9 Common Dog Training Mistakes You Might Be Making –
When you start training a dog, whether it’s a tiny baby puppy, a rescue dog, or just an old dog you want to teach some new tricks, you’re embarking on a journey. Dog training is a deeply rewarding, but at times deeply frustrating endeavor and oftentimes, the trainer unwittingly adds to the frustration. Here are nine common dog training mistakes you might not even realize you’re making.
1. Being inconsistent.
This is the single most common and most devastating mistake you can make as a dog trainer. The best maxim I’ve ever heard when it comes to dog training is this:
There are no bad dogs—just inconsistent trainers.
Read that. Repeat it. Memorize it. Write it on post-it notes and plaster your training tools with it. The worst thing you can do for your dog’s training progress is to be less than 100 percent consistent in your training.
What does this mean on a practical level? If you’re training your dog not to beg for people food, but you occasionally feed him scraps, that’s inconsistent. If you’re training your dog not to play on leash, but you make exceptions for dogs you think seem cute, that’s inconsistent. If you’re training your dog not to jump on furniture, but you let him on the couch when you feel like cuddles, that’s inconsistent.
On an even more basic level, if you’re training your dog to sit on command, but you sometimes give up and attach his leash/feed him his dinner/do whatever you’ve been trying to get him to sit for without getting him to sit first, that’s inconsistent. Doggos are smart, but learning sweeping behavior changes takes a lot of work and if you’re not totally committed to following the rules 100 percent of the time, there’s no way they’re going to be.
2. Engaging in marathon training sessions.
You might think that the more you train, the faster your dog will get the trick or command or rule that you’re working on—not necessarily. When it comes to dog training, there is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.
In general, you want to train in several short, 10-15 sessions throughout the day, rather than in one marathon block of active training. This is especially true with puppies, who, just like human babies, don’t have much in the way of attention spans. Trying to train for longer will mentally exhaust your dog and lead to him doing worse, not better, on the task at hand.
This leads us to another very common training mistake…
3. Ending on a bad note.
When you’re training your dog, you never want to end a training session on a bad note. What does this mean? Say you’re working on sit. Your dog is NAILING sit. He’s a sit MACHINE. You say “sit” and his butt hits the ground. You mark the behavior and reward and repeat. But then, after a few dozen repetitions, your dog starts to zone out. He’s over it. He’s mentally wiped and getting distracted and he’s ready to move on from training for now. You ask for sit and he…doesn’t sit. In fact, he gets distracted by a squirrel he can see through the window and wanders off with that cute, dopey, “I’m a dog, derp” look on his face. You think, “Well, he did sit a bunch of times, that’s a good stopping point” and you call it a day on training.
Uh-oh. You’ve just ended on a bad note. If you’re training a behavior, you always, always want to end on a success. This especially comes into play when you start teaching duration- or distance-based commands, like stay (you’ll ideally want to vary the amount of time you’re asking for a stay during the training session and to end on a stay that’s toward the longer end of your dog’s current ability).
4. Repeating commands.
If at first you don’t succeed—keep your mouth shut and wait. That could be a decent mantra for dog training. When working on a new command, lots of dog trainers make this mistake: You ask your dog to perform a command (like sit, for example), and when the doggo doesn’t do the task right away, you repeat yourself, like maybe Fido just didn’t hear you the first time.
Here’s a secret: He heard. He’s either thinking (if the command is new and he’s working through what you want) or he’s testing boundaries (usually the case if it’s a command you know he knows and he’s being slow to comply). Here’s what your dog learns when you repeat a command: He learns that he doesn’t have to do what you say the first time you say it, because if you really want him to do it, you’ll ask again…and again.
Once you’ve given your dog a command (be that a verbal command or a hand signal), take a beat before you ask for the behavior again. If you’ve waited a while (10-20 seconds or so) and the dog still isn’t complying, you reset and ask again.
5. Using verbal commands before your dog has mastered the behavior.
The best way to train your dog isn’t by belligerently screaming single-syllable verbs at him. Contrary to what many frustrated new dog owners seem to believe (or desperately want to believe), dogs don’t just inherently know words like “sit” and “down” and saying them louder and more angrily won’t unlock some hidden, innate knowledge.
In fact, if you’re training a task or behavior, your best bet is not to attach a word to the command at all until the dog learns the task in question. Dogs have an easier time learning hand signals than words, so start there and then, when your dog is consistently nailing the behavior when cued with the handle signal, start adding the verbal command. Do both for a while and then, eventually, you should be able to transition to verbal cues only.
6. Not marking successes at the right moment:
When you’re training, you want to let your dog know when he does something right. Maybe you’re going all out with clicker training, maybe you’re going old school with happy-voice praise and treats. Whatever your style, you want to make sure that you’re marking the exact moment when your dog does what you wanted him to do. If you’re working on sit, this is the moment his tush hits the ground. If you’re working on stay, it’s the moment when he’s maintained the stay as long as you hoped. It you’re working on paw, it’s the moment his paw hits your hand for a shake.
You get the idea, right? Now, what does marking mean? Think of marking like taking a picture of the moment of success for your dog—you want to mark that little snapshot in time with a happy, “Yes!” or a click of your clicker. This lets you communicate to your dog exactly what he’s done that you liked so he’ll associate the coming treat with that moment and not with whatever he happens to be doing when you successfully fish a cookie out of your fanny pack.
If you don’t mark the moment of success, your dog will assume the treat (or other reward) you give him is in response to whatever he’s doing the exact second you give it to him (which is often not the behavior you’re training).
7. Advancing too quickly.
When you’re working on a new behavior or skill, you don’t want to move too quickly. If your dog is working on a new trick and you think he’s getting it, it’s easy to get super excited and super ahead of yourself—and of his abilities.
Take it slow when it comes to increasing the difficulty of tricks and commands. This is especially applicable with duration- and distance-based behaviors like stay. Just because your dog was able to do “stay” for 10 seconds with you standing a foot away doesn’t mean he’s ready for you to put him in a stay and leave the room for 10 minutes. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re excited about training. Trying to move too fast leads to ending on a bad note which leads to poor progress.
8. Using negative reinforcement.
It’s 2018, so most people know this one, but it’s worth repeating just in case: Don’t use negative reinforcement when you’re training your dog. Don’t yell at him or hit his snout or bury his nose in his own excrement and tell him he’s worthless. These things don’t help. They really, truly don’t. Unless you catch your dog in the exact moment of breaking a rule, he won’t associate your anger with what he did wrong, he’ll associate it with the lounging or tail-wagging or whatever he was doing the second you discovered the evidence of his broken rule.
And, if you’re in the middle of a dedicated training session and your dog refuses to do a command, yelling won’t help then, either. Screaming at your dog who doesn’t understand what you’re asking won’t make him understand any more than a calculus teacher screaming at a kid in math class will make them suddenly understand differentials. It will just confuse your dog and make them dread training like that hypothetical kid would forever dread math.
9. Reinforcing negative behaviors.
Finally, just as important as reinforcing positive, desired behaviors is making sure not to reinforce negative, undesired behaviors. This can play out in a couple of ways. First, if you’re actively trying to train a behavior, and you give up and do the task for the dog (like carrying an obstinate dog home when you’re trying to train him to walk on lead), you’ve just reinforced a negative behavior.
Then, there’s the issue of regular, run-of-the-mill annoying behaviors, like pawing, begging, whining, etc. If your dog is engaging in these behaviors and you respond by yelling or pushing him off of you, you’re actually kind of feeding the problem. For most dogs, even negative attention (short of abuse, of course) is better than no attention. If you yell at your dog when he paws at you, he learns that pawing gets you to react to him and focus on him, which is something he very much craves.
If you really want to train out a “bad” behavior, your best bet (as difficult as it might be) is to ignore your dog completely when he engages in that behavior. As long as it’s not dangerous or destructive, let your dog do his annoying thing and pretend he doesn’t exist until he stops. Then, when he stops being incredibly annoying, shower him with love and kisses so he learns that not being annoying as all get out is actually the better way to get human attention.