When someone asks me, “What do you do for a living?” my answer—“I’m a dog trainer”—is often followed by, “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 that we know how to effectively train them. Sometimes, it’s what we think we know that isn’t so that trips us up. Here are some of the most common problems I’ve observed over the years.
1. Making training sessions too long.
Multiple short training session are better than one long one, but many novice trainers don’t realize 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 classes are often 45 to 60 minutes long. That standard reflects logistics and convenience; nobody could (or would) come to a training center multiple 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 by the time you give her a treat, she’s jumping up toward your face. What does she think earned her that treat? Jumping up at you. Similarly, if you call your dog to come and she heads right to you and sits, she may think sitting in front of you is the behavior you’re so pleased about. Sitting is a lovely behavior, but if you’re working on her recall, you want to make sure it’s clear to her that coming when called is the behavior you want.
There are two ways to solve these sorts of problems, and both involve timing. Focus on delivering the treat immediately after the behavior you like (lying down, coming to you) and before your dog has time to throw another behavior (jumping up, sitting in front of you). Or use a marker, such as a clicker or the word “yes,” at the exact moment your dog does what you want. Either of these will tell her what she did to earn that treat.
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3. Misplacing treat delivery.
For example, when working on heeling, it’s better to deliver treats with the hand that’s on the same side as your dog so she doesn’t need to cross in front of you (and get out of position) to get it. Also, when learning proper stationing behavior, it’s common for dogs to be a little pushy in their enthusiasm to reach the treats, or even the treat bag. By aiming a bit below or behind her mouth, you will encourage your dog to back up, and to learn that this is the spot where good things are delivered. Follow the general rule of delivering the treat where you want your dog to be.
4. Punishing desirable behavior.
When I say it’s a common mistake to punish behavior we like, I’m not talking about those who are, sadly, still using physical punishment to train dogs. But even well-intentioned trainers who use positive reinforcement and have no intention of punishing a dog commit this faux pas. Any time the consequence of a behavior is something a dog doesn’t like, the behavior is less likely to happen again. Technically, this is called “positive punishment,” as distinguished from “negative punishment,” or removing something good as a consequence of a behavior. Both types of punishment reduce the frequency of the behavior they follow.
Here’s a common scenario: People commonly call their dogs to come, then subject them to something they don’t like, such as nail trims or baths. Another is patting a dog on the head after she responds to a cue; most dogs don’t care to be patted on the head. Besides making the dog less likely to perform the good behavior (say, coming when called) in the future, you may actually be poisoning the cue. That means that you’re teaching the dog to associate a cue (“come”) with something unpleasant. This is also common with the cue “drop it,” which many dogs have learned to associate with having things taken away from them. Always make sure that the consequence of a behavior you want to keep seeing is something that the dog enjoys.
5. Reinforcing unwanted behavior.
It’s all too easy to allow a dog’s unfortunate behavior to work for them. One example of this is allowing a dog to pull while on-leash; the behavior is reinforced because it gets her what she wants—going the direction she desires, going faster or catching up with that cat. Or, reinforcing barking by giving the dog attention in response to it. Similarly, laughing, petting or sweet-talking a dog when she jumps up makes that behavior more likely to happen. Don’t let the behavior you don’t want work for your dog, or she will keep doing it.
6. Failing to teach a dog to generalize.
Asking for a behavior that’s too hard for a dog at particular moment is a very common training mistake: “I don’t know why she’s not doing it. I know she knows it!” The behavior in question is almost always something that many dogs are taught, such as sit, down, stay or come.
The thing is, even though many dogs are taught to do these behaviors, they’re not always taught to do them in a fully fluent, generalized way. This means that even though a dog responds to a cue in a familiar environment, she may not be able to do so in other locations or situations. A dog who can lie down at home may not be able to do so while on a walk or when visitors come over. She may come when called in the backyard but not at the dog park.
This is completely normal and to be expected, but not everybody knows this, so they ask for a behavior in a new context without understanding that dogs have to learn to generalize their skills to new situations and higher levels of distraction.
Much of training is not about teaching a dog to perform a behavior on cue, but rather, teaching a dog to be able to perform that behavior on cue regardless of where she is or what’s going on around her. It’s critical to adjust your expectations based on the situation and the level of distraction as you work on teaching your dog to generalize what she knows.
7. Using only treats as a reinforcement.
Treats are wonderful for training because they are so reinforcing to most dogs. I use treats a lot and think being generous with them is an important part of productive and happy training sessions. However, the use of other types of reinforcement can be a very powerful addition to training. Physical contact the dog enjoys, new toys, a play session or getting to go outside can expand your dog’s willingness to work and help you do a better job of teaching her. Yes, treats are a great reinforcer and by far the most commonly used by almost all trainers, but using only treats limits the potential effectiveness and fun of training.
8. Being inconsistent with cues.
Training always benefits from clear communication. In training dogs, we face a challenge that’s super obvious but often overlooked: communicating across species. That’s hard, and the potential for confusion is ever-present. Simply being consistent with cues goes a long way toward alleviating problems that come from misunderstandings.
If your cue for a recall is “come,” use that exact word every time. Don’t change it up by saying “c’mere” or “c’mon.” Similarly, if your cue to stay involves holding up your hand with your fingers spread and open palm facing her, it’s not fair to expect her to know that’s what you mean when you give the cue while holding your car keys. That’s confusing to dogs, but people do it all the time, leading to frustration on the part of both person and dog.
9. Bribing instead of reinforcing.
Reinforcement is a desirable consequence of a behavior that makes that behavior more likely to happen in the future. It is a fundamental part of dog training. Bribery, on the other hand, is a promise of something good if a behavior is performed. Dangling a treat to get a dog to do what you want is bribery, and often results in a dog who will only do what’s asked if she’s shown the goods up front.
An especially problematic but common error is to ask a dog to do something, such as give a high-five, then, when she doesn’t do it, to pull out a treat and give the high-five cue again. When the dog responds, she gets the treat. This practice results in a dog who will only offer the behavior if she sees the reward. The difference between reinforcement and bribery is huge, and only the former will lead to a well-trained dog.
These common training mistakes can make training more challenging for both you and your dog, but the good news is that changing just a few details can make a huge difference in your dog’s behavior and in the joy you share during training. The result is that the relationship between the two of you becomes even better, and that’s the best possible outcome of great training.