Even those who know about dog training and are perfectly happy with the status of dog training are likely to become better trainers if they learn to avoid these common mistakes.
If someone asks me: “What do you do for a living?” My answer – “I’m a dog trainer” – often follows: “Oh, me too! I mean only with my own dogs, but I love it! “Perhaps because dogs are so familiar to us, it’s easy to assume we know how to train them effectively. Sometimes what we think we know is what won’t trip us up. Here are some of the most common problems I face watched over the years.
1. Make workouts too long.
Several short workouts are better than one long, but many inexperienced trainers don’t understand that when trainers say “short sessions” we mean 30 to 90 seconds, not 20 minutes or more. This surprises many people, perhaps because weekly training sessions often last 45 to 60 minutes. This standard reflects logistics and comfort. Nobody could (or would) come to a training center several times a day, so we meet in longer group classes. Perhaps the term “micro-sessions” is more appropriate than “short sessions”.
2. Delivering treats too slowly.
You ask your dog to lie down and she does, but if you do her good, she will jump towards your face. What do you think she deserves? Jump up to you. If you call your dog to come and he walks right over to you and sits down, she might think that sitting in front of you is the behavior you are so excited about. Sitting is beautiful behavior, but when you’re working on her calling back you want to make sure she understands that coming when someone calls you is the behavior you want.
There are two ways to solve these types of problems and both involve timing. Focus on delivering the treat immediately after the behavior you like (lying down, coming over to you) and before your dog has time to display another behavior (jumping up, sitting in front of you). Or use a marker like a clicker or the word “yes” right at the moment your dog is doing what you want. Both will tell her what she did to earn this reward.
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3. Treatment misplacement.
For example, if you’re working on the heel, it’s better to deliver treats by hand that is on the same side as your dog so he doesn’t have to cross (and get out of position) in front of you to get them. Additionally, in learning proper stationing behavior, it is common for dogs to be a little intrusive in their enthusiasm for reaching the treats or even the treat bag. When aiming something under or behind the mouth, encourage your dog to back up and learn that this is the place where good things are delivered. Follow the general rule of dropping the treat where you want your dog to be.
4. Punishing the desired behavior.
When I say that punishing behavior we like is a common mistake, I’m not talking about those who unfortunately still use corporal punishment to train dogs. But well-intentioned trainers who use positive reinforcement and have no intention of punishing a dog also commit this faux pas. Any time the consequence of a behavior is something a dog doesn’t like, the behavior is less likely to recur. Technically, this is referred to as “positive punishment” as distinct from “negative punishment” or the removal of something good as a result of behavior. Both types of punishment reduce the frequency of behavior they follow.
Here’s a common scenario: people often call their dogs to come and then expose them to something they don’t like, like nail cuts or baths. Another pats a dog on the head after responding to a cue. Most dogs don’t want to be patted on the head. Aside from the less likely that the dog will exhibit good behavior in the future (such as being called), you can actually poison the keyword. This means that you teach the dog to associate a keyword (“come”) with something unpleasant. This is also common with the keyword “drop it”, which many dogs have learned to associate with the fact that things are taken away from them. Always make sure that the consequence of behavior that you want to see over and over again is something the dog enjoys.
5. Reinforcement of undesirable behavior.
It’s all too easy to make a dog’s unhappy behavior work for him. An example of this is allowing a dog to pull on the leash. The behavior is reinforced because it gets her what she wants – go in the direction she wants, walk faster, or catch up with that cat. Or, amplify the barking by paying attention to the dog in response. Similarly, a dog is more likely to laugh, pet, or talk sweetly when it jumps up. Don’t let the behavior you don’t want work for your dog or he will keep doing it.
6. Not teaching a dog to generalize.
Asking about behavior that is too difficult for a dog at any given moment is a very common training mistake: “I don’t know why she doesn’t. I know she knows! “The behavior in question is almost always taught to a large number of dogs, such as sitting, sitting, staying or coming.
The thing is, while many dogs are taught to do these behaviors, they are not always taught to do them in a completely flowing, generalized manner. This means that although a dog may respond to a cue in a familiar setting, it may not be able to do the same in other places or situations. A dog who can lie down at home may not be able to do so when out for a walk or when visitors come by. She can come if someone calls her in the backyard, but not in the dog park.
This is perfectly normal and to be expected, but not everyone knows it. Therefore, they ask for behavior in a new context without understanding that dogs need to learn to generalize their skills to new situations and greater levels of distraction.
Much of the training is not about teaching a dog to perform on cue behavior, but rather teaching a dog to perform that behavior on cue, regardless of where it is or what is going on around it. It is important that you adjust your expectations for the situation and level of distraction when teaching your dog to generalize what he knows.
7. Use only treats as reinforcement.
Treats are wonderful for training because they are so reinforcing for most dogs. I use goodies a lot and think being generous with them is an important part of productive and happy workouts. However, using other types of reinforcement can be a very powerful addition to training. Physical contact the dog enjoys, new toys, a play session, or going outside can increase your dog’s willingness to work and help you teach him better. Yes, treats are a great reinforcement and are by far the most commonly used by almost all trainers. However, using treats limits the potential effectiveness and fun of the workout.
8. Be inconsistent with notices.
The training always benefits from clear communication. In training dogs, we face a challenge that is very obvious but often overlooked: communication between different species. This is difficult and the potential for confusion is pervasive. Just agreeing with clues goes a long way toward alleviating problems that arise from misunderstandings.
If your catchphrase for a callback is “Come”, use that exact word every time. Don’t change it by saying “c’mere” or “c’mon”. If your cue to stay is to hold your hand up with your fingers splayed and your palm open, it is not fair to expect her to know you mean this when you cue while holding your car keys. This is confusing to dogs, but people do it all the time, causing frustration for both the person and the dog.
9. Bribery instead of reinforcement.
Reinforcement is a desirable consequence of behavior that increases the likelihood that that behavior will occur in the future. It is an essential part of dog training. Bribery, on the other hand, is a promise of good when behavior is carried out. Dangling a treat to get a dog to do what you want is a bribe and often results in a dog doing only what is asked if he’s shown the merchandise in advance.
A particularly problematic, but common mistake, is asking a dog to do something, like For example, high five and then, if he doesn’t, pull out a treat and high five again. If the dog answers, he gets the reward. This practice results in a dog who will only offer the behavior when they see the reward. The difference between reinforcement and bribery is enormous, and only the former results in a well-trained dog.
These common training mistakes can make training more difficult for you and your dog. The good news, however, is that changing just a few details can make a huge difference in your dog’s behavior and the joy you share while exercising. The result is that the relationship between the two of you will get even better and that is the best possible outcome of a great workout.