Relationship First; Your Relationship is the Foundation to Training Your Dog

Treats? Check. Clicker? Check. High value toy? Check. Leash? Check. Relationship with your dog? Um, wait, what?

How is your relationship with your dog? At the root of all training with canines is your relationship with them. Imagine going to a new to you therapist and being asked within the first 5 minutes to perform a bunch of tasks:

Here, fill this out. Ok, now show me your deep breathing skills? No? No deep breathing skills? UGH. Bad human! Here, let me show you. Ok, now sit down. Not that way, this way, let me show you. Why are you not getting this?

Imagine how this might feel. Not only do you not have a connection to this person, but they are insisting on you doing things that you don’t understand, often getting frustrated when you don’t perform as expected, and in the worst-case scenarios, perhaps you’re even being reprimanded or “corrected” for not performing the expected behaviors.

Now imagine that therapist speaks an entirely different language than you.

How frustrating and invalidating might that feel?

Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and yet, we humans not only insist on using verbal cues and markers to teach them, but many humans forget that the most important thing at the root of all training is in fact our relationship with the dog we are working with.

By taking some time to connect with the pup by engaging them in games and enrichment opportunities this teaches them that not only are we on their side, they can have fun with us, and have confidence that we have their back, in training and all things.

What does Relationship First look like?

Putting your relationship first means taking the time for fun and for connection.

Consider incorporating activities where the dog learns that the human is the provider for all good things. This might look like:

· Offering lots of opportunity for sniffy walks

· Play time where the human and dog are involved. Think Tug, Fetch, simple training games etc. (rather than play that might involve the dog alone or with other dogs. This is because we want to teach our pup that the human is always the most rewarding, exciting, engaging thing in their environment.)

· Name recognition games

o How to play: say the dog’s name, when they look to you, Mark and Reward with: YES! Good _____!

· Playing the Go Find Game

o How to play: throw a piece of kibble away from you, tell them to Go Find. When they look back to you excitedly realizing that you have yummy food and are playing a game with them, Mark and Reward their eye contact with YES! Good ____!! When they come running back to you out of excitement, give them lots of little pieces of a higher incentive snack, like small bits of chicken, beef liver, etc.

· When first getting your pup, do not allow a lot of interactions with things that might be more exciting than you, (like other dog interactions for example.) You want to teach your dog that no matter what is going on, you are the most important thing to them and that all good things come from you. This includes the opportunity to play with other dog friends. No on leash greetings and no greetings or play without permission from the human. (I’ll elaborate on this and proper dog socialization in future blog posts, but the short version is we’re aiming for our pup to be neutral in as many situations as possible when considering socialization.)

Relationship first means we put our relationship with our pup as well as their mental and emotional wellbeing above all, including training goals. By doing this, your training will come along more easily and naturally, and your dog will build confidence in themselves and you. By teaching our pups that we are always the most exciting, engaging, rewarding thing in their environment, it makes it naturally easier for them to tune into us.

Some tips:

Start inside in familiar areas with minimal distractions. When your pup is good at these games inside, then bring them to more challenging areas. Keep in mind when it comes to dog training, slow is fast to them. Take your time, get a solid foundation, and the remainder of your training will follow.

Begin training inside by capturing behaviors you like. This looks like observing a behavior you like and want to see repeated, and then Marking and Rewarding this.

For example: Your pup naturally lays down, sits, etc. Next time they are laying down, Mark & Reward with YES! Good Down ___! And give a small bit of treat or piece of kibble. Repeat often before translating this skill outside of your home.

We humans are often very disconnected from our bodies, and thereby our body language. Imagine how confusing this must be to our pups whose primary language is body language!! Pay attention to what nonverbal cues and communication you may be giving to your dog and try to understand from their perspective why they may be confused. Did you ask for a Sit while standing and requiring them to be in front of you? Only to then ask them to Sit when they were alongside you? This is a totally different scenario to your pup who does not generalize well!! This is why training in a variety of scenarios is so important. Sit might mean “sit in front of me” inside, but once your outside, this is a completely different context to your dog. Slow down. Slow is fast in dog training. Break things down and set your dog up for success.

No one likes to feel unsuccessful. Start every training session with things you KNOW your dog will be successful at, and then build up from there. If they have a few reps where they are unsuccessful, then be sure to go back to what they know before attempting to progress again. Always end sessions on a positive note with a win for your pup. This goes a LONG way in building their confidence and sense of self efficacy.

For more tips like these, around dog training, confidence building, relationships, and the overlap between human and dog psychology, keep following along in our blog!

If you’d like more 1:1 support, create your pet’s profile and set up a consultation at

(PIR is our sister company, located in Southwest Washington, DC)

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