Apex Boxers, New Zealand

Obedience / Foundation Training

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  • oFred with some of her Obedience awards 

    There are many theories about how to train dogs and, while I have read a lot, I don't claim to be an expert. What I do know is that not all methods work well and I've seen many keen Boxer handlers put off continuing with obedience because a pedantic trainer applies the same methods to every dog and blames a lack of success on the handler (or worse still, blames it on the breed of dog or the dog itself). So I'm sharing here some of my opinions on Boxers and how to train them. My opinions are based on a lifetime of experience of breeding and living with Boxers, trialing Boxers since 1991, and instructing obedience and agility classes since 1991 (including all breeds and Boxer only classes). So I've had a lot of opportunity to observe dog behaviour and to see what does and does not work...but I'm always still learning.


    There are some authors/trainers who use approaches that are validated by research, and I have seen that they work in practice:

    Author                       Title                                           My comments
    Jean DonaldsonThe Culture ClashMay change your whole way of thinking about your dog! Other books by this author are also good. Mostly about how to understand your dog and the principles of dog training rather than practical exercises.
    Patricia McConnellThe Other End of the LeashAll the books of hers that I have read are good. Mostly about how to understand your dog and the principles of dog training rather than practical exercises.
    Karen PryorDonít Shoot the DogMostly about how to understand your dog and the principles of dog training rather than practical exercises.
    Suzanne ClothierSuzanne Clothier's online articlesApplies some of the principles from the books I list, but with the advantage of being free online.
    Turid RugaasOn Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming signals Mostly about how to understand your dog rather than a training book but it is very short and easy to read. She also has a range of other books and DVDs.
    Leslie McDevittControl UnleashedThis is for written for dogs that are easily distracted, stressed or reactive. But includes practical exercises for any dog to improve their behaviour in diverse circumstances. She has also developed a puppy version of the book, and DVD.
    Susan GarrettPuppy Peaks online courseSusan is an agility trialer but her Puppy Peaks program shows you step by step (in videos) how to raise a puppy from a very early age in a way that makes them a joy to live with and to train. NB: I do NOT recommend her books but the online course is comprehensive and well worth the cost - especially for anyone who doesn't have access to good training classes.
    Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson VeghAgility Right from the StartThe BEST *agility* book EVER in my opinion! This is brilliantly set out, comprehensive, and combines theory and practical exercises.
    Jane KillionWhen Pigs FlyWritten for agility but useful for understanding that some dogs are "differently" motivated.
    Peta ClarkeIntelligence isn't everything videoA professional animal trainer (and Boxer person!) - this video helps to understand what 'intelligence' means in terms of animal training in relation to being told that Boxers are not good for obedience.

    Where to buy good dog books? This Australian site has some of the books:Wag School Books or try this US site: Dogwise.

    Basic training ideas

    Some excellent training advice from an anonymous author:

    The best advice ever given a puppy owner is to take a newspaper, roll it up, secure it tightly, and leave it on the coffee table. Then, when the puppy piddles in the house, chews up a slipper, or breaks any other house rule, you simply take the newspaper and bang it on the top of your head repeatedly, while reciting the phrase, "I should have been watching my puppy!"
    This way of thinking can be extended through into how we respond to our adult dogs' behaviour too.

    Things to Try with a 'Naughty' Boxer

    My first suggestion - read some of the books I list above!

    Second suggestion - take your dog to obedience classes - there they will get used to behaving around other dogs and people. This environment will help socialise your dog, so even if the trainers aren't brilliant, you still benefit. However, I'd steer clear of any class where 'force' methods are used, including check chains. I believe that people use force to teach only when they have no understanding of dog psychology and cannot get a dog to behave by any other means. Forcing a dog to obey a command (eg ramming a dumbbell into their mouth to teach them to retrieve, or jerking on a chain to get them to heel) gets you a reluctant sulking response and/or the possibility of long term problems. And it just is not needed, dogs can work enthusiastically (by that I mean they can enjoy doing what you ask of them and obedience can be fun) when modern training methods are used.

    What's Normal Behaviour for a Boxer?

    Well bred, well raised Boxers normally start life pretty well behaved. This is just a ploy to lull you into a false sense of security. As they mature, many go through what I call the 'teenage rebel' stage when they start working out how strict you will be.

    Admittedly, not all boxers go through this stage, some with a particularly laid back or timid nature might not, others may get the message that you are so dominant that they don't dare defy you. However, I consider that a normal Boxer temperament - ie intelligent, inquisitive, confident, playful - leads naturally to some undesirable behaviours as the dog matures, and unless you want a robot instead of an amusing character-filled pet, you don't want to squash them so they're too scared to even try new things.

    How do you Teach a Boxer?

    Let's use the example of the dog who runs off to see other dogs and won't come back when called. Dogs learn by experience and association. If every time Fido runs away from you he is rewarded by being able to leap about and play around before you catch him, in his mind, "running off=good result". If you are telling him off once you catch him, he associates the telling off only with the catching, ie "dad catching me=bad result". So you can see that there is little incentive for him to come back when you call.

    To change this association in his head you will have to set up experiences that teach him a different association. Training is about setting up positive associations with the behaviours you want the dog to keep doing. Think of it like brain washing - you are programming a link between a word, behaviour, and a reward by repeating them together often enough for them to be intrinsically linked in the dog's brain (in the same way they associate their mother with warmth and milk).

    Teach a recall - ie teach him to come when you call him. Don't just use his name, use a command like 'Here' or 'Come'. You need to link that word to (a) the behaviour you want (coming to you) and (b) to a wonderful reward. The 3 need to happen together often before the command is "programmed" - as per the image below.
    diagram of recall training

    You need to teach a command in a controlled way - for the recall, start in a small area at home (eg a hallway), progress eventually to a short and then long leash outside - so that you get a perfect result every time because he can't wander off. You may have to lure the dog the first few times (ie let them see you have a reward so that they will come when you call them). Use the command every time you call the dog for food or other things they love - any situation that is going to help link the word, act, and reward. Make sure the reward he gets teaches him that coming is worthwhile - yummy treats and a hungry dog is the best training scenario. Do not use the recall command when he is off-leash for a long time - you need to have it like clockwork before you try off-leash, then only away from distractions initially - build up the difficulty for your dog gradually. If you ever use the command and he doesn't obey, go right back to primary school and start practicing on a shorter leash again. Refresh your progamming from time to time by practicing the recall around home for a big reward. A great way to do this is to have one person stand in one part of the house or yard with yummy treats and another to stand some distance away, also with treats, and take turns calling the dog and rewarding - dogs love this game.

    How do I teach other commands?

    A dog can learn quite a number of words. Choose short simple commands that sound different from each other. Keep commands 'pure' by using them in a consistent way, always praising when the dog obeys, and often rewarding with treats or games, and always going back to basics with the command when the dog does not get it right.

    Don't use one word to mean different things - instead add different commands, eg I use different commands for 'come'. I use 'here' only when I really mean business, so 'here' is the command we practiced for ages on leash to get it perfect. At the park if I don't really care whether the dogs come or not, I might just call their name or say 'come', they know this isn't an 'obedience' command, more just conversational and they come over if they're not busy sniffing something. It's important to make these distinctions - if you are casual in your application of an important command word, then the dog may be casual about it at the very time it counts most - like when they're about to step onto a busy road.

    The important thing is to teach a command with lots of repetitions in a controlled set-up, with lots of rewards. Lots & lots of practice, lots & lots of rewards/praise, always praise when the dog obeys even when you think they should know that command backwards & forward.

    What do I do if my dog disobeys?

    Keep in mind that if your dog disobeys it can be only one of three reasons - 1. You haven't practised the command often or well enough for the dog to truly understand what you want, or 2. You haven't taught the dog that it's worthwhile to obey by using good rewards, or 3. You have expected too much of the dog - eg putting it into an environment where it was difficult for it to make the choice to obey. Like the quote I started with about the puppy and the newspaper - you need to remember that when your dog disobeys it is always YOUR fault, not the dog's.

    If you have comments on any of my opinions above, please email me and tell me all about it - I'm always keen to learn. If you want advice on how to train your Boxer beyond what I write about here, you're better off going to a local obedience club or trainer.