We all want the best for our dogs. But we also want them to be their best for us. This is usually where I come in as a trainer – my job is to help you and your dog communicate more clearly and live in harmony.
That said, there are several common mistakes that I see pet owners make on a regular basis that set both the person and dog up for frustration and can damage your relationship (and make my job harder). These are some of the most critical ones.
1. Not Being Consistent
This is a big one. If you are not consistent, your dog is not going to understand what you want. This means your rules cannot change day to day and everyone in the house needs to be on the same page – if one day you are allowing them on the couch and the next day you are punishing them for it, your dog is going to be confused and there is no way for them to succeed. If you are constantly changing the words or hand signals you use to ask for a behavior, your dog won’t know what you want. Remember, your dog doesn’t speak English, and training is simply our way of communicating to them what we want. If our communication isn’t clear and consistent, it’s not going to work.
2. Not Setting Your Dog Up for Success
Supervision and management. These are two terms I repeat over and over again. If you are leaving steak on the counter and not supervising your dog in the kitchen, they are going to eat the steak. If you are letting a dog who is not house trained have complete freedom in the house when you can’t watch them, they are going to pee on the floor. Until your dog has learned what you want, you need to help them be successful, instead of setting them up to practice behaviors you don’t want. You want your dog to do the right behaviors so you have the opportunity to let them know you like those behaviors, instead of confusing them by getting upset when they do things that are totally natural to them and they have had the opportunity to do before.
3. Having Unrealistic Expectations
Your dog is not a person. Your dog is not going to be Lassie – Lassie is a TV character. Even the most well-trained dogs make mistakes or have off days. I frequently hear things like, “This dog is so much worse than my last dog/my neighbor’s dog!” Don’t compare your dogs to other dogs, even your own. Frequently this happens when a family has a new puppy or adolescent and is comparing them to the memory of a previous dog who was older or who had a lot more training and maturity during the good times they’re remembering. Appreciate your dog for their unique quirks and personality and adjust the way you approach and interact with them based on what they actually need, not on what you think they should be.
4. Looking for “Quick Fixes”
But really – there are NO QUICK FIXES in dog training. This is where many people go wrong. Training takes time and patience. Anything that is advertised as a quick fix is likely to be a scam or something that looks good immediately but has consequences long-term. Many harsh punishment methods are like this – they look like they work immediately, because they shut down the behavior in the moment, but they do more harm than good in the long run and can create anxious or even aggressive dogs. What you often see with these methods is what is called “learned helplessness” – the dog learns to just give up at the first sign of trouble. This may look like compliance to the untrained eye, but really what you have is a dog that lives a life of fear and stress and will shut down rather than offer any kind of useful or good behavior. This would be comparable in teaching a human to screaming profanities and insults at someone who is learning math every time they get a problem wrong, instead of teaching them how to do it correctly. They will learn what they shouldn’t do, but they won’t learn what they should do, and they probably aren’t going to like math very much. Have patience and put in the work, and not only will your training benefit, you’ll have a better relationship with your dog and they will want to work with you instead of constantly being afraid of making a mistake.
5. Not Communicating With Your Trainer
This is a huge one. If you are working with a trainer, let them know when things aren’t working or if changes happen! I can’t tell you how often people wait too long to tell me this and it makes it so much harder for them to be successful and for me to help their dog (also, it will cost you more in the long run if you have to keep buying lessons). Most trainers have pretty specific methods and training plans (because most of the time, they work), but every dog is different, and sometimes adjustments need to be made for a dog to learn. Don’t decide that a certain way of training doesn’t work for you because you tried it for a few days and nothing happened. It’s possible that your plan just needs a slight adjustment, or you misunderstood some of the instructions, or your mechanics are a little off. If you let your trainer know, they can help you figure out the root of the issue and set you down the right path. If you just give up or assume it’s the trainer or dog’s fault, you’ll never make any progress. That said, if you are really uncomfortable with something a trainer ask you to do, that is also a time to let them know that you don’t want to use that method and see if they are willing to have a discussion and either adjust or adequately explain why they won’t. If you can’t come to an agreement, it may be time to find a new trainer. Never do something with your dog that you aren’t comfortable doing.
These are just a few of the common mistakes that I see. Most of the time, just a little bit of work and communication can get these issues back on track. While I generally like to focus on the positive, it’s good to recognize the issues we may be having to help our training stay on track and to help everyone be successful and happy.
Many people don’t really know what positive reinforcement training actually looks like. They have an image of someone dangling a treat to get a dog to sit, or a soft-hearted person giving their dog goodies for looking cute. While these scenarios can certainly happen, they are not what positive reinforcement actually means.
What is positive reinforcement, really? When you break it down in scientific terms, “positive” means adding something and “reinforcement” means the behavior is increasing. So it means, simply, that you add something to the situation that makes the behavior happen more often.
Positive reinforcement is NOT bribery. When done correctly, your treat (or any other reinforcer) should be like a paycheck for a job well done.
There are a few training techniques that utilize positive reinforcement effectively for teaching pretty much any behavior. You can use one of these or a combination of any of them during a training session – some dogs or some behaviors may respond better to one than another, so it’s good to have all of them as part of your toolkit.
Luring – This is a pretty straightforward and quick way of teaching behavior. Luring basically means your dog is following something – a treat, your hand, a toy – until they do the behavior you want. This is most commonly used with behaviors like “sit” – for example, you hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and slowly pull it back over their head so their nose follows the smell of the treat up and they lean back into a sit. When they are in the sit, they get the treat. Luring can be very effective in teaching new behavior, but it does hold the danger of teaching the dog to wait to see the treat. To avoid this, you need to fade out the visible reward as early in the process as possible.
Capturing/Catching – Capturing or catching a behavior means you wait for a behavior to happen on it’s own and then mark and reward it. (When I say “mark,” I mean a reward marker such as a clicker or “yes” that tells the dog they did the right thing and reinforcement is coming.) If you were using this method to teach sit, you would wait until the dog offered a sit on their own, then mark and reward. This can be very effective, but it does take patience and it can take several repetitions in some cases for the dog to figure out why they are being rewarded.
Shaping – Shaping means rewarding any movement toward the final behavior. Think of it like the “hot and cold” game. If the dog is getting “warmer,” they get marked and rewarded. If they are getting “colder,” nothing happens. This can be a really fun process for the trainer and dog, and is fantastic for teaching more complex behaviors in particular. It does require a bit more attention, practice and skill to do properly. But one of the benefits of using positive reinforcement is even when your timing isn’t perfect, the worst thing you’re doing is accidentally teaching them the wrong behavior – usually pretty easy to fix. This method can also take a bit more patience but is great for building confidence and teaching your dog to offer behaviors. For dogs who have been punished for offering behavior in the past in particular, this method can sometimes be tough at first as they are often worried about trying anything new. If you were using this to teach the sit in the other examples, you would mark and reward any physical movement that looks like they are leaning back first, then wait until they leaned back further to mark, and eventually wait until their rear end was touching the ground. Once they are doing well at one level, you look for a higher set of criteria (closer to the completed behavior) before rewarding again.
Targeting – Targeting means that your dog has learned to touch a target generally with their nose, and you can use this to direct them into the behavior you want. You first teach the dog to touch the target with their nose (generally a “target stick”, a rod with a ball or square target on the end, or sometimes the palm of your hand), and then use that behavior to direct them into what you want. If you wanted to use this for sit, you might hold the target a little over their head so they reach their nose up to touch it, just far enough back to get their body leaning back into a sit. This method tends to be most helpful for behaviors that involve the dog moving to a certain spot or position – for example, “place” or going into a “heel” position.
There are a lot of great options for training with positive reinforcement. The methods listed above can be used for a huge variety of behaviors – any trainer or dog owner can benefit from trying them all and knowing how they work. Pick a behavior and try a few of them out to see which method seems to be the most effective for you and your dog!
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.