Training your Mastiff
– simple obedience training –
This page discusses several things to consider when it comes to training your Mastiff. You are given explanations about what obedience training and training in general really is all about. After the theoretical subjects, some commands and exercises are explained in detail. You can try these out, and with some patience you should be able to teach your Mastiff all of them!
Mastiffs aren’t well known for their good results in obedience classes. Neither are agility or tracking typical areas for the breed. It is important for the owner of the dog to be aware of these facts. You normally don’t expect the same results from a mastiff as you do from a Border Collie. This is not because the mastiff is stupid or less intelligent than other breeds. It’s more a matter of different personalities. The most common “problem” is to make the Mastiff do things fast enough, not because he’s unable to move fast, but because he’s so relaxed! “Mastiff tempo” is a common word among Mastiff owners. There are, however, examples on that Mastiffs have been excellent obedience dogs. A project by professor Stanley Coren about dogs’ intelligence, states that the mastiff is not among the most clever breeds at all, but science and the real life can sometimes appear as two different things. The analysis talks about three different dimensions of intelligence, and is actually quite interesting. Whether we should put a lot of trust in this analysis or not, is a good question, but you can read more about it by visiting this address: http://www.petrix.com/dogint/
It’s important to remember that the kind of intelligence we’re talking about is not necessarily the qualities we’d like to find in our dog. Some of the high-ranked breeds also have a rather “strong will” of their own, which makes them harder to work with. The mastiff has qualities that many people miss in their dog. He is very patient, calm and actually quite affectionate. If you’re looking for a dog that can be an obedience champion, you might consider a different breed than the mastiff, but if you’re basically looking for a good friend and a family dog which also can watch over your house, car and children, you’ve found the perfect dog! And of course – you can teach the mastiff lots and lots of things, yes, even all the things that any other dog can do. He is in my opinion a very intelligent dog in his own special way, and can learn commands and tricks that will make you feel proud about him! I have taught my mastiff the basic commands and tricks that “normal” dogs do without any kind of difficulties. My experience is that my mastiff was easier to work with than i.e. my previous Doberman bitch. It is interesting to see that the Doberman conquered fifth place on the intelligence-list. Regular everyday skills and house rules are under normal circumstances rather easy to teach the mastiff. He has a natural wish to please his owner, and tries as good as he can to meet his demands. If you help him understand, I can see no reason why the two of you shouldn’t succeed. This natural will to serve man, is a very important quality to posses in all kinds of learning.
An obvious reason to train your dog is that you want him to behave in a special manner. Just as important is that you want to teach him how he should NOT behave. These are two kinds of training every dog owner should take seriously. If you do not have a certain form of control over your mastiff’s behavior, both you and the dog will feel bad. You can’t blame the dog for breaking a rule he’s never heard of. If he eats up your Christmas tree, you will probably be quite mad and start yelling at him. He will understand that you’re angry at him, but probably not why! If you teach the dog what the words “Do not touch” mean, you can tell him that the Christmas tree is a “Do not touch”-thing before he eats it instead of afterwards. Quite clever, ehh?
But – we shouldn’t train our dog just for our own benefits. Any dog, and especially the mastiff, loves to have a task or a mission to accomplish. He likes to feel that he’s doing something useful, and that we appreciate what he’s doing. Does this sound familiar? When you’re at work or at school, you really like it when people tell you how clever you are. Besides you like the feeling you get when you accomplish something you’ve tried real hard to work out. The mastiff isn’t that different from us at this point! Through meaningful training you can give your dog the feeling of being important, clever and appreciated in the family. This is very good for the dog’s self esteem. If your mastiff feels this way, it is also more likely that he will be able to learn new and more advanced tricks and commands. He will also be more mentally stabile. Just like you want him to be.
Another type of training is what we call “problem-solving”. This is activities you do with the dog, where he must use his brain and choose between different possible solutions. “How can I solve this problem?” You can for instance let him find a hidden object, move one thing to get to another, or open a box with a tidbit in it. Find entertaining problem-solvers for yourself. This is really fun and healthy for your mastiff! He doesn’t just need physical exercise. He also needs to mentally activated. A dog is a fairly intelligent creature with a brain capacity we should respect and work with.
The last reason for training your mastiff is the one we often seem to forget: Training is simply lots and lots of fun! It’s great for both you and the dog! A mastiff enjoying himself while training with his master, can achieve incredible things for a dog his size. Don’t be to serious or “professional” while training. This is actually meant to be fun! Laugh and show a happy body language while learning him commands. Make sure he connects the training with something he likes to do. People who are still trying to force their dogs to obey using physical power, just haven’t got the point! This is very basic in all forms of learning psychology. You can make your mastiff obey you because he doesn’t dare not to. No problem. But then again, how much more great does it make you and your dog feel if he obeys you simply because he wants to? When you say “Down”, he lays down because he thinks of you as a trusted friend, a friend and leader that he likes to please! This is worth thinking about before you start training your mastiff. Remember that no matter what happens, it is NEVER necessary to use physical power, to beat or to yell at your dog. Even if you’ve found excuses for this kind of behavior by talking about the “method of the wolves”, it is not to late to try it the gentle way. You should be firm, but not violent or aggressive towards the mastiff. The question comes down to this: What do you want to be the foundation of your mastiffs obedience? Fear or trust? Let’s hope you choose “trust”, for the dog’s sake.
Like with everything else in life, it is important to set goals for the training of your mastiff. What do you want the dog to do or not to do? It’s a good thing to write down your goals and hang them on the wall somewhere you can watch them daily. This will help you fulfill your goals, and to check whether you and your dog achieve what you’re working towards. Remember to part a goal into several part-goals. If you want to teach the mastiff to get the mail (yes, he can do it!), you must part this project into several different exercises. It’ s not enough to make the dog run and meet the mailman. He should also grab the mail, and bring it to you. He must not drop it on his way, neither must he stop to do other things. In this example you might practice the dog to do these different things separately, but in the end you must put the different skills together to one common task: Getting the mail from the mailman as you say “Get the mail, Fido!”. It can also be a good help for the dog if you use a certain move with your hand or body that he can relate to the event. Setting goals makes the learning process more easy to follow up. It also gives you a good feeling as you make a note and a date on your list of goals that says “WE MADE IT!”. Tell it to yourself, your clever mastiff and everybody else that might care to listen!
Basically we talk about two kinds of rewards you can give your dog when trying to teach him something. The first and most important one is that we clearly make the dog understand that we appreciated what he just did. The dog loves to succeed, and the feeling he gets when the owner is pleased with him. This is the best motivation a dog can have. Because of this, you shouldn’t tell your mastiff how great and clever he is all the time. He doesn’t need to hear how well he’s doing for every move he makes. Save these comments until the dog does something as a result of a command you’re giving. When he’s learned what the word “Sit” means, and he sits down when you tell him to, you should reward him verbally. Don’t tell him he’s a good boy simply because he sits down beside you while you’re reading the newspaper. If you use verbal rewarding too much and in the wrong situations, the effect of this kind of reward will not be half as good as it could be when you’re trying to learn the dog something new.
Another way of rewarding the dog is using food. Let’s just call this kind of food for tidbits. This can be effective, but some obedience trainers strongly disagrees in “food training”. Some even say there is absolutely no reliabilty in it. If you have something the dog find very tasty, he will, however, do all he can to get the tidbit. Make sure that your dog doesn’t get to excited about the food, though. He’s supposed to concentrate on the training, not the reward in your hand! Always remember that you should give a verbal reward first, and then the food-reward. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re rewarding him for eating the tidbit! Don’t give your mastiff a reason to expect a tidbit every time he does an exercise right. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn’t. Nevertheless he should always get the verbal reward when doing something right.
No matter what kind of reward you’re using, the most important thing to remember is that the dog should obey your command even if he suspects you don’t have any tidbit! You don’t carry food in your pockets, so what are you supposed to do if you all of a sudden need to make a dog stay or come to you? If the obedience depends on your supply of tidbits, you can have an unpleasant problem to deal with! Start the training from the beginning if this is the case!
The opposite of reward is punishment. A golden rule says that you shall never use any kind of physical punishment while training. Beating or yelling is totally anti-learning, and is for those who don’t know any better or that simply like to dominate other beings. A teacher that teaches his pupils with a whip in his hand, will never get as clever children as the teacher that makes the classes interesting, fun and challenging. Humans and dogs feel the same way. The best way to show your dog that you are dissatisfied with his behavior, is to tell him so with a firm “No!”, lead him back to his position, and give him no verbal comments beyond this. The mastiff wants your attention in a positive way. If he doesn’t get that, he understands perfectly well that he didn’t do what you expected him to. When he finally makes it, and receives lots of praise (and some tidbits?), he definitely will try to make you happy again the next time he gets the chance. Yelling and beating is never the proper solution no matter what kind of teaching you’re dealing with. Reward or no reward is the only learning psychology you need with a normal mastiff.
Let’s start with a couple of tricks that are fun to make your dog perform in front of your friends!
How can you make your mastiff wave with one of his front legs when you ask him to? This is a nice trick that will charm most people. The basic idea is to make him lift up his leg, just like he does when he’s begging. This is a natural behavior for any dog, and is easy enough to teach him. If you you’re not sure about this basic move (begging), you’ll find more about this further down the page. It’s a little bit trickier to make him do this while you’re let’s say 10 feet away from him! He also should repeat the move several times, not just once. The further away you are from the dog, the more it looks like he’s really waving at you. You can teach your mastiff this trick by following this step by step procedure (and – remember the reward-stuff we talked about earlier!):
- Make the dog sit. Stand in front of him and make him “beg” with a leg.
- Take one step backwards, and make him beg again, using your usual command for this (“Beg!”).
- Tell him to stay, and move 3-4 feet backwards. Say “Beg!” and “Wave!” followed by one another.
- Repeat this until the dog lifts his leg while you’re at this distance without you helping him lift it up.
- Say less and less “Beg!”, and more and more “Wave!” until he knows what beg means.
- When he understand that “Wave!” means almost the same as “Beg!”, you can go on.
- Increase the distance to the dog gradually. If he gets up, say “No!” and lead him back in position.
Follow these steps patiently, and don’t spend more than 2-3 minutes at a time with this exercise. Fun things tends to be less fun if you do them over and over and over again. Remember to give verbal rewards when the dog makes a progress, and do not give any type of feedback except a firm “No!” when he does an obvious mistake. You’re on your way to get a waving mastiff!
B. Roll over
This is also a charming exercise. I have taught three dogs of different breeds this trick, but my mastiff has made the most convincing roll! The exercise depends on that the dog knows what “Down!” means. Take a look further down if he doesn’t. Be aware of that some dogs can feel very uncomfortable being forced roll over. Begin carefully, and don’t force him! Remember this is meant to be fun for the mastiff, too!
- Make the mastiff lie down. Hold a tidbit in your hand.
- The first times you need to help him roll. Say “Roll over!” repeatedly while rolling.
- When he’s made the roll, reward him. First verbally, then with the tidbit.
- Try again several times. Each time try to make the dog overtake more and more of the move.
- When he starts to get the point, you can use one hand to help, the other to make a rolling movement.
- (PS! Dogs understand “double-commands” (words + body language) better than single-commands.
- After a while, don’t repeat “Roll over!” as many times as before. Let the dog think before repeating it.
- If he still doesn’t get the point, you can use one hand to help him roll again, as a reminder.
- If he really doesn’t get the point at this stage, you have to start from the beginning again, or wait a few hours.
- It’s important that the dog doesn’t get up. Say “No!”, and command him to lie down again.
Don’t work on this exercise for more than 2-3 minutes at a time. Give rewards at any sign of progress. The dog’s motivation is of course dependent on your ability to make this a fun event for your mastiff. If you’re in a good mood, and the dog notices, he will be more interested and motivated. If he still seems to be engaged after 2-3 minutes there’s no need to stop. When he learns the basic idea in rolling over, all you have to do is to make some adjustments. Don’t be totally satisfied until the trick can be exercised while you’re standing in front of your mastiff, commanding him to lay down, and then to roll over. A even more great variant of this trick, is to teach the dog to roll over from standing position. He then has to understand that he first has to lay down, and then roll over as a result of the one command “Roll over!”. Soon people can watch the rolling giant, and have a good laugh!
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Now for some more basic, but utterly useful exercises.. Many other familiar exercises are simply more advanced versions of, or simply combinations of these. You will need your dog to understand these commands in an every day situation. Remember that it’s not very clever to teach a child to ride a bike before it can walk. The mastiff also needs to have some basic skills before he can move on to more advanced stuff.
You teach your dog to respond to the “Sit!”-command by saying the word, and at the same time pushing down the dog’s rump. If the mastiff is too strong (which he is if he simply doesn’t want to sit!), you can use one arm to force him bend his knees (put your arm behind his knees), and push down the rump with the other.When he’s almost sitting, start rewarding him verbally, so that he understands that it’s the moment he sits down that is the correct reaction, not the fact that he is sitting! Then give him a tidbit. Repeat until the dog sits without your physical help. Tidbits are very helpful here!
Use the same principles as with “Sit!”. Use both your hands, and drag the dog’s forelegs forwards and down. This way he has to lay down. Say “Down!” repeatedly while doing this. It can be a good help to start this exercise from a sitting position. That’s both easier and more comfortable for a dog the size of a mastiff. When he’s down you need to reward him. Don’t let him get up until you say he can. Repeat the exercise, and use less and less physical help. You can also use a certain move with your hand, that indicates that the dog should lay down. Finally you should be able to make him obey after only one command. Don’t let him get used to that he might wait until you’ve given the command three or four times. This indicates that he knows the first few times aren’t so important, but if you keep on saying it, well alright, then he knows he has to obey after all…
When the dog knows the commands “Sit!” and “Down!” you can start teaching him the very useful “Stay!”. Start with telling your dog to sit. When he does, say “Stay!”, and take a couple of steps away from him, while holding an open hand towards him. If he gets up, say “No!”, and lead him back in position. Repeat “Stay!”, and repeat your move. Stand still a few seconds and go back to the dog. Do not give any kind of reward until you’re back by his side. Increase the distance between you and your mastiff to develop the usefulness of the exercise. Increase the time it takes until you walk back to him.
“Stay!” is very important to know in everyday life. It can actually save your dog’s life! You must be able to stop him from running out on a road, and to stop him in strange situations where you meet other people or animals. The dog is supposed to stand still and wait until you arrive and release him from the command. Don’t make yourself regret that you never took the time to teach your mastiff the “Stay!”-command!
You can combine this exercise with the “Stay!”-command. As the dog is commanded to stay, and you’re at a certain distance from him, you command “Come!”, firmly but with a positive accent in your voice. If he doesn’t understand what you’re getting at, and remains in the stay position, just repeat “Come!” a couple of times while making a movement that makes the dog want to come to you. Tell him in a very convincing way how clever he has been when he does what you want, and repeat the exercise a couple of times. After a few days you can develop this principle. To start with you might find out that your Mastiff needs stronger stimula than just words and body language! You could use a tidbit to tempt him, but not every time. Sometimes he gets the food, sometimes he doesn’t. The more he understands of what you want from him, the less tidbits are necessary. You don’t want to carry food in your pockets for the rest of your life to be able to make your Mastiff come to you. Use food just in the starting phase, and stop using it gradually until it’s not needed anymore.
Make your dog obey you when he’s busy thinking of other things as well! “Come!” is not as easy as the sit / come procedure, but is nevertheless very important. Train with your mastiff under many different circumstances: In a city environment, together with other people and dogs, and when it’s just the two of you. You will need the “Come!”-command just about every day during the dog’s life! Your patience in the learning process will bear fruits!
If a mastiff pulls the leash while you walk him, you probably won’t be able to relax very much. He is so strong that anyone would consider this as a problem. Therefore you have to teach him to walk on your left side, head even with your knee. Start teaching him this while he still is a puppy. If he outwalks you or pulls the leash, simply say “No!”, and stop. Say “Heel!” and wait. Don’t give up until he’s back in position. Start walking again, pull back with a sharp jerk if he lunges ahead while saying “No!”, stop walking and command “Heel!”. In five minutes you probably won’t get very fare, but this is the way to prevent a really tremendous future problem from occurring. You simply HAVE TO teach your mastiff to heel.
This is a fun agility-like exercise. Teaching the mastiff to jump over an obstacle can be both fun and useful. A heavy breed like this isn’t very fond of jumping, but he is fully capable of learning to do it on command. The secret is to start with real low obstacles. A few inches will be enough the first times. As long as the dog is aware of that he’s supposed to jump (walk?) over whatever you put in front of him, you’re on the right track. If you reward him for doing so, he’ll find it worthwhile. Place the mastiff in front of the obstacle and command “Jump!”. Help him moving in the right direction by dragging in the collar. Let him get plenty of verbal rewards! This is fun, remember? Repeat until he jumps/walks over by himself when you command him to do so. Gradually increase the height of the obstacle.
It’s important to be aware of the physical weaknesses of the mastiff breed when it comes to this kind of training. Do not teach a young mastiff to jump over high obstacles. It is crucial that his muscles are warmed up, and that he is in normal good physical shape, even if he is fully grown. This is the heaviest breed in the world, a fact that might lead to certain health-problems if the owner doesn’t bother to take it seriously.
I. Shake hands
Teaching the dog to shake your hand is not especially useful, but is still a charming thing to do. Dogs do this movement naturally to beg for things, and this makes it quite easy for us to teach him doing it on command. Have a tidbit in your hand. Tell your mastiff to sit. Say “Shake hands!”, and wait. Grab one of his forelegs, and repeat “Shake hands!” while lifting the leg up and down. Reward him. Don’t let the dog get up. Say “No!”, “Sit!” and then “Shake hands!” again. If there is no reaction, help him lift the foreleg again, and repeat until he does it by himself.
This is not meant to be a full fledged obedience program. Nevertheless it should give both the beginner and the more experienced some thoughts about what training a mastiff is all about. If you’re planning on doing some more advanced obedience-stuff with your mastiff, I suggest you take contact with the local dog club about obedience classes, agility and tracking. All these three activities are recommended for the mastiff, but the agility part will never be more than just for fun. Don’t plan on becoming the local obedience-master either. The social life and the activities in them selves should be enough motivation to join the club. If you’re looking for a dog club or an obedience class in the US, the American Kennel Club might be able to tell you who to contact. You can reach them at www.akc.org The Norwegian Kennel Club can help you if you’re living in Scandinavia ( www.nkk.no ). Most countries have a national dog or kennel club that keeps track of different dog activities. Contact the club in your country to get the information you’re looking for.
Good luck with your Mastiff!