How Do I Train My Poodle? Basic and Advanced Tips and Tricks

How Do I Train My Poodle? Basic and Advanced Tips and Tricks

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Poodles" by Tarah Schwartz. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Tarah Schwartz

Start With Clear Expectations

When beginning your training program with your Poodle, it’s important to have clear expectations of both your dog and yourself. Poodles are incredibly intelligent dogs, but your dog’s training will only progress according to how much time you spend working with him. If you only train him once or twice a week, he will progress much more slowly than if you have daily training sessions. Training sessions don’t need to be long, typically around 15-20 minutes each, but they do need to be frequent enough that each session is building on the last, rather than refreshing the dog’s memory of what you have previously worked on.

Progress comes at Many Speeds

During any training session, it’s essential that you ask yourself if your dog is truly ready for the next step. Progressing too quickly in your dog’s training will leave him confused and frustrated. He may also become less focused and less cooperative in his lessons. For example, if you have recently taught your dog to stay and he is staying in position reliably in your living room, you shouldn’t take him to a busy park and expect him to stay just as well as he does at home. He simply isn’t ready for that big of a leap in his training. It can be frustrating if you aren’t seeing progress as quickly as you’d like, but it’s important that you take a deep breath and understand that each step is progress, no matter how small. Eventually, you will look back at your dog’s training and you will be amazed at how far he has come.

Always End on a High Note

If your dog seems to be struggling with a new concept and he’s becoming tired and unfocused in his training session, you need to be sure to end the session on a good note. Ending a training session with a frustrated dog may leave a negative impression on him and he may be less enthusiastic about his next session. Instead, try going back to something he has already learned and can perform reliably. Just asking him to sit quietly a few times and rewarding him for it can put you both in a better mood and looking forward to the next training session.

Operant Conditioning Basics

standard poodle resting
Photo Courtesy – Sherie Jackson

One of the most well-known methods of learning, known as operant conditioning, is a process in which an individual learns tasks through a system of rewards and punishment. The American psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner popularized this method during his studies in the 1930s. Skinner theorized that both animals and humans are complex creatures that are capable of learning through methods other than classical conditioning. He suggested that behaviors are more likely to be repeated if they are followed by a positive experience or the removal of a negative sensation and that behaviors are less likely to be repeated if followed by a negative experience. The environmental responses that encouraged the repetition of a behavior were referred to by Skinner as either positive or negative reinforcers. He also suggested that neutral reinforcers are environmental responses that have no impact on the likelihood of a behavior being repeated in the future. The negative responses to a behavior are called punishments and decrease the likelihood of the individual repeating the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

In dog training, one of the most popular methods of training involves positive reinforcement. This reinforcement often comes in the form of praise or treats, but toys, playtime, and markers work well too. Poodles are intelligent dogs who love attention, so they typically learn quickly when positive reinforcement is used. Terri L. Creech of Bear Cove Standard Poodles says, “They really want to please and will do what you want just because it pleases you.” Most dogs are also food-motivated, especially when their favorite treats are involved. Unfortunately, positive reinforcement can also encourage dogs to repeat undesirable behaviors. For example, if your Poodle dashes out the front door and is rewarded with an exciting romp around the neighborhood, he’s more likely to repeat this behavior in the future. If he gets into the trash and finds a tasty snack, he’s probably going to get into the trash again. Managing your dog’s environment in a way that prevents him from getting to trouble is the best way to prevent bad behaviors. It’s easier to prevent a behavior from developing than it is to correct it.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is not to be confused with punishment, as they are two very different aspects of the learning process. Negative reinforcement is when a behavior is encouraged by the removal of an unpleasant sensation. For example, if you are training your Poodle to sit using negative reinforcement, you may ask him to sit while gently pushing on his rear end with your hand. The moment he sits, the pressure is released. Although the pressure isn’t causing him any pain, it’s likely not very comfortable, so he learns quickly that he must sit in order to avoid that pressure on his rear. Negative reinforcement is best used in combination with positive reinforcement to ensure that the dog understands what you’re asking and is more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. If you use the previously mentioned method of asking your dog to sit and follow his correct behavior with either praise or a delicious treat, you have successfully used both positive and negative reinforcement.

Punishment

Punishment differs from negative reinforcement because it is used to discourage a dog from repeating a behavior in the future. For example, if your Poodle begins digging a hole in the yard and you stomp, clap, or tell him “No!” every time he begins to dig, after a few attempts he will likely connect his digging behavior to the loud and unpleasant noises coming from you. He will understand that digging will be met with a negative response from you, so he will be less likely to repeat the behavior in the future. However, you must never be too harsh in the punishment you use in training. Rather than stop the behavior, your dog is more likely to become fearful towards you.

Primary Reinforcements – Food, Toys, Playtime

Standard poodle comandThe main type of rewards you will be using while training your dog are commonly referred to as primary reinforcements. These reinforcements are biological in nature and reward the dog on a primal level. Food is the most obvious biological reward in this category. Dogs need food to live and in the wild, their efforts at hunting are often rewarded with food when they finally catch their prey. Modern, domesticated dogs don’t need to catch their own food, but they are capable of learning what behaviors they can perform to earn food from their owners. Toys and playtime are used less frequently in dog training, but they have the same effect on a dog. In the wild, dogs enjoy chasing and catching their prey, and this behavior can be simulated during playtime. Games like fetch and tug simulate behaviors that would be performed in the wild with prey. In some cases, toys and playtime may work better to motivate the dog, especially if they aren’t particularly motivated by food or have a high prey drive.

Food and Treat Rewards

Using food as a reward is one of the easiest ways to focus your dog’s attention and keep him interested in the work. Some Poodles are highly motivated by food, while others may need some encouragement. For some dogs, any type of food will work. Food-motivated dogs will work just as hard for a piece of kibble as they will a piece of meat. These dogs tend to be easy to train simply because they will do anything for food. Training dogs who are not motivated by food can be a bit more difficult. You may need to try a few different types of treats to see what they are willing to work for. High-value treats such as meat, small pieces of cheese, or dehydrated liver often work well. Use these treats only while training to help the dog understand that he must work for these particularly delicious snacks.

Toys and Play Rewards

If your Poodle is not motivated by food or has an especially high prey drive, you may want to try using a toy or playtime as your primary reinforcer. Typically, trainers who use toys as a reward use tugs, rubber balls, or toys attached to a rope. The reward system works exactly as it does with treats. When your dog performs the desired behavior, you can toss him the toy or let him grab it from the air. It can be helpful to move the toy away from the dog as you offer it. This forces him to chase the toy, if only for a moment, and makes the reward even more meaningful. Once he has the toy in his mouth, you can play tug with him or simply let him run around with his trophy. It may take some time to figure out the best toy for your individual dog and the best way of rewarding him with it, so don’t be afraid to experiment during your initial training sessions.

Secondary Reinforcements – Attention, Praise, Clickers

Secondary reinforcements are a type of reward that must be taught to your dog. He won’t automatically understand the value of “Good boy!” or the noise of a clicker until he begins to associate these responses with primary reinforcements. Many trainers choose to spend a few of their initial training sessions working on the dog’s connection between primary and secondary reinforcements. For example, your first training session may consist of simply pressing the clicker or praising the dog as you hand him a treat. Eventually, he’ll understand that the clicking sound or your chosen reward phrase means he’ll receive food.

Attention and Praise

Poodle lying down
Photo Courtesy – Connie Hucks

Attention and praise work well with Poodles as secondary reinforcements because Poodle love to please their owners. They love being lavished with attention, so there is a relatively short learning curve when using praise as a reward. However, it may help to choose a specific word or phrase to let your dog know that he’s performed the correct behavior. Some owners choose words like “yes” or “good” to indicate that the dog has done well. There are trainers who also recommend different words for different expectations that you may have. You might choose to use one word to let the dog know he’s doing the right thing, but that he’s not done working yet, and a different word for when he is finished with that task. For instance, if you want the dog to sit and stay sitting while you praise him, you may want to use a specific word to let him know he’s doing well but you’d like him to continue performing the behavior. You can use a different word to reward him when he’s done well, and you are releasing him from that position. It will take some time and consistent conditioning for your dog to understand the difference, but eventually he will be able to tell when he’s done working based on the verbal praise you give him.

 

Clicker Training

Clickers also work well as secondary reinforcements, but it does take more time for the dog to associate the sound with good behavior. Initially, you will need to use classical conditioning to teach your dog the value of the clicker. You don’t need to ask your dog to do anything; you simply press the clicker and hand him a treat. As you introduce this concept in training, he should eventually understand that the clicker means he’s done a good job.

Scaling Back as your Poodle Shows Progress

As you and your dog progress in his training, you may find it useful to limit your use of primary reinforcements. This will encourage your dog to work with you and perform the desired behaviors without you having to carry treats or his favorite toy in your pocket all the time. You’ll be able to ask him to sit quietly while you drink coffee at a café or walk politely next to you down a busy street without worrying about how you’re going to reward him. To keep your dog motivated, you may need to return to primary reinforcements once in a while, as the value of the secondary reinforcements may weaken over time.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcements are a commonly misunderstood aspect of dog training. As with many training tools, they can be extremely useful when used properly, but can cause harm if used incorrectly. Placing too much pressure on a dog with negative reinforcement can easily scare him and deter him from engaging with you in future training sessions. However, when properly combined with positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement can become a valuable tool in your training toolbox. For example, leash training can be much more effective when taught with negative reinforcement. Initially, when you put gentle pressure on the dog’s leash, he may ignore you or even brace against the pressure. If he happens to step toward you, you immediately release the pressure and reward him with your chosen primary and secondary reinforcements. He will quickly learn that giving in to the leash pressure will not only result in the removal of that pressure, but he’ll earn a treat as well.

Be Cautious Using Negative Reinforcement

You must be extremely careful when using negative reinforcement with your Poodle. They are an intelligent breed and can quickly learn both good and bad behaviors. You must keep an eye on your dog’s body language at all times and practice perfect timing when releasing the pressure on your dog. If he performs the correct behavior and you do not immediately remove the negative sensation, the dog will not understand what you are asking of him. He may become confused and could develop aversive or fearful behaviors in future training sessions. While it is possible to train your dog using only negative reinforcements, he’s more likely to enjoy the work and learn quicker when positive reinforcement is used as well.

Hiring a Trainer/Attending Classes

There are numerous benefits to hiring a trainer or attending obedience classes. Most importantly, there is less trial and error in your training sessions. An experienced trainer will be able to spot a problem and fix it before it develops into a bigger challenge. Poodles are such bright pupils that they will quickly learn how to avoid situations that they don’t like, and a professional trainer will be able to help you maintain your position as pack leader and reach your dog’s potential. Sheri Regalbuto of Just Dogs with Sheri says, “The best advice for a new poodle guardian is to hire a positive trainer who will help you to train your poodle instead of allowing your poodle to train you.” Whether you choose private lessons or group lessons, the trainer will be able to answer any questions you may have and help you work through any challenging behavior.

Private Lessons: a Good but Expensive Option

Private lessons are a wonderful opportunity for you and your dog to have the trainer’s undivided attention. If you are working through any problem behaviors, this may be the ideal way to seek help. However, private lessons can be costly, so if you are on a budget you might want to consider group lessons. Although you won’t have the trainer’s undivided attention, you will still be able to receive the guidance and instruction you need. It can also be a great opportunity to socialize your dog and practice good behavior in distracting environments.

Don’t Feel Ashamed or Embarassed

Remember, professional trainers will never judge you for seeking help with your dog. Whether you are dealing with serious behavior issues or can’t seem to get your dog to walk politely on a leash, there is no shame in asking for help. Trainers love what they do, and they are always willing to help you and your dog develop a closer relationship. Allowing bad behavior to escalate will only make it more difficult to correct and may cause unnecessary stress and resentment among your family members. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you and your dog can have the relationship that you’ve always dreamed about.

Owner Behavior

Poodle graduating
Photo Courtesy – Jessica Yost

When you and your dog are struggling with a certain task or behavior, it can be easy to blame everything on the dog. However, bad behaviors are often a reflection of the owner’s behavior. It can be difficult, but it’s essential that you reflect on your own behavior and hold yourself accountable when training isn’t going according to your plan. If you’re becoming frustrated, take a break and think about your own body language and whether or not there is something you could change that might make a difference in your dog’s behavior. Training problems are often a result of miscommunication and there may be changes you can make to help your dog understand what you are asking of him.

Asking For Help when you Need it

If you’ve reflected on your own behavior and can’t seem to find the problem, try having a trainer or dog savvy friend watch one of your training sessions. You may be missing something, and having an extra set of eyes on you can help you figure it out. Perhaps you don’t realize how much tension you have in your body when you grip your dog’s leash, or you may be walking too far from your dog. Having another person can help you sort out the details in your training that may otherwise go unnoticed. It’s always helpful to seek a second opinion, especially that of a professional.

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