Starting out Right – Training Your Cockapoo

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Cockapoo Dogs" by David Anderson. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: David Anderson

One of the most important things you can do for your Cockapoo is obedience train them early in their life. There are many benefits to good training, but perhaps the most important is that it will make both you and your pup happy. It’s easy to come up with a bunch of training plans in the early days, only to become complacent as life gets in the way. However, your relationship with your dog depends on their understanding of your expectations and their good behavior. Without training, your Cockapoo is just an animal.

If this is your first dog, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You might find that it’s simple to get your dog to sit, but impossible to get them to walk on a leash. When your dog is misbehaving, it’s too easy to get frustrated and want to give up. Stick with it! Some dogs need a little extra time with certain commands and behaviors. Positivity and patience will get you far when it comes to dog training.

Clear Expectations

In the beginning, decide what you want from your Cockapoo. This is totally up to you as the owner and your preference when it comes to their pet. You may decide that you want your dog to be able to compete in obedience competitions. Or you may just want your dog to be able to sit and stay when needed. Whatever you decide, come up with reasonable expectations for training. If you don’t have the time to take classes or practice at home, it’s not very reasonable to expect your dog to have perfect behavior. Or if you get angry at your dog every time they mess up, it’s unlikely that they will want to learn new tricks. Understand that it will take a lot of time and effort into turning your new Cockapoo into a polite member of society.

Operant Conditioning Basics

Cockapoo outdoor
Photo Courtesy – Louise O’Neill

Though it may appear that your dog can understand everything you tell him, dogs do not understand what we say like a human child might. When you’re training a dog, they don’t necessarily hear a command and know why you want them to do that thing. Instead, it’s more of a kneejerk reaction from practicing so many times. If you’re familiar with basic psychological concepts, you’ll know that dogs are trained through operant conditioning.

In short, operant conditioning requires a response for every action, either positive or negative. One classic demonstration of operant conditioning is done with rats in cages. A cage is outfitted with a lever. Obviously, the rat has never experienced levers before and doesn’t know what to do with one. Eventually, the rat will meander over and push the lever. When this happens, a piece of food falls out. The rat will come to understand that every time they push the lever, they get food. Soon, they’ll do nothing but work the lever until their little bellies are full of treats.

On the other hand, a second lever might be introduced. This one gives the rats a little shock when they push it. Because they don’t like this, they’ll learn that it’s better to stick to the lever that gives them food. The shock is so unpleasant that they’ll learn to avoid it, even though the other lever gives food. Soon, they’ll learn which lever to push and which lever to leave alone.

Your dog’s brain works in a similar manner. When you apply some type of reinforcement to their behavior, they will learn that some behaviors are wanted, and some are not. With enough repetition, you can apply a command and see a result from your dog. Remember, your dog doesn’t hear  “Sit” and understand the meaning of the word as if they suddenly understand human language. Instead, they’ve figured out that you like when they put their bottom on the floor when they hear that particular sound from you.

As your dog’s primary trainer, you’re the one in charge of handing out reinforcements to teach your dog how to behave. Because dogs respond best with positive reinforcements, these reinforcements are known as rewards. When your dog does something good, even by accident, you need to reward them to their brain can make the connection between the action and the reward.

Cockapoo sitting
Photo Courtesy – Maria McNamara

If you’re teaching your dog a basic command, like Sit, you’ll want to manipulate them into the proper position. When they hit their mark, give them some type of reward. When you give the treat, you can say something like “Good sit!” Repeat this a few times, take a break, and repeat it again. When they do what you want, make sure they are rewarded with whatever motivates them the most.

Once your dog starts to understand what is going on, add the command. Say “Sit” and move them into the position. Then reward and repeat the command:“Good sit!” This process will take a while, so make sure to practice regularly. The end goal is for your dog to hear the command and do the action without any rewards needed—it should just become second nature.

Some dog trainers will also use negative reinforcements to prevent unwanted behavior. An example of this would be to use a pronged collar or shock collar when going on walks. The rationale behind this is that the dog is doing something dangerous on walks (like chasing cars) and will correct this behavior if an unpleasant deterrent is added. When your dog does something you don’t like, they’ll instantly be alerted with a negative response that they’ll find uncomfortable and try to avoid the behavior that warranted that response. However, this practice is controversial amongst dog trainers. If done incorrectly, this method may have a negative effect.

Primary Reinforcements

Not all reinforcements are created equally when it comes to your unique Cockapoo. Once you start to get to know your dog, you’ll learn which rewards make them go wild and which ones are ignored. Primary reinforcements are rewards that are good in and of itself. These rewards have immediate value to your dog. Treats, playtime, and toys are all examples of primary reinforcement.

The best reinforcement is something that really makes your dog go nuts. For some, this is a smelly dog treat. For others, it’s a favorite toy. When your reward holds your dog’s attention and can make them do whatever you want, you’ve found the right reward.

To really raise the stakes, try to find a special reward and make it scarce. If you use the same old treats or toys all the time, your Cockapoo might lose interest. You want something very special and exciting. While your dog may enjoy playing fetch with a tennis ball, is it as exciting as a stuffed animal that makes all kinds of exciting sounds? Are your training treats too similar to their usual food, or is it something extremely fragrant and tasty?

You’ll find that most dogs respond to treats, but not all dogs will do tricks for just any edible thing. If your dog doesn’t go for the basic treats, you’ll have to find something extra special. You may go through a few different flavors before you figure out what your dog prefers. Moist training treats give off more odor than dry biscuits, so your dog might respond better to something with a little moisture in it because they can smell the reward and know what’s at stake if they do a good job. Some owners even use cut up pieces of hotdogs as rewards because they’re an extra special treat. Whatever you decide to use as your primary reinforcement, make sure it’s exciting and always on hand.

Secondary Reinforcements

Secondary reinforcements are rewards that don’t necessarily have intrinsic value but are still rewarding for a dog. You can think of secondary reinforcements as currency. On its own, paper money doesn’t have any value. But we can give value to money when we trade it in for tangible items. Examples of secondary reinforcements in dog training include praise and clickers as markers of good behavior.

Cockapoo on grass
Photo Courtesy – Lucy Russell

Because we’re not made of an endless supply of dog treats, it’s good to create rewards that don’t always rely on food to get results. Auditory markers can let your dog know that they’re doing something good without having to stop and hand over a treat. Over time, treats can pack on the pounds and can create a dent in your budget. However, this kind of training initially requires primary reinforcements to give meaning to the secondary reinforcements.

For example, a clicker is a small device that emits a sound when you push the button. When you start clicker training, give your dog a treat and a click when they do something good. Repeat the process until your dog learns that a click is meant as a reward. Then, you can give your dog just a click when they’ve done well, and treats can be used intermittently.

The same can be done with a voice cue. “Yes” is a common one because it’s short and precise. When your dog sits, say “Yes” and give a treat. Over time, your dog will learn that your verbal cue means that they’re doing a good job. That way, if you find yourself without a treat, you can reward them without giving them food.

Dangers of Negative Reinforcements

Negative reinforcements are part of operant conditioning, but you may decide that you don’t want to use them with your dog. There is a thin line between self-correction and punishment, and you don’t want to cross it.

Cockapoos are sensitive dogs, so they are less likely to require negative reinforcements. In fact, this kind of training may do more harm than good. Their sensitivity applies to their interactions with you. They are likely to respond to your happiness or anger. If they perceive your behavior as anger, they may become afraid of you. There are some breeds that hardly care if you’re upset at them—the Cockapoo is not one of them. These little guys just want to make their owner happy, so if you do something that shows you’re upset, they might get upset, too.

Pain is a negative reinforcement and should not be used on dogs. This can lead to fear, which will ruin your training progress. Hitting a dog will not necessarily teach the dog to avoid bad behaviors. Instead, it will teach your dog to avoid you at all costs. If your dog is avoiding you out of fear, he is less likely to absorb your training lessons. You want your dog to be able to trust you and to feel safe around you. Once you go too far with negative reinforcements, you give your dog a reason not to trust you at all.

Hiring a Trainer and Attending Classes

Hiring a trainer or going to classes is absolutely beneficial for training your dog. Even if you have a general idea of how to train a dog, an expert can really boost your training practice. You may come across issues that you don’t know how to resolve but your trainer has encountered many times before. Chances are that you’ve probably only ever worked with a few dogs in your life. Trainers, on the other hand, work with multiple dogs every day. They have the experience to help you with any problem that pops up along the way. They’re also great at reassuring you when you’re feeling stressed about your dog’s behavior.

Group classes are also great for helping your dog socialize with others. Your dog doesn’t necessarily have to get too close to the other dogs during class, but they’ll have to relax enough to learn with lots of canine distractions around them. As you’ll find when you work with your dog, it’s one thing to train without distractions and another to train in a strange place with lots of people and dogs around.

There are many trainers to choose from, and all of them have slightly different ideas about the best way to train a dog. Some are good, while others will not be the right fit for you and your dog. If you’re completely lost on where to start, talk to a fellow dog owner and ask for recommendations. You’ll want someone who believes in positive training practices and is widely recommended by others. You’re essentially trusting this person to do what’s best for your dog, so you want the right trainer for the job. If the trainer is too focused on strange tactics and is very stern with dogs, they might be too harsh for a Cockapoo. But if the trainer uses positive-only or very gentle corrections, they’re probably best suited to work with you as you train your dog.

Owner Behavior

Don’t forget, your dog is constantly watching you and trying to make sense of your reactions to their behavior. They will soon understand when you’re happy and when you’re angry. This breed loves to see you happy. They’re companion animals and will want to be by your side at all times. If you’re angry with them while you train because you’re frustrated by their behavior, they’re not going to want to train anymore. However, when you’re dealing with a little creature with a mind of its own, you’re inevitably going to become frustrated.

Cockapoo on leash
Photo Courtesy – Lily House

To combat this frustration, remember that your dog is not a tiny human. They do not learn and understand things in the same way we do. To us, it’s obvious that unwanted behaviors can be harmful. To a dog, they’re just acting out of instinct and will continue to do so until they learn otherwise.

Also, remember that training doesn’t happen overnight. If you work on a command for a day and your Cockapoo just isn’t getting it, that’s perfectly normal. You may have to practice the same command every day for months before they can do it on cue. Don’t give up because things seem difficult. Instead, ask for some assistance from an expert and keep practicing.

If you can’t hide your disappointment or frustration, take a break. It’s not worth it to get so worked up that you end up lashing out at your dog. When you feel your emotions getting out of control, take a step back with the intention of picking things back up when everyone has had the chance to cool down. Training is important, but not as important as the close bond between you and your Cockapoo.

Dog training is no easy task. It takes knowledge, practice, and a good mindset. Especially if you’re new to dog ownership, it takes a while to think like a dog. They’ve got their own ideas and quirks that are completely foreign to humans. But once you figure out what motivates them, you’re on your way to having a well-trained dog. When training, be persistent, calm, and positive, and your Cockapoo will enjoy this time you spend together.

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