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7 Key Principles of How Dogs Learn

Emma is the human face behind Muddy Pawz, the home of Fit-Dog Training
®, a dog business all about truffle detection, fitness and dog obedience with all kinds of fun in between.

Emma has been a professional dog handler for over 10 years. When Emma and her 'fur faces' are not truffle hunting or training, she works in law enforcement so with this wealth of experience and exposure, of course she has seen all types of dogs and their needs. All dogs are different and as such, require dog trainers who can think outside the kibble box!
Dog training is kind of like building LEGO® with no instructions.
As you build the pieces up, sometimes it's the wrong piece and you need to take some steps back and find the piece that fits just right! It can also be like stepping on a Lego brick so make sure you bring your patience hat!

Emma is here to help give you some tips on how to become the next Lego master! (She means train your dog to their needs!!).

These are the key principles to training your dog in simple Emma terms. 
If you can understand and apply these principles then you can train a dog.
"If you don’t want to read about it then please enjoy my incredibly bad drawings and have fun with it.. The most important thing to remember is to have fun.. Please do not bore your dog! Dogs become easily distracted.. Squirrel... And when they are distracted, they do not learn and this leads to frustration and conflict. 

Leave conflict at the door! If your dog listens and has fun learning for 2 minutes then end it there. Trust me that’s better for your dog than 10 minutes of frustration.

#1. Engagement

Having fun is the easiest way to become engaged with your dog. Having your dog engaged in training is super important. 

Engaged means to have your dog's full attention and interest. You must be the most exciting thing in your dogs world at that moment in time. If your dog is looking elsewhere and not listening to you then your training will be ineffective. 

✔️ You need to find ways to get your dog engaged, play games and use treats or toys to get your dog engaged. 

✔️ Start training in a very neutral place like your own backyard: your dog has already sniffed around here numerous times and isn’t going to be distracted. 

✔️ Put your dog on leash so that there is no chance of a run away because this can lead to confusion and frustration, the evil enemies of dog training! 

✔️ I will often stand on the lead so that both hands are free.

✔️ Training sessions need to be short and often, not long and drawn out. You need to remain enthusiastic and make it fun, let's be honest.. No one wants to play if there’s no fun!

✔️ Be the person your dog wants to hang out with!
By the way, I have a T-Shirt that says exactly this so it must be true...

#2. Command

The command is the word and/or signal we give our dog to let him/her know what response we want

The command must remain consistent every time to ensure that your little buddy doesn’t get confused. Use what works for you but don’t forget what word or hand signal you used.

Don’t repeat the command over and over thinking your dog is hard of hearing, otherwise your dog will think that when you want him/her to sit they must hear “SIT SIT SIT” before they have to give you a response because they associate the numerous commands rather then the word itself. 

Just say it once and wait.

If they need help, then apply a gentle touch to the back end of your dog to help guide them in to position if its a sit or use food to help lure your pooch by placing in front of your dog and raising it slowly above your dogs head, allowing the dog to naturally go backwards and into a sit position.

#3. Association

Dogs learn through association, its almost like an equation they solve in their mind that goes a little something like, command = response/reward

You’ll note that response and reward are equal to each other. That is because they must occur together for association to take place. 

For association to be effective the reward must be timely with the response. This mean that if your dog sits you need to be rewarding as your dog's butt hits the ground. 

Timing can be improved by marker training your dog
This is where you teach the association of a reward with a clicker/word (I use 'YES'). The dog will hear the click/word and will eventually associate that as if it were the reward itself. 

The purpose of the marker is so that as a mere human we are able to get timing more consistent and accurate. 

We can say the word 'YES' faster than we can get a piece of chicken to our dog. I’ll say it again, for association to occur, timing is everything.

We also need to be mindful that our dogs can associate places or other constants that occur when training takes place, so once you are confident that your dog knows how to perform the command in one area, mix it up a little and move locations, perhaps another room of the house in the early stage to keep distractions to a minimum until your you and you dog are ready to start training around distraction.

#4. Reward

Rewards vary for every dog because no two dogs are the same. 

Some dogs need an amazing reward like chicken while some dogs are happy to work for a simple bit of praise or a cuddle.

To ensure that your dog is keen to work, you need to find what your dog loves, the better the reward the more your dog will be keen to work for it. 

I wouldn’t be far wrong in saying most dogs love chicken or a toy, but for this to be effective the reward must also be timely so that your dog will associate the reward with the action. 

This means that the dog is rewarded at the time they respond to the command, not just after or before but at the time of the response.

#5. Repetition

Dogs don’t understand what we’re saying and it’s only through consistent repetitive commands and rewards that a dog will learn what we are saying. 

It is important that our commands remain a consistent tone each time we command our dog to give a response. This must be performed over and over again for our dog to understand. 

I don’t mean that you should command your dog for hours on end, this simply means that over time the same command must be used repetitively

Dogs learn in short sharp sessions so don’t spend hours trying to teach your dog anything at one time. Small sessions for a few minutes numerous times a day is best.

It’s also important not to let your dog or yourself become bored. Try having a game between some commands so that the time you spend together training remains fun and not a constant barrage of commands. 

It takes time for your dog to learn but it will take a lot longer if your dog doesn’t enjoy the training time.

#6. Patience

Make sure you bring your patience hat because you are going to need it! Dog training can quickly become frustrating if you are not cool calm and collected. 

If you feel frustration creeping in to your training session then walk away.. Seriously, step away now.. 

Play a game instead, this will make you both start to have fun again and perhaps swallow the chill pill you needed to get back in to some training or leave it at that until later or another day.

#7. Correction

Corrections should be used once you know your dog understands a command. Just like the reward the correction must be timely and relevant to the dog. There are many ways a dog can be corrected, it doesn’t have to be harsh it has to be relevant. Your dog may have a toy they love that you take away and they don’t get it back until they do what you’ve asked. 

Again all dogs are different and some may need a time out others may need a verbal ‘NO’ and others may require it to escalate to a check with a chain. 

Always start with a low level of correction to find what makes your dog tick. 

When giving a verbal correction mean it when you do it, be firm. Your dog shouldn’t be let off for poor behaviour or disobeying a command otherwise this will become the norm for your dog and they’ll think its ok to do what they want. 

It can also become confusing for you little mate when one minute its ok to not listen and the next you are correcting him/her, this just isn’t fair on your dog, so if you give a dog a command always back it up and make sure your dog follows through and if they don’t then correct the behaviour."

written by Emma McPherson, Muddy Pawz, January 2022 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the writer

If you want to know more about Emma and her dogs, please remember to check out their adventures on their social channels.

Instagram: @muddypawz_k9 

If working dogs are of interest to you, Emma and her pals also have a YouTube channel and Podcast called “The Top Dog Show” where they talk about all types of dog jobs around the world and of course have lots of fun!

Instagram: @thetopdogshow
Apple podcast: The Top Dog Show

For more information on dog training sessions and merchandise, visit

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