The What, Why, and How of Dog Training

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

As a dog trainer, especially with a puppy or young dog, you have an overwhelming task.  You need to decide what to train, determine how you will motivate your dog to work with you, and consider the constant question of how your dog feels about working with you.  People err on the side of doing too much all at once (flooding), doing random bits and pieces when they think of it (scattershot), or analyzing ideas endlessly in order to avoid mistakes, then doing nothing (paralysis).  

So where do you begin sorting all this out?  It can really help to have a template or guide to follow.  I’ve spent lots of time thinking about just these issues in training my own dogs.  With every new puppy came the panic “what if I forget something really important?”  In order to quiet this anxiety and keep myself on track I developed a structured way to approach training.  It works for me and it can work for you.  In this blog I’ll address the three main components of my approach: what, why, and how.


This is typically the thing that concerns most trainers “what do I teach and what order should I teach it in?”  But in my view, this is actually putting the cart before the horse.  Teaching specific behaviors is not high on my list of training priorities for most of my dog’s first year.  I’m much more interested in teaching concepts instead.  Concepts such as developing a working relationship, becoming operant, focus, and learning how to learn are best instilled first.  Once those are in place, learning specific behaviors is pretty straightforward.  

There are a number of exercises and activities that can help develop and strengthen a concept.  For example, to develop a strong positive working relationship with my dog I establish clarity and consistency in the way I provide reinforcers.  Using specific markers and reinforcers in a clear and structured way makes me predictable.  I also work very hard on discovering the types of play and games that my dog enjoys and make myself part of that activity.  I will be mindful of pairing myself with all the good stuff my dog loves and receives so that my dog develops a strong positive emotional response to me and the chance to interact with me.  I’m fun!  I have good stuff!  And the route to all the great things comes through me.  


The why refers to your dog’s motivation to work with you.  Why does he do what you want?  We can motivate through the attainment of something that is desired or we can motivate through the avoidance of something unpleasant.  Both can work, but I know which one I would prefer as both the trainer and the trainee.  

With positive reinforcement based training we teach our dogs that cooperating with us in training is definitely in their best interest.  It can lead to outcomes that they really want.  Our superpower is in the thoughtful and sophisticated use of reinforcers.  It’s much more complex than “throwing cookies”.  Though sometimes throwing cookies is exactly the right thing to do!  

Each dog is a unique individual and our training must take that into consideration.  We need to customize our general approach to take advantage of our dog’s desires and use them in a skillful way.  Done well, training based on positive reinforcement is complex and subtle.  And it leads to an eager and enthusiastic student.  




In this case the question is not “how do I train a specific behavior?”  There are a huge variety of ways to teach anything.  That’s actually the easiest part of dog training!  

This how refers to the question “how does my dog feel about what we’re doing?”  The emotional experience of my dog is of the utmost importance to me when we train.  Just being able to perform a behavior is not enough, particularly if there is anxiety or stress involved.  That behavior can easily be poisoned.  And if I train often when my dog is in a less than optimal emotional state, I can poison the entire experience of working with me.  

You will often see some subtle, and some not so subtle, signs that your dog is not in a good emotional state or has combined a negative emotional state with training.  It may be as easy to overlook as scratching, yawning, sniffing, or an increased interest in distractions, or as obvious as leaving the training area if given the opportunity.  


Not sure how all of these ideas come together to help you develop a step by step training plan?  Then join us in Performance Fundamentals at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  Classes started December 1, but are open for registration until the 15th.  See the week to week progression we recommend to help your dog become a well-rounded, eager, enthusiastic teammate.