10 common mistakes to avoid making when training your dog.

If you want to have a dog that listens to you then there's a few things you might need to change first before we can expect them to make a change.


After years of helping people learn how to better work with their dogs there are always a few things novice owners get wrong which inhibits the dog's ability to learn and therefore not do what we want them to do. Here's a list of the 10 most common problems we see.


1 Focusing too much on what we are saying, and not enough on what we are doing.

Dogs are much more likely to pick up on body language as opposed to anything verbal initially. If you look really closely when people ask their dog to sit, they typically tip their head up a little and I'd wager that that's what the dog is actually picking up on because for a lot of people, as soon as the dog can no longer see you, the sit becomes an impossible task. So if dogs learn better visually, try inhibiting the verbal diarrhoea. A good game to play is the 'you can only say YES' game. Basically teach the dog whatever it is you want to teach them but all you can say is YES once they get it right. Instead of saying sit, lure them with a piece of kibble. If you want to add a verbal cue to the behaviour eventually all you have to do is make sure that word/sound proceeds the body movement which the dog is learning. Eventually the dog will learn that the verbal cue predicts the visual cue and voila, they understand (sort of) the meaning of the word.

2 Expecting too much too soon.

If your dog can sit in front of the food bowl at dinner time, that doesn't necessarily mean they can then sit whilst waiting to greet a dog or a person. Dogs don't generalise very well. This is why we focus a lot on 'generalisation' as trainers. This means that once you get a behaviour you like, you then need to keep teaching it in new environments. And you can't expect things to happen over night. The classic example is the recall. 'My dog's got a great recall EXCEPT when x, y or z is happening.' That's not a very good recall then. If your dog can come back to you in the garden, that's great. Just don't expect them to want to do that at the dog park. This takes a lot more time and a lot more finesse to get right. It's only a lost cause when you decide to give up. The reason for most training failures IMO, is simply not giving things enough time. It's the same with people and dieting. If we don't see a difference in a week we think it's the diet that's the issue, not us. Keep going!

3 Trying to resolve a problem behaviour when the problem behaviour is happening.

If you continually fail an exam, you can't keep retaking it without revising and expect to pass it. The learning happens outside of the exam-room. Similarly, if you are trying to stop your dog from barking and pulling towards dogs, you aren't training when the behaviour is happening, you are in damage control mode. There are lots of things we need to teach our dogs before they can pass this exam. For example, if you practice a thousand emergency turns the dog will likely learn that when you say 'let's go' this means you both will be doing a quick U-turn away. If you've taught this without the trigger present they can actually learn a learn a new skill. If you keep yelling 'let's go' while they are ignoring you and focusing on the trigger, they won't be learning anything. So initially teach the skills they will need to succeed away from anything that is distracting them. This will make it much more likely that they will eventually be able to do this in the presence of a trigger as well.

4 We need to reinforce not just reward or bribe.

Giving a dog a treat is great. But if you are trying to train them by giving them a treat it has to be more than just a reward to them for training to be effective. "I've tried positive reinforcement but it didn't work" is not true. By definition positive reinforcement has to work for it to be positive reinforcement. If it's not working then you are likely either just rewarding your dog or even worse, bribing them so as soon as that bribe is out of site so to is the behaviour you want! Let's clarify the difference first with rewards and bribes. Simply put a bribe comes first. A reward comes second. For example, I'll give you this bit of cheese if you do x or y vs great job, here's a cookie. You don't want your dog weighing up whether it's worth complying based on the thing you are offering them. What is the difference between a reward and a reinforcer? A reward is just something your dog likes. A reinforcer is something that makes the dog do things again and again. If I cleaned a toilet and got paid 5 dollars for doing so, that's not enough for me to do it again, though it is still a reward. If you paid me a million dollars I will definitely do it again. Reinforcers for our dogs can be anything. Access to things, toys, food, play etc. Your dog will let you know what is reinforcing and what isn't. Get creative. Don't just rely on 'treats'.

5 - We are boring in exciting places.

I remember the very first puppy class I ran I had 2 very energetic and excitable kids in the class. They moved a lot and made a lot of noise. All the puppies wanted to get to them. They were even more fun than the other puppies. However, when it came to the recall these kids suddenly went from being the most fun thing for a puppy to play with to one of the most unappealing things. 'Puppy, come' was nowhere near as fun as chasing the screams kids. You don't have to run about like screaming kids to keep your dog's attention, but it will help if you can put your phone away and have meaningful interactions with your dog when out and about. If they don't get the fun from you, they'll just have to go elsewhere to find it.

6 - Using force too often when out and about.

If we want our dogs to be off leash, we want to control their movement as little as possible with the leash when they are on it. Think of the leash as a management tool, not necessarily a training tool. All too often we see dogs being dragged by the leash or being forced to sit by pushing their butt down. This is really bad training for starters and it doesn't really teach them anything and will likely cause a lot of frustration. At times you will need to use the leash to prevent them from getting hurt or taking them away from bad situations but this is more of a last resort. If you can, keep the leash loose and instead of forcing them to do something or move somewhere teach them to follow a hard target (how to videos here: https://www.thinkdog.nz/post/teaching-your-dog-to-nose-target, https://www.thinkdog.nz/post/how-to-teach-your-dog-to-follow-a-moving-target ) or to respond to a certain cue. If you're finding yourself using the leash a lot to get them where you want them, you might need to go back to the very basics and teach them what to do without using a leash. You'll need to do this at home or in an enclosed environment. This video should help: https://www.thinkdog.nz/post/loose-leash-walking-1


7 - The dog isn't allowed to process and think

SIT, SIT, SIT, SIT, SIT, SIT, SIT! We've all done it. Repeatedly asked a dog to do something until they reluctantly do anything usually to defuse the situation. The next time you have to ask your dog to do something more than once, ask yourself a) Do they really understand what I am asking them to do? b) Why should they do what I'm asking them to do? and c) Is the environment too challenging for them to respond? Imagine your math teacher repeatedly asking you 78 x 93 and not giving you any chance to think about it. A general rule we have implemented is we give our dogs 'thinking time'. If we ask them to do something they have up to 10 seconds to respond without us adding any more pressure. If they don't respond we'll ask them to do something else and/or reassess the situation and try to figure out why they didn't respond and change some things.

8 - NO is used far too often and YES is used very little

We're creatures of habit and we are a society that loves to say NO. It's such a bad habit that we just can't seem to get rid of. Dogs aren't prewired to know how to fit into our daily lives. They also do not understand what NO means unless a negative consequence follows the sound. Instead of waiting for the dog to get things wrong, we should (especially at the start) look for all the times they get things right. Laying on their bed, Great job, here's a treat. Chewing their own toys - great job. Sitting before they go off leash - well done, go explore. Looking at you whilst going for a walk - perfect, have a treat. Every time our dogs do things we like, it's an opportunity for us to help them develop it into a habit. The more a dog does something and gets paid for doing so, the more likely they will do that again and again. We must remember a good habit is just as hard to break as a bad habit. Teach the good ones so the bad ones do not even surface.

9 - Unintentionally teaching the bad habits.

If we realised this we could avoid so many predictable problems down the line. The best thing to do when you first get a dog is to all agree on what is allowed and what isn't allowed. AND BE VERY CONSISTENT. Do we want the dog to rush off and meet other dogs all the time? No, so we have to make sure they don't get to do this without asking first so to speak. Do we want the dog to jump on people? No, so from the very beginning we don't let them jump up and make sure all paws are on the floor when we say hello. It's very common for people to SOMETIMES reinforce the bad habits but unfortunately that will make the behaviour even stronger. This is a form of intermittent reinforcement. If we sometimes get the thing we really want, then it's definitely worth trying again. And again. And again. Similar to how slot machines work at the casino. If you don't want a dog to do something, make sure you don't let them practice it and remove whatever the motivator is too. And be consistent.

10 - Training without managing.

If you want to get in shape and lose a few pounds you'll likely join a gym or start exercising more. This is great. However, if you don't make other lifestyle changes you won't get very far. If you keep on eating cake and pizza throughout the week you're unlikely to achieve your goals. The same is true for dog training. If you do all the training in the world but keep allowing your dog to practice the unwanted behaviours it's unlikely that you're going to see any change in their behaviour. managing their behaviour goes hand in hand with the training. For example you can't let your dog jump on people and then ask them to sit. You need to prevent them jumping on people and ask them to sit instead, not as well as. We have leads for reason. We have baby gates for a reason. We have exercise pens for a reason. All these things are designed to help set our dogs up for success. The better they get at doing what we want the less management they will need.

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