Dog!”, a click, clapping. The technical term for a reward is positive reinforcer.)

When you reward a dog, it should be directly associated with the selected behavior. A reward is ineffective if you apply it at the wrong time. However, the most common problem with rewards is that people will inadvertantly reward a dog for unwanted behaviors. Here is an example: Your dog growls or barks when he sees other dogs. Since you think he is afraid, you pet him to calm him down. “It’s OK,” you say. “Nothing bad is going to happen.” OK, so what happened? The dog growled, you rewarded him. He’s no dummy; he’ll growl again in the hope of a reward next time.

Corrections are equally full of pitfalls. First of all, what constitutes a correction? That’s even more difficult to answer than for rewards. For some dogs, the tone of voice will do it, for others they’ll never notice it. Many typical corrections are really secondary (eg, learned) corrections. And, many typical corrections really don’t do anything other than make the dog afraid of you, or, when applied inconsistently, cause the dog to lose trust in you. Here is another classic example. Your dog is on the far edge of a field, and you call him. He doesn’t come. You call him again. He doesn’t come. No matter how often you call him, he doesn’t come, so you march over and start to correct him. Or, he finally comes over and by this time you’re so mad you correct him. So what happens? In the first instance, the dog may well have no idea what you’re mad about. If he’s never learned the “come” command (even if you think he knows it) then going over and popping him a couple of good ones will teach him that it’s really bad when you go near him! If he did come over to you and you popped him a good one, what do you think he’ll remember next time you call him to come? That’s right, you just applied a correction to a behavior (coming to you) in order to decrease it!

People very frequently misuse rewards and corrections in this way because many people seem to think that dogs really do know which are good and bad behaviors and will correctly associate one behavior (out of several) with the punishment. This simply is not the case. Dogs will associate what they most recently did with the correction or reward.

Comments on Training Methods

As I’ve pointed out, there are a number of different training methods available. None of these methods are perfect and none are guaranteed to work on your dog (regardless of what it says on the cover).

People frequently disagree over which methods are “good” and even which are “best.” This kind of argument is fairly pointless, as the effectiveness of each training method is subjective. Find one that works for you and don’t worry about criticisms. On the other hand, suggestions to help overcome specific training problems may be what you need and you shouldn’t reject it out of hand because it’s not in the method you chose.

A good trainer will be aware of many different ways to teach a dog how to do something. The best trainers can read their dogs and pick out the best match for that dog to teach him something. Not all of us are brilliant, but a willingness to drop something that is not working and try something else still lets us take advantage of finding the right way to teach a dog something. Over time with a particular dog, you should find that you are more likely to choose the right way to present a new concept to this dog.

Good results in obedience training require large doses of consistency, good timing, and patience. You must be consistent: use the same word for a particular command every time (e.g., don’t use “Come” sometimes and “Come here” other times). You must develop a fine sense of timing when introducing new commands and later correcting behavior on learned commands. Patience is needed: losing your temper is counterproductive. Get the whole family to agree on the commands, but have only one person train the dog to minimize confusion for the dog.

Establish a daily training period, preferably just before dinner. It can be as short as twenty minutes, or longer. Establishing a routine helps.

Don’t expect overnight success. It can take up to two years of consistent work, depending on the dog, for a properly trained dog. (This is where the patience comes in!)

You must praise often and unambiguously. A smile won’t do it. Give abundant verbal praise, scratch your dog on the head, etc.

Try making the command word part of a praise phrase. In this case, whenever your dog is in the desired heel position, you could say something like “Good heel!” in a praising tone of voice. Note that you only give the command once but that the command word is repeated in the praise phrase for reinforcement. That seems to satisfy the objective of the proponents of repeating the command (i.e. letting the dog hear the command often) without actually repeating it as a command. Further, because it is being said when the dog is doing it right rather than during a correction the dog doesn’t create any negative association with the command as the latter is likely to cause.

If you have a puppy — don’t wait! Enroll in a kindergarten puppy class once its up on its shots. Don’t wait until the pup is 6 months old to start anything.

Training before “six months of age” is fine if you see the puppy having fun with these lessons. Just remember to keep the lessons short, don’t loose patience when your puppy suddenly forgets everything it ever knew, and give it plenty of time just to be a puppy. In the long term, the time you spend with your puppy exploring, playing together and meeting new people is probably more important than your short “training” sessions, but both activities are very helpful.


  • Make it fun for the pup.
  • Expect setbacks. Just because the pup understood what you meant yesterday, doesn’t mean he’ll remember it today. This means lots of repetition. Teach the basic commands: sit, stay, and come for now.

You may find it well worth your while, especially if you are new to training dogs, to attend obedience classes. Most places have local training schools. Be sure to check up on these places. Call the Better Business Bureau and your local SPCA for any specific complaints registered with them. Especially check carefully places where you ship your dog out to be trained: many of these places are suspect, because you must also be trained to handle your dog. Beware of advertising that claim lifetime warranties on the training, guaranteed solutions, etc. It is best for you and your dog to go through obedience training together, so that you both learn from each other.

No matter what kind of class you’re looking for: from basic puppy kindergarten for your little puppy to basic obedience for an older dog to more advanced training for a dog that’s already done some work, you’ll want to pick the class out carefully.

First and foremost, pick out a class where you are comfortable with the methods and the trainer. If you don’t start off with this footing, learning anything positive from the class simply won’t happen.

Next look at the size of the class and how much time the trainer spends with each person. Ideally, the smaller the class the better, although for puppy classes you want at least four or five dogs since socialization is an important part of the class. Does the trainer allocate time outside of class for questions (either an extra several minutes before or after class or giving you her phone number for class)? What sort of guarantees do they offer? If they say your pooch will be trained in six weeks permanently, no questions asked, run do not walk away from this outfit. If, however, they offer followup help after the class is over or offer a few extra classes for specific problems after or during the class, this is a good outfit.

Check out what their policy is with aggressive dogs in class. It does happen that one of the dogs attending the class frightens and intimidates the other dogs. There should be a clause for dismissing such a dog (or better yet, going into private training with it), or having it muzzled and otherwise restrained to minimize disruption to the class.

Getting Your Dog’s Attention

An important aspect of obedience training is getting your dog’s attention. Your dog will not perform as readily if he isn’t paying attention to you. There are a number of things you can do to get his attention, and you should be sure to praise him for paying attention.

Attention goes both ways. In turn, YOU must pay close attention to your dog. Many dogs will stop being careful if they know you’re not paying attention. If there’s one piece of definitive advice about dog training this must be it.

Umbilical cords

Put your dog on a medium-to-short leash and tie him to your belt. Now, go about the house on your ordinary business. Do not pay attention to the dog. It will quickly learn to pay attention to you to determine when you are going to get up and walk around, or where you are going. This is an especially effective exercise with puppies and also lays a good foundation for learning to heel later. Start with short periods of time, say 15 minutes, and work up as your puppy gets older and more familiar with this exercise.


If you look up and catch your dog watching you (this is different from the staring contests mentioned above because the dog is not “staring” at you when he is watching you move around), praise him.

Food in your mouth, spitting it at your dog

An excellent exercise for teaching attention. It gets the dog to concentrate directly on your face, not your hands or pocket. Do this as a separate exercise, until your dog understands that he must watch your face. Also, DON’T let them pick up the food from the floor or ground. If you do, they will learn that they don’t have to catch the treat. They can just wait and pick it up. And don’t let them come back later to clean up.

Talking softly

Talk softly to your dog. He will have to pay more attention to you. This is especially effective when younger, and is a good habit to get into.

Attention as part of the exercise

Integrate attention into the exercises themselves. For example, heeling is not just keeping to your side in the proper manner, it’s also *paying attention* while heeling. Demand this attention as part of the heeling exercise, and your dog’s heeling ability should improve.


You should never correct when you yourself are upset, angry or downright mad, especially at your dog. Good correction depends on timing, a keen awareness of what the dog is thinking, and quick switching between correction and praise, all of which are difficult when you are upset. Stop the exercise until you regain your equilibrium. You will have much difficulty training your dog if you continually get mad while doing it. In fact, if you always or often get mad when training your dog, someone else should train him. You will get absolutely nowhere yelling at your dog.

The dictum “don’t train before 6 months of age” doesn’t make any sense unless you’re talking about the correction involved in formal obedience training. If you think about it, you train your dog all the time whether you realize it or not. Dogs are great at picking up your body language and tone of voice. Even if you’re not trying to train them, they’re “training” themselves using the clues we give them (and many “problems” are classic cases of the dogs misunderstanding their owner’s signals).

If possible with a young puppy it is best to use the “correction” of distraction. When you deny the puppy something, try to replace it with a positive activity rather than just being negative and oppressive all the time. Otherwise, limit your corrections to a verbal “no.”

Most dogs at some point will refuse to do something that he knows how to do. this is independent of how he has been trained. Striking out for independence appears to be a semi-universal mammalian trait, judging from the behavior of human adolescents.

However, you must be prepared to enforce the idea that the dog does not really have an option about doing what you tell him to do. Otherwise the dog will increasingly choose whether or not to obey you and become unreliable. You do have to know the dog you are training and be able to tell the difference between confusion and refusal. Correcting a confused dog is quite detrimental. Learning how to tell the difference is part of being a trainer. While no one can really teach you this skill, you do have to learn it.

Always praise the dog immediately when he listens to your corrections. Again, this gives the “jekyll and hyde” feel to dealing with your dog. But it is very important to immediately praise your dog for listening to you. This helps build confidence and keeps the dogs from having that “hang-dog” look when performing.


Proofing is a method where you make sure your dog understands a command, after you have taught the dog the command. It isn’t fair to proof a dog on a command when he is still learning what it means.

For example, you teach your dog to stay. After making him stay in a relatively distraction-free environment, you step up the pressure. You throw balls up in the air and catch them, squeak toys, have someone stand near your dog and talk softly to him. If your dog gets up, gently put him back. If after doing this for a while, the dog still gets up, then you start putting him back less gently, i.e. taking your dog roughly by the collar and putting him back, escalating to picking your dog up by the collar so that his front legs come off the ground and VERY slowly putting him back in its place, escalating to picking the dog up by its skin so that him front legs come off the ground and VERY slowly putting him back. Some dogs get the idea more quickly than others; stop your correction when he stays down.

When your dog passes this step, increase the pressure by throwing balls all around him, bouncing them on the ground, etc. Also, someone else should try to offer him food, make strange noises such as clapping , barking like a dog, meowing like a cat, using toys or things that make strange noises.

When your dog passes this step, increase the pressure by putting him on a stay and having someone shout in a loud voice “ROVER, COME!” (do not use your dog’s name), “OK”, “DOWN” (if doing a sit stay). If at home, put him on a stay and go and ring the doorbell. It should take several months (6-8) to work through all of these distractions and care must be taken to not blow the dog’s mind by putting him in a situation that he is not ready for or by never letting the dog “win” (i.e., successfully perform an exercise).

Always let the dog “win” on the last exercise in the session. That is, end the sessions on positive notes, with much praise. This keeps your dog interested in the work.

Using Food in Training

The use of food in training dogs has a long and contentious history. Many people dislike the use of food, feeling that a dog should do things because YOU ask him to, not in hope of a reward. They point to dogs that will refuse to do things when they know they won’t get food for it. Others advocate the use of food in training, saying that for many dogs it is the best reward to use, that the use of food is a much more humane method of teaching dogs, and that it is an excellent way to motivate a dog.

Certainly each side has some valid points. For example, the repeated use of food as a bribe will quite often result in the dog refusing to do the expected exercise without the bribe being held out. However, this is considered and incorrect usage of food by food advocates. There is a difference between bribing with food and rewarding with food. Under the latter system, the dog never knows whether or not it will get food as a result of performing the exercise; the rules of variable reinforcement mean that the dog will try harder and harder for that reward. The problem is that many folks don’t know how to reward intermittently, and it’s also true that rewards are more frequent while the dog is learning the exercise and taper off when the dog understands it. Many people fail to notice the dog’s progress, and fall into habits, and hence into bribery.

On the other hand, not every dog becomes an enthusiastic performer for verbal praise or toys alone. With some exceptions, almost every dog will view food as a good reward and modify his behavior accordingly to get more of it.

The controversy is really rooted in more philosophical considerations than in actual performance (or not) from the use (or not) of food. Some people just plain don’t like the idea of rewarding with food, and others do not mind using it.

The bottom line is that, food or not, most dogs need a reward, a motivator, in order to put on their best effort in training. And the trainer needs to understand (and observe) how to find out what the dog’s best reward is and how to apply the reward most effectively.

Training and Corrective Collars

There are several kinds of collars. There are the plain flat buckled ones for everyday use available in a wide variety of colors, sizes and fastners (from buckles to quick-release).

Note that puppies (generally under six months of age) do not need corrective collars.

For training purposes, there are choke collars (also called training collars), pinch collars and prong collars. Used properly, there is nothing wrong with any of these collars, although they often look rather alarming. The point is that these collars are for control, not for pain infliction. Yanking savagely on these collars is counterproductive; firm corrections get the point across without injury. Try this experiment: wrap each of the collars around your arm in turn and have someone experienced with corrections give a correction to your arm.

To prevent your dog from injury from corrective collars, do not leave them on when you are not around. Its usual collar should be a plain flat buckled collar; save the choke and prong collars for actual training and when you are around.

Note: electronic collars are another form of training collars, but you should never attempt to use them without the help of an experienced trainer. Most dog owners will never need to use this kind of collar; it is primarly used for training toward competitive events or trials, at a level far beyond that of pet owner’s needs. It is NOT a “quick and easy fix” to behavior or training problems and in fact can badly exacerbate them. If you think your circumstances warrant the use of an electronic collar, first find yourself an experienced trainer to help you. Make sure you observe this trainer working with their own dogs and that you like the attitude that you see.

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