5 Common Dog Training Mistakes and What to Do Instead

From my first day working with Pixie, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. Like most shelter dogs, we didn’t know her background, but it was clear that this six-year old terrier mix hadn’t had it easy.

She didn’t know her basic cues like ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ and so on, but someone had certainly tried to teach her some life skills, and my guess was they’d done so using pain, fear, and intimidation. In the beginning, I couldn’t get close to Pixie, let alone get her to trust my attempts to lure her into simple positions.

After several visits, Pixie finally began to relax. When we were able to start work on our cues, I selected hand targeting (where the dog chooses to touch their nose to the palm of your hand) and ‘sit’ as easy, confidence-building tasks that could help us lay a good foundation for future training.
It’s not that Pixie was dumb. Months down the road, she would be playing dead to my finger-gun “bang” cue and weaving around poles. She was shut down, and afraid of my response to her getting a request wrong.

Working with Pixie, I became very aware of the dog training traps that are so easy for even a professional to fall into. In the beginning of our work together, my mistakes could lead to confusion from Pixie that would lead a backslide that could force us to start all over again. Whether your dog is a learning machine or needs extra care and time like Pixie, these common dog training mistakes are good ones to avoid.

1. Impatience

Every dog learns at their own pace and it doesn’t do you, or them, any good to set a timeline for how quickly they should pick up a new skill.

Be patient! The skills will come.

2. Expecting too much too soon

Along the same lines as general impatience, this one is common. I like to think of building a dog’s ability in any particular cue as equivalent to a child’s journey through school.

What I mean by that is, you wouldn’t expect a 9-year-old learning addition and subtraction to go on to the advanced algebra that kids several years their senior are doing.

Similarly, just because you’ve taught your dog to come when you call inside the house (2nd grade level) doesn’t mean they’ll be able to come when you call at the dog park (college level). To get them to the college level, you need to build their skills through grade school, middle school, and high school levels.

In other words, you need to slowly increase the challenge, building your dog’s ability to succeed in more and more difficult situations over time.

3. Bribing instead of training with rewards

We know from scientific research that rewards-based training is the most effective way to teach new skills.

When the dog sees what is in store for them, they are likely to offer whatever behavior they think might win them the treat. However, when the treat isn’t present, the behavior falls apart.

But there is a right and a wrong way to use those rewards. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when teaching a new cue? They hold a visible treat in their hand while asking the dog to complete an action.

When the dog sees what is in store for them, they are likely to offer whatever behavior they think might win them the treat. However, when the treat isn’t present, the behavior falls apart.

Instead of holding the treat in front of your dog before they complete a cue, it should appear after in a sequence of action-and-consequence. For instance, the dog sits, and the treat appears as a reward from out of the blue.

4. Yelling or using a raised voice

Dogs, like children, are much happier to respond to a request when it is spoken with excitement and happiness.

An angry tone or raised voice, on the other hand, might indicate that you are already angry with them and cause the dog to avoid you at all costs. I see this happen most often at the dog park, where guardians screaming at their dogs are less likely get their dogs to come than those calling out with joy.

5. Using physical corrections

Using your strength to correct your dog’s behavior will never have the desired effect.

Not only does physical force typically backfire as a long-term management strategy, but it frequently results in a fearful or withdrawn dog.

As a professional dog trainer, I understand just how frustrating dog training can be! However, taking that frustration out on the dog will only make the situation worse.

What to do instead

Consistency, positivity, and reinforcing good behavior with rewards is the key to a well-trained dog. For further tips, see: 3 Training Exercises to Perfect Your Dog’s Manners for Life.

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