The Three Keys to Successful Dog Training and Behavior Modification

There are three concepts that any dog owner must understand in order to get quick results in a minimal amount of time. I call these the,”Three keys to successful dog training and behavior modification.”

These three keys can be utilized in both obedience training and behavior modification, as well as many other types of dog training (such as narcotics detection, tracking, etc…) Completely understanding these three keys will put you ahead of even many professional dog trainers.

The three keys are:

Timing, consistency and motivation.

I have developed a simple analogy to help dog owners easily understand and conceptualize how these three keys work.


Let us imagine that our dog is a tourist from a small Alaskan village, and that he does not speak our language, know our customs, or understand our culture. (In real life, he’s a dog and he doesn’t understand our language, customs or culture). As a tourist, the first thing he wants to do upon arriving in America is visit Disneyland. So… he rents himself a shiny red, brand new convertible Corvette and starts speeding down the highway doing 120 miles per hour.

Through this analogy, we (the dog trainer/handler/owner) will be the police. It is now our objective to get our dog to stop speeding. Now, let’s suppose our dog has been speeding down the highway at 120 miles per hour, and after driving for two and a half hours, he starts getting sleepy. So the next thing he does is pull over, find himself a little motel on the side of the road, check into a room, and take a little nap. Twenty minutes into the nap, we (the cops) finally catch up, bust into the motel room, and give our dog a ticket for speeding. But… because he doesn’t speak our language, know our culture, or understand anything about our customs– such as speed limits, stop signs, or traffic signals– he can’t associate the correction (the ticket) with the behavior (speeding).

So what does your dog think?

He may think he’s being corrected for checking into a motel, taking a nap, or possibly even stopping the car and pulling over to the side of the road! Why can’t he associate the correction with the behavior, you may be wondering? Well… the United States government commissioned a study at Lackland Air Force base in the 1970’s, on over 500 dogs, and what they found as a result of this study was that a dog’s memory for association (it’s ability to associate cause and effect) is on average 1.3 seconds. In my experience with dogs, I’ve found it to be a bit closer to three or four seconds, depending on the individual dog and the circumstances. Of course, there are “bridging” techniques which can be used to extend these two to four seconds by maybe another seven to nine seconds, but in general it is necessary to either praise or correct your dog immediately after his action in order for there to be a strong association.

Let’s look at an example as to how timing comes into play. Let’s pretend that your dog walks into your kitchen and decides to start digging through your trash can. And when he’s done digging in the trash, he walks over and sits down on your couch, and begins drinking one of your beers and watching the baseball game on your television set. And then you come over and correct him for digging in the trash… In the dog’s mind, he thinks he’s being corrected for sitting on the couch, drinking a beer, and watching baseball. Even if you drag him back over to the trash can and rub his nose in the trash… what he thinks is that he’s being corrected for sitting on the couch and drinking beer. And that the punishment for sitting on your couch is that he gets his nose rubbed in the trash.

However, that’s not going to stop him from digging in the trash in the future, because in his mind, he’s never actually been corrected for digging in the trash. So, association is the key word when it comes to the element of timing. If the dog doesn’t associate the praise or the correction with a specific behavior, then your efforts are hopeless.

A big mistake amateur handlers make is assuming that their dog understands that they’ve done something wrong, even though it’s beyond their two to four second memory for association. Simply because your dog may be showing submissive body language does not mean that he understands that he’s done something wrong. There may be a prior association, or something else going on in the dog’s mind… such as reacting to your body language.

For example, if your dog learns that he gets a correction every time there is trash laying on the floor of the living room, he’s going to be very afraid anytime you walk into the room and see trash on the floor. So, the dog learns that if there is trash on the floor, then he gets a correction. However, he does not learn that it is the act of digging in the trash which will render him a correction.


Consistency is pretty simple. Consistency means that your dog should get the same response to a behavior, every single time he exhibits that behavior. Mother Nature does this very effectively. Notice that every time a dog jumps into a rose bush, he gets pricked by a thorn, and thus receives a negative association with jumping in the rose bush. Another big mistake amateur handlers make with the consistency issue is allowing their dog to jump up on themselves.

If the rules are that your dog should never jump up on you, then every time he jumps up he should receive a negative… or in plain English…a correction. Now, a lot of people know this instinctively, but you’ll occasionally see them (especially when distracted or nervous) reach down and scratch their dog’s back right after he’s jumped up!if your dog learns that he gets a correction every time there is trash laying on the floor of the living room, he’s going to be very afraid anytime you walk into the room and see trash on the floor. Remember, in order for your rules to be absolutely clear in the dog’s mind, it must be like black and white as to when he gets a correction and when he gets praised.


Using motivation in your training means that your dog must receive a positive/praise, or a negative/correction, which has meaning! In other words, everything you do with your dog must be motivational. Imagine yourself (the dog trainer) being a cop, and your dog being a speeder, in a flashy red sports car. If the cop gives the speeder a ticket, even if he uses proper timing and consistency… but the ticket isn’t motivational… then this speeder will never discontinue his behavior. It’s like a cop giving you a ticket for two dollars, when your last name is Trump, and your first name is Donald. This two dollar ticket is in no way going to be motivational. What you need is a $200 ticket. Or maybe a $2000 ticket. Or maybe, in the case of The Donald, you would need to give a $20,000 ticket. But, eventually, I’m going to find a motivation level that works for my dog.

Now, some dogs are like my grandmother. When my grandmother was alive and driving her automobile, if she happened to be speeding, all a cop would have to do is give her a warning, and this warning would be motivational enough to get her to stop speeding. In contrast, if you take an ex-convict and give him the same warning you gave my grandmother… it’s probably not going to be motivational. So, what I’m trying to say is that, just like people, every dog has its own motivation level. And whatever it is you are doing, be it praise or correction, it must be done with motivation.

Potential clients often call me and ask me what kind of training collar I use, and what kind of training collar I recommend for their dog. Again, this should really depend on the individual breed, temperament, and personality of the individual dog. If I am working with a Chihuahua, with a really soft temperament, then I will probably use a soft buckle collar, because this is all I will need to use to be motivational for this specific dog. On the other hand, if I am working with a 130 pound Rottweiler, who is as stubborn as a mule and hard headed, then you can bet I won’t be using that same soft buckle collar, because it’s just not going to be motivational.

So, perhaps I’ll use a choke chain, or maybe a pinch collar. Or perhaps even an electric collar. But in the end, I’m going to find something which is motivational for that specific dog. And don’t forget about making your praise motivational, either. If you praise your dog for doing the right behavior, and he just sits there and looks at you without moving… like ice… then it’s probably a good indication that your praise doesn’t have any meaning. Or, in this specific situation, it is not motivational.

What you need to do is get a little more motivational with your praise by either offering more patting, petting, or scratching behind the ears. Sometimes incorporating motion is a good idea, too, because your dog will see the motion and movement as something fun. In essence, the phrase ” good dog” doesn’t have any meaning by itself. So you must give it meaning and make it motivational by associating something positive with the word “good dog”.

In a nutshell, dog training boils down to one simple premise:

What I want to do is to praise my dog when he does something favorable, or a behavior I want to encourage. In contrast, I want to correct my dog when he does something unfavorable, or a behavior I want to discourage.

And finally, don’t do anything in particular for neutral behavior. For example, if the dog happens to just lay down at your feet, but you did not command him to lay down at your feet, then there is really no reason to praise your dog.

With timing, consistency and motivation, you can think through any problem behavior you are experiencing with your dog, and figure out which of the three keys to behavior modification is the weak link. Eliminate one at a time, and try to crawl into your dog’s mind to figure out what he may be thinking.