Mark Vette – Internationally renowned Animal Behaviourist, Educator, Author and TV personality

Common Dog Training Mistakes

Common Dog Training Mistakes

In this article I take a look at common mistakes many people make when training a dog. 

Perhaps you’ve never had a dog before, or maybe you’ve only ever seen what friends or family members have done with their dogs – for whatever reason, it’s pretty easy to inadvertently make some mistakes when you’re training your dog.

And mistakes are okay! We ALL make mistakes and it’s so important to be kind on ourselves and not expect perfection (including from our dog!).

But knowledge is power, so I wanted to give you an idea of some common mistakes I see people making with their dogs, so that you know how to get a better result.

The list of what NOT to do with your dog

1. Inconsistency

Consistency is everything! If you’ve got strong boundaries and rules with your dog, but your partner and children don’t – it’s going to be very difficult to maintain those rules. Get together as a household and agree on how you’re going to raise your dog and what are the “non-negotiables” that everyone will adhere to. 

For example if you don’t want your dog on the couch, make sure no one else in the house is letting them up. If you don’t want your dog to whine or bark, make sure your family members won’t give your dog attention or let them out of their crate while they’re doing so. If you do want your dog to greet you and others calmly with all four paws on the ground, make sure everyone at home is waiting until the dog is not jumping up before they dish out the pats and attention.

2. Inappropriate punishment

Do not hit, kick or hurt your dog. Don’t shout or scream at them or do anything designed to threaten them such as staring them down, dragging them or holding them down. Also don’t rub their nose in their urine or faeces if they toilet inside.  It’s not kind but it also doesn’t work, all it will do is damage your bond with your dog.

If you need to correct your dog for an inappropriate behaviour, it needs to be done in a way that reinforces your bond with them and ideally uses an apparent natural consequence, largely done remotely (at a distance).

I am not a positive-only trainer, I believe that contrast is essential to successful dog training. This means as well as having a reward for the right behaviour, there is a consequence for the wrong behaviour. But this can be done in a way that is not harmful or hurtful or directly associated with you…that’s the trick and why we do most of this work remotely. Usually I like to use apparent natural consequences. For example, to teach a dog not to chew electrical cables, we pop a long lead and slip collar on them. If the dog tries to chew the cable, give an effective check. Do this remotely – from a distance, without a  command, so  it appears the correction came from the cable, not you. When your dog comes back to you, click and reward to reinforce that you are safety. Or if your dog is chewing the corner of a table, you could rub on a cayenne pepper paste so that your dog gets put off.

Consequences are normal and happen every day in the real world, and we need to teach our dog healthy boundaries, but we need to do it in a way that is appropriate, not harmful and not damaging to our bond with our beautiful dog. You should always be conscious of where the dog thinks the correction came from. Ideally that’s not you but the cause of the natural consequence.

You can be kind but firm.

A couple of other things to note:

  • Some young dogs, particularly females, will urinate when greeting people. This is a sign of submission, so if you tell your pup off for it, she will likely urinate even more to appease you! So don’t be tempted to tell your pup off for this, there are other techniques to use to solve it.
  • Ditto with licking, it is a soliciting, appeasing behaviour so if you tell your pup off for licking, they’ll likely do it even more. Instead, if you don’t like the licking, give a “leave it” command then click and reward when your pup stops licking, try to redirect them into play with a tug toy, or put a (safe) bitter tasting spray on your skin. But note licking is not innately bad, you only need to redirect if you really don’t like it!

3. Training while frustrated or anxious

Your dog is acutely aware of how you’re feeling. If you’re anxious, stressed, frustrated or angry – they sense that, and it’ll be more difficult to get them into the calm state of parasympathetic arousal that they need to be in to progress (I call it the Learning State). Your anxiety will rub off on them!

Your posture, voice tone and body tone as well as your pheromones are speaking to your dog all the time. It’s hard to fool a dog as their postural communication skills and olfactory acuity are much better than ours so believe me, they know when you’re not calm and they’ll take their lead from you.

A dog that is heightened (aggressive, fearful, hyper-excited or predatory) will be difficult or impossible to train!

So when you’re working your dog, take a deep breath. Get yourself calm and focused. If you’re feeling worked up, it’s MUCH better to take a step back and wait until tomorrow.

4. Not understanding dog language

If you don’t understand what your dog’s body language and vocalisations are communicating to you, and what your posture and intonations are communicating back to your dog, this is well worth learning. For example, use high voice intonations when using the “Come!” command as you are trying to draw your dog back towards you – why would they want to come if you’re growling “Come!” at them?! Also note the signs of stress or anxiety in a dog, so you can recognise it and respond by pulling back from a situation or working your dog through it when necessary. 

5. Reinforcing behaviours you don’t want

The number of times I’ve had consultations with people who are trying to stop a behaviour that they’re actually rewarding and reinforcing! If your dog is getting a reward for a behaviour they’re doing, OF COURSE they won’t stop – why would they? A reward can be food, freedom, contact or even just a bit of attention. So if your dog is whining to be let into the house and you let them in, you have rewarded whining. If your dog is jumping up on you and you pat them or talk to them in a nice high tone of voice, you have rewarded jumping. If your dog is pulling on the lead and you let them continue or let them off lead, you have rewarded pulling. If you let your dog out of the crate when they are barking, you have trained your dog to bark to get what they want. The FIRST step in training is to stop rewarding behaviours you don’t want to continue. 

    6. Stopping too soon

    Many people put in a good burst of effort in the first few weeks with their new dog. Then when they’re getting Sit, Down and Stay, they think “good enough!” and stop training. They fail to proof those key behaviours in a variety of environments so that their dog listens to them in any place or situation. You don’t have to keep up the same level of intensity, but proofing out your training into the real world is essential and keeping up a bit of training until your pup is an adult is a very good idea. 

    7. Jumping ahead too quickly

    Remember to always start in a quiet, distraction free place when training a new behaviour. If you go straight to a high arousal or high distraction situation, you’ll set yourself up to fail.

    Okay so that’s what NOT to do…what about what TO do?

    Want to know the best way to train your dog? Check out our Virtual Training Schools for pups, teenage pups and adult dogs and we’ll guide you through it! It’s so simple when you know how, and you can train your dog in a way that is firm but most of all focuses on cultivating a loving bond with your beautiful dog. 

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