We got a new dog! His name is Pete, and he is a 21-month-old beagle. Like many others, I will be spending the beginning of the New Year welcoming a new dog into our family.

I'm excited about having a Beagle. I have had Rottweilers, as many of you know, for my entire adult life. Before that I grew up with Labrador Retrievers. Pete is my first small dog. He is also my first hound. Even though we've adopted an adult dog, he still has lots to learn. He has already been socialized, walks on a leash, is crate trained and housetrained, but that is about it.

One of the first things I needed to know about Pete was what he considered a reward. For example, I didn't want to assume that petting would be a reward for him, because it may not. Then if I had used petting to reward him and he didn't consider it particularly rewarding, I would have actually been punishing the behaviors that I was trying to reward — or at least not rewarding them. Training would've gone poorly, and it would have been my fault.

If you want to train your dog effectively, you have to find his "currency." Now, he's a Beagle, so you might think to yourself, "Use food!" While it's true that Beagles generally love food, most dogs — and people for that matter — have a scale of what is rewarding. For example, for Mother’s Day, my husband rarely brings home flowers as a gift for me. Instead, he brings home shoes because he knows that I love shoes. Your dog has the same scale of reward as you and I do. Some dogs will work for dog food, but most won’t work very hard for it. In order to be successful, I will need to know what makes Pete do back-flips. After all, I will be asking him to do some really difficult things in the future, like coming to me instead of chasing squirrels and keeping his nose out of the garbage.

It turns out that hands down, liver is his favorite food.

We changed our new dog’s name to Pete when we adopted him two days ago, so the second thing he had to learn was name recognition. Name recognition is important for every dog because it starts each conversation you have with your dog. If you want your dog to sit when you ask him to, he has to be able to recognize his name. I meet a fair number of adult dogs who don't seem to recognize their names. I think that the problem with these dogs is that responding to their names doesn’t generally result in a positive consequence, and sometimes even ends in something negative like a bath or a scolding.

To find out if your dog understands his name, perform this little test. When your dog is relaxing and not paying attention to you, say his name in a happy voice. If he turns around to look at you, he has name recognition. If you have a new dog or if your current dog doesn't recognize his name, you can easily teach name recognition with the following exercise. For this exercise, all you will need is your dog and some tiny treats.

  1. Stand or sit directly in front of your dog.
  2. Say your dog’s name. Hand him a treat.
  3. Do this a couple of times a day, for one minute at each session.
  4. Within a couple of sessions, you should see that when you say your dog’s name, he turns toward you.
  5. When your dog will turn toward you reliably in the house when you say his name, you are ready to take it on the road. Practice this exercise in all kinds of different environments until your dog reliably turns back to you even when he has his back turned or he is a good distance away.

It took Pete less than a day to learn his new name. Since then we've been practicing very frequently. For example, we met the dog who lives behind our house through the fence yesterday. I took that opportunity to practice with Pete. As he was looking at the dog, I called his name. When he turned his head, I gave him a treat. Now I can get his attention when I need him to do something like come to me or sit.

Next, I taught him the value of a click. I am referring to a training tool called a clicker. While I don’t use clickers to teach every behavior, they are very useful for certain things. The clicker allows me to signal to Pete when he is correct even if he is far away from me, which will be helpful with name recognition and "come." It also will help me mark correct behaviors so that training will go more smoothly. You can find out more information on clicker training at clickertraining.com.

Before we could start clicker training Pete, he had to know what a click means. This is called "loading the clicker." For this exercise, you will need your dog, a clicker and treats.

  1. Sit or stand next to your dog. Your dog can be sitting or standing.
  2. Hold the clicker in one hand and a handful of treats in the other.
  3. Click the clicker and immediately hand a treat to your dog.
  4. Do this for 1-2 minutes a couple of times a day until he starts to look at your treat hand when you click. Now, you are ready to start clicker training!

Well, that is day one for Pete. Hopefully, our adventures with him will help some of you with your new puppies and dogs. More next week…

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Anke van Wyk / via Shutterstock