8 Dog Training Mistakes to Avoid Making
Whether you’re becoming a dog parent for the first time or you’re an experienced pet parent who’s bringing home the eighth or ninth dog in his or her life, there’s one part of the “getting to know you” phase that can be as unpredictable as it is important.
It’s something people are still trying to figure out, but first, it’s critical to understand why proper training is necessary.
The Importance of Dog Training
Training is as integral to a dog’s life as food, water, and exercise, says Jenn Prill, a certified professional dog trainer, certified canine behavior consultant, and owner of SideKick Dog Training in Milwaukee.
“The world is difficult enough to navigate as a human – let alone as a dog who cannot speak our language, has different ideas of what is socially acceptable, and doesn’t have opposable thumbs,” she says. “Training allows us to teach our dogs the ‘rules’ of living in the human world, urban environments, and a home.”
Jennifer Pratt is another Milwaukee-based certified trainer and behavior consultant and the founder of Wag the Dog and Company. She adds that training is how your dog learns to take in the world and how you learn what they think of it and how you can support them.
“We don’t get dogs because they’re so much work. We want to enjoy their companionship and doing things with them,” Pratt says. “Dog training allows for that because it opens up communication and helps us establish relationships with our dogs.”
But for all our best intentions, when it comes to training our dogs, it’s easy to make a mistake. Unfortunately, making those can mean critical setbacks when it comes to a dog’s development and, in turn, the development of your relationship with your dog.
8 Dog Training Mistakes to Avoid
Here are some of the most common dog training mishaps that pet parents make.
Mistake #1: Delaying Socialization
If you think training for your new puppy can wait until behaviors worthy of correction start arising, you’re thinking about training all wrong.
“Puppies learn the most about the outside world between 6 and 16 weeks of age,” says Dr. Amanda E. Florsheim, founder and owner of Veterinary Behavior Solutions and The Training Studio outside of Dallas. That means it’s the absolute best time for acclimating your dog to a wide variety of places and experiences, including riding in the car, going on walks, different textures and surfaces, meeting new people or other species like cats, she says.
Thinking about socialization as a gateway to what most people traditionally think of as training is the best way to approach things with a puppy. Prill says teaching behaviors like how to sit, lay down, or drop should not be the focus of training around this age.
“Instead, focus on socialization, house training, crate training, chewing, puppy mouthing/play biting, etc.,” she says. “There are so many more skills that are important for a puppy to be learning during such a critical time period and for the family to be focusing on for their puppy to help him become a confident, happy, healthy member of the family.”
Mistake #2: Thinking Your Dog Is Too Old for Training
On the flip side, it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact, it’s important for your dog’s physical and mental well-being that you do. Just don’t necessarily expect to see results as quickly from senior dogs in comparison to puppies and young adult dogs.
“Think of [training] like your dog’s daily Sudoku puzzle,” Dr. Florsheim says. “We want to keep those brains sharp and thinking well into their senior years. Some things may have to be modified to account for any physical limitation, but dogs of any age can participate in most types of training quite successfully.”
Mistake #3: Not Respecting a Dog’s Individuality
Debby McMullen is a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Pawsitive Reactions LLC in Pittsburgh. She says one of the most common training mistakes she observes is simply a matter of expectations.
“Accepting that [dogs] are a different species than humans and have very different needs is very important,” she says. “Accepting that they have their own likes and dislikes, as well as the same emotions that humans have is important. Accepting that they are not robots nor accessories is important.”
This is especially common when the dog parent is experienced because he or she may naturally compare the new dog with previous pets.
Mistake #4: Ignoring Breed-Specific Behaviors
While individuality is real and important, it’s also critical to remember that dogs have been bred over thousands of years for some specific purposes, and some “unwanted behaviors” that parents may observe are simply the dog acting on instinct.
“When it comes to training, dogs all learn basically the same way, but some breeds are task-oriented – diggers, herders, protectors, or lap dogs,” Pratt says. “That stuff is in the dog’s DNA, so it’s important to provide that in their daily life to keep them fulfilled and happy.”
An inability to provide breed-specific outlets for your dog can lead to behaviors that are hard to correct.
Mistake #5: Using Outdated Methods
“Alpha,” “dominance,” “fear” – these are all instant red flags when it comes to training. Utilizing resources that recommend this style, or hiring a trainer or behavior consultant who leans on them, will hinder your dog’s development – or worse.
“Fear is the hardest thing to modify,” Pratt says. “Making sure you’re not instilling fear, and finding a professional to help in case that does happen, is so important.”
Instead, lean on methods and experts that are described as “fear free” or centered around “positive reinforcement.” These training methods and techniques focus on rewarding behaviors you want and redirecting others that you might not.
To distill it down to one question, Pratt suggests asking “What happens when my dog gets it wrong?” Does the reinforcement get removed? Or do they get a correction? The former will allow your dog to thrive. The latter will not.
Mistake #6: Getting Advice in the Wrong Places
In addition to some of the outdated, dominance-centric trainers and materials out there, Pratt says she has noticed a concerning trend related to the solicitation of advice from strangers online.
“People have a potential behavior that they want to work on with their dog, like jumping or growling when you approach the food bowl, and they go directly to social media to find help,” she says. “Other people feel OK giving advice because they may have had dogs in their lives for so long. Everyone has an opinion on how to raise them, but that doesn’t mean those opinions are informed or even helpful.”
Whether you simply need a question answered or you need an in-person consultation, professional help with a behavior-related issue should come from someone who promotes fear-free methods, as discussed previously. You should also seek out someone with qualifications such as:
- CPDT (Certified Professional Dog Trainer)
- CBCC (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine)
- IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants)
Mistake #7: Hovering Over Your Dog
Part of training is knowing when to stay out of your dog’s way and giving him enough latitude from time to time to have the confidence to figure something out for himself. And Dr. Florsheim says there’s never a better time for that than during a walk, or what she calls a “sniffari.”
“While we want dogs to learn to walk with us and focus on us when we need them too, allow them to have some extra leash so they can sniff and explore,” she says.
Mistake #8: Pushing Your Dog Too Hard
Does your dog seem to lose interest in training after five minutes? There’s nothing wrong with him, Dr. Florsheim says. You just need to stop the session at four minutes.
It’s always best to leave them wanting more, she says. It’s similarly important to not try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Some dogs like to train in groups, while others have a hard time focusing in that setting. One dog might like to train using agility games, while another prefers to use his nose.
It’s all about setting them up for success, Dr. Florsheim adds. “Find out what your dog loves, and work with that.”
Dog Training Tips for Success
A truly proactive approach to dog training starts before your dog even comes home with you. Pratt recommends thinking ahead with the other human members of your family about your feelings regarding things like your dog being on the couch. That way, when your dog comes home with you, everyone is clear and consistent and on the same page.
“In some situations, the dog is going to get frustrated by not knowing what it can and can’t do,” she says.
Another early key to heading off potentially unwanted behavior is managing the environment. Prill describes this as simply observing what’s around you and taking small steps that prevent your dog from even having the opportunity to “act out.”
“It can be as simple as putting up a baby gate or buying a garbage can or laundry bin with a lid,” she says. “Immediately, there’s a decrease in the ‘bad’ behavior, and you’re able to make the ‘good’ choices more appealing for the dog.”
When to Consult a Training Professional
It’s always better to seek professional training help too early than too late.
“I typically tell folks to reach out for help before annoying behaviors become concerning habits,” Prill says. “Chewing occasionally on the table leg can lead to your dog pulling baseboards off the wall to chew on. And a dog woofing at the mail person each day can lead to a dog working themselves up for several minutes at anything that moves on the street outside the front window.”
Additionally, some “bad behaviors” could be the result of a medical problem your dog is dealing with. (For example, he won’t sit on command because it hurts.) It’s important to identify physical problems quickly, and being proactive about consulting a professional trainer could help in this respect.