I honestly think that the biggest mistake people make training their dogs is focusing on what their dog is doing wrong, and failing to recognize the importance of rewarding the correct behaviour in the first place. With that in mind, let me begin by noting that there is plenty you’re doing right with your dog, like taking the time to read articles like this. There is always room for improvement, and we all want to know what we can be doing better, especially if that means our lives and our pets’ lives will be happier.
Dog owners always want to know what they are doing wrong. It seems like that’s how dog problems get fixed on TV. The trainer discovers that the owners are babying the dog or they aren’t dominating enough. Dog lovers beg me to tell them the truth of their flaws, of their anxiety and nervousness travelling down the leash, of the times they repeat commands 2, 3, 30 times and still get no response, and of course of their terrible, terrible timing. Well, here it is, all the things you’ve been screwing up so far:
#1) Focusing on the wrong behaviour.
We tend to miss opportunities to reward good behaviour and accidentally reward irritating behaviours like whining, barking, pulling on leash and jumping up. The basis of dog training is that rewarded behaviour increases over time and in most cases, trying to use corrections or punishment isn’t just unnecessary, it is detrimental.
#2) Not exercising the right amount.
Most people don’t realize how much exercise is required to keep an active breed calm and happy. Your pathetic little walks around the same park while you stare at your phone just aren’t stimulating enough. You need to spend more time with your dog, you need to take them somewhere new, teach them something new, take them for a run, a bike ride somewhere nice maybe. Balance the right amount of physical exercise with an increase in mental stimulation and you will have a calm, biddable buddy by your side.
Note though that simply increasing physical exercise creates an endurance athlete. You will need to run your dog for longer and longer to achieve the same calming effect day after day, so you must balance your dog’s requirements for mental and physical stimulation, and of course, rest. A walk around your neighbourhood may be the last thing your dog needs if they find it stressful. Your job is to find activities that suit your dog and satisfy your dog’s exercise requirements.
#3) Training above your skill level.
Everyone wants to be off-leash right away and let the puppy play at the park, that is understandable and we all want to socialize. Just don’t expect them to ignore all that excitement and “come!” running to you when the most success you’ve had so far is a fairly dismal record in your yard. Either you shouldn’t have taken off the leash or you shouldn’t have called “come!” You can’t have it both ways.
#4) Expecting your dog to break their commands, to be reactive, and to fail.
In dog training, you get what you expect. Try mismatching your voice and hand signals in your next training session and you’ll learn a valuable lesson; your body talks. Your body language is so powerful because your dog has evolved to read it. They look you in the eye, and seem to be mind readers, they notice you grow tense and anxious, and they see your low posture, creeping away as you pray and pray they “staaaay.” Your dog is going to do whatever you expect them to do. Raise your expectation, have some confidence in them, and learn proper training technique so that your dog can understand what you want.
#5) Using your hands to manipulate or force your dog into positions.
Stop trying to push your dog’s butt to the ground to teach sit. Don’t grab at their face in an attempt to force them to look up at you. Not only does your dog hate it, their brain is focused on your touch, and their muscles are being moved for them; not a great recipe for learning.
#6) Free-feeding your dog.
Don’t do this. You’ve taken away a huge motivator and your dog is missing out on the enjoyment of their meals. Put their dish down for exactly 10 mins, once or twice a day, three for puppies. Your dog will figure this schedule out well before they starve. It helps to make a scavenger hunt, fill a Kong or puzzle toy or simply spread the food on a cookie sheet, these tips help dogs who eat too fast and gives dogs who don’t care for food a little something interesting to do. Don’t forget to feed your dog’s food and meals along with the word “come!” and better yet, spend a minute or two really engaging your dog in a trick or game and let each dish of food strengthen your bond and increase your level of obedience. Don’t waste mealtime, your dog is so bored of that stupid dish of cat food. You know it. I know it. If your dog really dislikes their food, try changing their diet. Your dog deserves to enjoy searching for, earning, working for and loving each bite of their food.
#7) Repeating cues/commands.
Why are you still doing this? You know your dog’s hearing is excellent. A dog can only learn to associate your cue with a response if the association is clear. If you want “come” to mean something to your dog, that something needs to happen right after you say “come,” and it needs to happen with consistency in order for your dog to understand that after “come,” -comes them. If every time you say “come,” you repeat “come” again, what do you think will happen the next time you say “come?” I know what your dog thinks will happen, they think you are going to say “come” again. Wait, come again?