It’s such a common story: get puppy, go to puppy class, go to basic manners class, go to the next class. Give up.

Your dog is still an out of control nut job who won’t listen to you outside of class or unless you have food clearly in your hand.  What went wrong? You did the right thing: you went to classes. You did your best for heaven’s sake!!!  Because this is SUCH a common scenario I’ve put together a list of popular ways to stuff up your training – and how to avoid them.

 

1) Be Inconsistent

This just has to be top of the list! A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a client about why she was having so much trouble teaching her dog not to pull on a lead. He was GREAT in class – just rocked it. Out and about? Not so much.

Although there are a number of reasons why this happens, inconsistency is the biggest. When asked “Do you follow him when he pulls?” her answer was “No, most of the time I stop.” Ah. There’s the problem, right there in that little word “MOST”. ‘Most’ is not ‘always’. ‘Most’ means that for a percentage of time the behaviour of pulling pays off.

Why is that an issue?

Behavioural scientists will tell you that the quickest, most effective way to build a really strong behaviour (that doesn’t go away easily) is to ‘put it on a variable schedule’. In English – make it pay off randomly. Why do you think gambling is such a hard habit to break? Why do you check your social media account SO MANY times a day??? Because it sometimes (but not always) pays off.

What to do instead:

    • Don’t put the dog in a situation to practice an unwanted behaviour. Use management (crates, gates, walking equipment or whatever is required) when you can’t train.
    • Provide attractive alternatives (top chew items instead of chair legs)
    • Have clear expectations of what is or is not expected of your dog – and stick to them!
    • Remember, dogs are learning whether you are training or not.

 

2) Use Bribery

This is another biggie and is often promoted in pet dog classes where the instructor wants ‘the handler to be successful’. Nothing wrong with that! However, handlers get in the habit of always having food ‘up front and centre’, either to distract the dog from other things or to prompt the dog to do something. I’ve lost count of how many times I hear instructors say ‘use your food – put it on his nose and get his attention’.

Why is that an issue?

Although food in the hand will create the illusion of training, the only thing the dog is actually learning is to ignore the handler unless they either have food on show or smell like a slightly off delicatessen. Not useful for the real world and ‘training’ falls apart very quickly as soon as the food/toy bribe is no longer obvious.

Alternatively, some dogs turn into accountants. They assess the value of what you clearly have to trade and calculate whether it is better (or not!) than what the world has to offer at that moment. Usually the world wins.

Food IS a great training tool. Don’t get me wrong, I use food in training all the time. However, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. By all means, lure (have the dog follow a cookie) to get the behaviour the first few times if you want, that’s not an issue. BUT be sure to get that treat out of your hand as quickly as possible.

Once you can get the behaviour with empty hands, move on to having the food off your body but close by. Then out of sight (in the fridge or a cupboard works well). The dog is now doing as requested in the ‘hope’ of getting the reward, not because they have been bribed by being shown the treat up front.

What to do instead:

    • Ask for the behaviour.
    • Give your marker (clicker etc) if you use one.
    • THEN reach for, and produce the reward, whether it be a treat or a toy or whatever.

 

3) Be a Reactive Trainer

No, I’m not referring to shouting, screaming or carrying on like a loony! Although that’s not recommended as a training strategy either. What I’m talking about is the human habit of intervening AFTER the event.

So, you have visitors and, as usual, your very friendly dog bounces all over them while you try to catch him and reprimand him. He’s having a blast; everybody else is slightly frazzled.

Or you leave your sandwich on the bench and, for the third time this week, your dog has stolen it. You might catch him in the act. You may even (sometimes!) be able to prevent him swallowing the whole thing. But he still keeps doing it.

Why are these types of scenarios played out predictably in so many homes? I mean, they’re not usually a surprise for anyone are they?

Why is that an issue?

The problem is that the handler is trying to prevent or punish the behaviour after the dog has done it – and been rewarded by doing it.

Punishment or intervention during or after the behaviour has occurred is ineffective for two reasons. One, the dog sometimes ‘gets away with it’ (back to inconsistency here!). And secondly, the value of the reward gained outweighs the cost of the punishment or interruption. In other words, although you think you are punishing the behaviour (even when caught in the act), the value/reward from actually DOING the thing overrides the unpleasantness.

What to do instead:

    • If you have a predictable problem, use an intervention that happens BEFORE the dog has done the thing you don’t like.
      For example, one way to stop jumping up is to stuff treats in the dog’s face as he arrives. Once he starts to focus his attention on hands instead of faces, you can fade out the food and replace with attention – the reward the dog wanted in the first place.
    • It’s always more helpful to ask your dog to do something else BEFORE he makes a mistake than try to correct the mistake after it’s happened. Read more about proactive training here and how to stop your dog doing things here.

 

4) Reward ‘bad’ behaviours

This a sneaky one and everyone, myself included, has done it at some point. I have taught my dogs to chase pushbikes and stand in front of the TV screen during my favourite program using this method!
Humans are really good at noticing the ‘bad’ stuff and ignoring the good. So, while the puppy is quietly chewing an appropriate toy we ignore it. Five minutes later, he’s chewing the TV remote and we intervene. Oops.

Why is that an issue?

Most puppies (and adult dogs for that matter) adore attention. There is no such thing as bad attention in most dogs’ eyes! Given that attention is such a huge reward for most dogs, it should come as no great surprise that the behaviours we notice, and react to, are the ones our dogs give us the most. What we notice is what we get!

What to do instead:

    • Notice and respond to the things you like.
    • Set up your dog to be successful by using management to prevent mistakes before they happen.
    • Remember: the more often you pay attention and praise/reward you dog for ‘being good’, the more often he will do those behaviours. The more time he spends doing the ‘good stuff’ the less time he has to experiment or indulge in less desirable entertainment.

 

In Summary:

    • Be consistent
    • Use rewards after compliance
    • Be proactive in your training
    • Focus on the good stuff your dog naturally does

 

If you can follow the above guidelines, the actual dog training bit is a doddle!  The tough challenge is changing human behaviour; ours and the people around us.  In difficult cases I suggest bribes of bottles or confectionary 😉

Want to read more like this? Find out more here.

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