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.
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.