How Are Dogs Trained?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz December 16, 2020

Our relationship with our pet dogs can be enhanced with training. Training can prevent problem behaviors, set boundaries within our homes, and make walks and handling easier. Moreover, training is a fun activity to do with your dog. Trained dogs can also have positive impacts on society. Working dogs can be taught to assist people, guard livestock, provide therapy, help with search and rescue missions, and much more. The ability of dogs to learn and understand specific skills and behaviors from humans highlight the unique bond that people share with dogs.

Brief History Of Dog Training

Records of humans training dogs date back to Roman times where tips on training dogs for herding livestock were documented. These documents emphasized the value of early training – something we still promote to this day. Fast forward to the 19th century, books were written describing training techniques for hunting dogs, particularly pointers and setters. These documents promote the use of reward-based training which we now know as being the most effective method for dog training.

During the war years, dogs were valued assets and were trained to assist the war effort, especially in Germany. Later on, this training was applied to service dogs (such as guide dogs for people who are blind). Training manuals from this time promoted the understanding and use of a dog’s natural behavior and instincts and demonstrated an early understanding of operant conditioning. Training of dogs continues to advance in the 21st century and popularity of the topic has reached mainstream media, evident by many successful TV shows.

Can All Breeds Be Trained?

Absolutely! Any breed of dog, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the giant Great Dane, can be trained. Breeds may have different reputations regarding their behavior, instincts, and their perceived intelligence. This means that the training methods used will also vary from dog to dog. An individual dog’s traits will determine which training methods are most effective and may also dictate things such as the ideal training reward or the appropriate duration of training sessions. Dogs with a willingness to please and a strong motivation to work for food typically are the least challenging to train. Dogs that are fearful or easily distracted may present some challenges. But they are still entirely able to be trained using the correct methods!

When Should You Begin Training A Dog?

The best time to start training a dog is when they are a puppy. The second-best time is now! Dogs are capable of learning throughout their entire lives but will benefit the most from early training. A study found that dogs that received professional training before 3 years of age were more trainable than dogs that did not (Kubinyi et al., 2009). From the minute dogs are born, they begin learning about their environment. Socialization practices should begin within a few days after birth and should continue into adulthood. This includes providing controlled and positive exposure of the dog to people, other animals, and experiences that the dog will likely encounter throughout their life. Dogs that were properly socialized early in life are less likely to be aggressive or fearful as they age (Howell et al., 2013). While dogs are able to be taught new tricks at any age, a dog’s ease of training can be impacted by early training experience.

How Are Dogs Trained?

Dogs learn from a variety of methods. They can form associations between two stimuli through a process called classical conditioning. An example of this includes a dog getting excited for a walk when they see you put your shoes on and grab the leash. They may learn through non-associated learning where a behavior is modified through habituation or sensitization. Habituation is when a dog’s response lessens over repeated exposure whereas sensitization is when their response becomes heighted from repeated exposure. Operant conditioning is when dogs learn to associate their behavior with its consequence. Dogs can also learn through social learning in which they observe someone demonstrating a behavior and are rewarded for repeating it. This is sometimes referred to as the “do as I do” method (Fugazza and Miklósi, 2015).

The concepts underlying operant conditioning can be boiled down into either reinforcing wanted behaviors or ignoring or punishing unwanted behaviors. Behaviors are reinforced if we want the behavior to occur more often. They are punished if we want to reduce or eliminate their occurrence. These reinforcements and punishments can be either positive or negative depending on whether or not a stimulus was presented (positive) or removed (negative). This leads us to the four main categories of training:

  • Positive reinforcement: Examples include giving a dog a treat for performing a trick or giving verbal praise for going potty outside.
  • Negative reinforcement: An example of negative reinforcement would be letting up on leash tension when your dog walks where you want them to.
  • Positive punishment: Positive punishment could include yelling at your dog for chewing on your shoes.
  • Negative punishment: Ignoring a dog that is jumping on you to get them to stop would be an example of negative punishment.

What Types Of Dog Training Are Best?

It’s well agreed upon by behavior experts that positive reinforcement is the ideal training method. Dogs whose owners train using rewards tend to perform better in novel training tasks and are more playful (Rooney and Cowan, 2011). This suggests that dogs trained using positive reinforcement are more relaxed and comfortable when interacting with their trainer and will therefore produce better results. Use of punishment is controversial for a number of reasons including its humaneness as well as its effectiveness. Punishment has been shown to be associated with an increased incidence of problematic behaviors and often results in poor obedience results (Hiby et al., 2004).

What Are The Different Areas Of Dog Training?

Dog training is about more than just teaching your dog to sit. The following are situations in which dogs are trained to help them make better behaved pets or to benefit society.

  • Socialization – This is the early exposure of dogs to various conditions to help reduce their fearfulness later in life.
  • Crate training – Crate training involves getting your dog comfortable staying in their crate. The crate may be used to contain the dog when home alone, as a safe space for the dog to relax, or to transport the dog.
  • House breaking – House breaking is the process of teaching your dog to urinate and defecate outside. Puppy training pads may be used inside the home during this training process. Dogs that are consistently rewarded for going outside will begin to ask to be let out when they need to use the bathroom.
  • Basic obedience – Basic obedience involves training a dog to sit, stay, recall, walk gently on a leash, and to heel.
  • Tricks – Tricks are a fun way to build your relationship with your dog and to provide them with some excitement in their day. The types of tricks you can teach your dog are truly endless. Get creative and try to emphasize your dog’s natural behaviors and abilities!
  • Service dogs – Dogs may be trained to aid people with differing abilities such as guide dogs or medical alert dogs.
  • Police dogs – Police forces often have dogs that are trained to aid in search and rescue, protection of officers, and to identify dangerous substances using their excellent sense of smell.
  • Inmate rehabilitation – It is becoming more and more common for prisons to adapt a dog training program in which inmates are paired with a dog to work with. Research has shown that inmates that participated in the dog training program were less likely to be re-arrested after release (Hill, 2020).

What Are The Different Types Of Incentives Used In Dog Training?

Incentives may include food, treats, verbal praise, playing with a toy, or being allowed to sniff their environment. The type of incentive to use with your dog depends on what motivates them. Some dogs are extremely food motivated and will enthusiastically work to obtain treats. Other dogs are not as interested in food and would rather play with a toy with their handler. Finding rewards that motivate your dog is critical to successful training. Some people will use a clicker to aid in training. The sound of the click is paired with a reward. The dog is rewarded with the click and will then know that a reward is on the way. Clickers allow trainers to reward the dog at the exact instance in which the appropriate behavior was performed.

What Do I Need To Do To Learn How To Train My Own Dog?

To help set yourself up for success in training you should make sure you have a basic understanding of training theory. You should also be familiar with the dog’s attributes and their personality so you can use rewards that your dog finds motivating. It is also important to practice timing of the reinforcement and to make sure you are consistent in your communication with your dogs. Training will be most successful when you are predictable and trustworthy for your dog (Yin, 2007).

When To Hire A Professional Trainer

Professional trainers should be consulted if your dog has developed a behavior problem or if your dog is a potential danger. Examples of situations when a professional trainer is recommended include resource guarding of food or toys, separation anxiety, nipping and growling, or severe fear or shyness. Professional help can also greatly benefit dogs that pull on the leash, are door-dashers, or dogs that jump on people. Individuals that are new to training can also benefit from working with a professional trainer. After all, a large chunk of a trainer’s job is developing a plan and teaching the owner how to implement it. Trainers can also provide a great resource for socializing a puppy and should be considered by anyone with a young dog.


Basic understating of learning theory paired with consistent leadership will lead to great success when training your dog. By keeping training sessions fun and positive you can improve the relationship with your dog while simultaneously modifying their behavior for the better.

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Works Cited

Fugazza, C., & Miklósi, Á. (2015). Social learning in dog training: The effectiveness of the Do as I do method compared to shaping/clicker training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science171, 146-151.

Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare-Potters Bar Then Wheathampstead-13(1), 63-70.

Hill, L. (2020). Becoming the person your dog thinks you are: An assessment of Florida prison-based dog training programs on postrelease recidivism. Corrections5(3), 149-169.

Howell, T. J., King, T., & Bennett, P. C. (2015). Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports6, 143.

Kubinyi, E., Turcsán, B., & Miklósi, Á. (2009). Dog and owner demographic characteristics and dog personality trait associations. Behavioural Processes81(3), 392-401.

Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science132(3-4), 169-177.

Yin, S. (2007). Dominance versus leadership in dog training. Compendium On Continuing Education For The Practising Veterinarian-North American Edition-29(7), 414.