Training a dog can be a very rewarding experience, but it's important to go about it the right way. There are many common mistakes that people make when training dogs that can actually set back progress and damage the human-canine bond. By learning what not to do, you can avoid the pitfalls and set your dog up for training success. In this article, we'll cover the biggest dos and don'ts when it comes to dog training, so you can give your pup the best chance at becoming a happy, well-mannered companion.
Don't Use Punishment-Based Methods
One of the biggest mistakes in dog training is relying on punishment and aversives. This includes tactics like yelling at your dog, jerking on the leash, using shock collars or prong collars, rubbing a dog's nose in messes, hitting, and other forms of physical punishment. While this may seem like it works in the moment to stop unwanted behaviors, it actually has many detrimental effects. Punishment can erode the dog's trust, create anxiety, lead to aggression, and damage the human-animal bond. It also doesn't teach the dog what you actually want them to do. For these reasons, there's a strong consensus among veterinary behaviorists, dog trainers, and other experts that punishment should be avoided in dog training.
Do Use Positive Reinforcement
The most effective dog training method is positive reinforcement. This involves rewarding desired behaviors and ignoring unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog sits when asked, you immediately give a treat and praise. This reinforces the sitting behavior. Over many repetitions, the dog learns that sitting leads to rewards. Rewards can include treats, toys, petting, playing, or anything your individual dog finds motivating. The key is to reward every time the dog performs the behavior at first, then move to intermittent rewarding once it's more reliable. Positive reinforcement creates a cooperative relationship built on mutual trust and respect. Numerous studies back up the fact that it's more effective and humane than aversive methods.
Don't Repeat Cues Over and Over
You ask your dog to sit, but they don't respond, so you ask again and again. Repeating cues over and over is common, but counterproductive. This actually teaches the dog they don't have to listen the first time. Instead, only give a cue once. If your dog doesn't comply after a few seconds, simply show them what you want by guiding them into the sit position while saying "sit." Then reward. This shows the dog exactly what you're asking for while avoiding the pitfall of repeating cues.
Do Keep Training Sessions Short
Dogs have short attention spans, especially puppies. Long, drawn-out training sessions will only lead to your dog losing focus and getting bored. A good rule of thumb is to keep training sessions to 5-15 minutes max, depending on your dog's age and energy levels. Multiple short sessions spaced out throughout the day are more effective than one long session. End each session on a positive note, such as a successfully completed behavior, to keep your dog engaged and wanting more.
Don't Move Too Fast
Going too fast with training is a common error. People want their dog to learn new behaviors and commands rapidly. However, slow and steady wins the race when it comes to dog training. Start with just one simple behavior, like sit. Work on it in several very short sessions per day until your dog consistently offers the behavior on cue. Once your dog has truly mastered this skill, then you can add a new behavior like down. Taking the time to thoroughly proof behaviors one at a time leads to much better retention and response.
Do Set Your Dog Up for Success
Some training mistakes stem from asking for behaviors your dog is not yet ready for. For example, asking a puppy to sit and stay for long durations. Since young puppies have limited attention spans and impulse control, they're likely to fail tasks like this. Instead, set your dog up for success by keeping training appropriate for their current skill and maturity level. Ask for sits in short durations first. Gradually increase time over many training sessions as your puppy is able to succeed. This creates confidence and enthusiasm instead of frustration and failure.
Don't Use Flexi Leashes
Retractable Flexi leashes are very common these days, but they're far from an ideal training tool. Since they allow dogs to roam up to 26 feet away, Flexi leashes make it hard to reinforce a dog for staying close by your side. They also teach dogs to pull on the leash and don't give the owner much control. For training, your best bet is using a standard 4 to 6 foot leash along with a front clip no-pull harness if your dog pulls. This allows you to reinforce for loose leash walking instead of pulling.
Do Practice Loose Leash Walking
Pulling on leash is one of the most common issues owners have with their dogs. But this problem can be easily avoided by practicing loose leash walking. There are several techniques to teach this, but the premise is simple: reward your dog frequently with treats and praise when they walk near your side without pulling. If they start to pull, stop and wait for slack on the leash before continuing. Keep sessions short and engaging. With consistency over time, your dog will learn to avoid pulling since sticking by your side is rewarding.
Don't Let Your Dog Practice Problem Behaviors
Many owners inadvertently reinforce problem behaviors, which leads to repeated problems down the road. For example, letting your dog jump all over guests when they arrive. While it may seem innocent at first, this teaches your dog that jumping gets attention. So the next time someone comes over, you can expect more jumping. Instead, have your dog sit to say hello. This prevents reinforcing the unwanted behavior. In training, your aim is to avoid letting your dog practice behaviors you don't want, while reinforcing alternatives.
Do Supervise Your Dog
Since dogs learn from practice, make sure you're supervising your dog during their awake hours. This allows you to reinforce wanted behaviors and prevent the practice of unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog is prone to chewing shoes, don't leave piles of shoes out unattended. This sets up the opportunity for more shoe chewing practice sessions. Instead, keep shoes put away and give your dog a Kong stuffed with treats when you're not around to supervise. Supervision and management are key in dog training.
Don't Use Aversives When Your Dog Is Fearful
Some dogs become fearful in certain situations, like during loud noises or storms. Yelling at or physically correcting a dog when they are in a fearful state will only make matters worse. This can cause the dog to become more fearful and potentially aggressive. If your dog is afraid, comfort them in a calm, soothing tone instead. Don't coddle in an overly excited way. Help desensitize and counter condition the dog to their fear triggers gradually using positive reinforcement. And speak to your veterinarian in case medication is needed as an adjunct.
Do Properly Introduce Your Dog to New Things
Throwing your dog into new experiences too quickly can overwhelm them. Instead, follow the "3 Ds" when introducing anything new. First, make it distant. Let your dog observe the new thing, person or environment from afar where they feel secure. Next, make it dormant – don't force any direct interaction yet. Just reward your dog for calm behavior in the presence of the new stimuli. Finally, make it dynamic by gradually decreasing distance as you continue reinforcing calm responses. Taking this gradual approach prevents fearful reactions and teaches your dog to look to you for guidance.
Don't Use A Crate As Punishment
While crates can be extremely helpful training tools, they must be introduced properly. Never use the crate to punish your dog; this creates a negative association. Your dog should see their crate as a safe den, not a jail. Introduce slowly with treats and praise, leaving the door open at first. Feed meals and give toys and chews in the crate so your dog learns good things happen there. Build up time with the door closed and don't force your dog inside if they are fearful. Make it a rewarding sanctuary, not a punitive holding cell.
Do Set A Routine
Consistency in your schedule, training and house rules is important for dogs. Dogs thrive when they know what to expect and what's expected of them in different contexts. Set up a routine that includes scheduled mealtimes, potty breaks, training sessions, walk times and more. Dogs do best with structure. Make sure the whole family is on the same page when it comes to enforcing rules and training the same behaviors using positive reinforcement. Consistency minimizes anxiety and leads to better manners.
Don't Take It Personally If Your Dog Doesn't Listen
It's easy to get frustrated when you ask your dog to do something and they ignore you or do the opposite. But it's important not to take their training challenges personally. Your dog isn't "disobeying" you out of spite or rebellion. Usually it's simply a matter of their behavior not yet being reinforced enough. Remain calm, redirect to a behavior they do know, and make a mental note to add in more reinforcement practice for the problem behavior. Keep sessions upbeat. With time and consistency, they'll improve.
Do Respect Your Dog's Social Preferences
Just like people, some dogs are more outgoing while others are shy and reserved. Respect your individual dog's social comfort levels. If your dog tends to be more anxious or reactive around other dogs or people, don't force close interactions or over-flood them in hopes they'll get over it. This will usually just lead to more stress and reactive behavior. Instead, use positive reinforcement to teach them to better cope with social situations at a distance they are comfortable with. Let their comfort level guide the process.
Don't Repeat Commands Over and Over
When giving your dog a command or cue such as "sit" or "stay", make sure you only say it once, then give them a few seconds to respond. Repeating a command cue multiple times in a row teaches dogs they can ignore you at least the first couple times before having to listen. Instead, say your cue once, wait several seconds, and if your dog doesn't respond, show them what you want by guiding them into position. Then be sure to reward. This avoids the habit of repeating commands which diminishes their effectiveness.
Do Set Up the Environment for Success
It's important not to set your dog up for failure by putting them in situations they aren't ready for. For example, don't leave a brand new puppy loose and unattended inside the house if they aren't house trained yet. If your dog finds the dog park overstimulating, don't force them into a chaotic dog park setting before they're ready. Limit access to things like trash cans and counters when you aren't around to supervise. Manage the environment and set your dog up to succeed, instead of repeating behaviors you don't want.
Don't Let Strangers Pet Without Permission
It seems innocent enough allowing a friendly stranger to pet your dog when out in public. But this can encourage jumping up, mouthiness, and other rude behaviors. It also teaches your dog to solicit attention from anyone. Instead, tell your dog to sit before meeting new people, and have strangers request petting first. Greetings should be calm. Also avoid letting strangers feed your dog treats, which encourages begging. Politely advocate for your dog, and don't allow petting unless your dog is displaying good manners.
Do Socialize Early and Often
Lack of proper socialization during the first few months of life is linked to behavior issues like fearfulness and aggression. Make sure to safely introduce your puppy to a wide variety of new sights, sounds, people, animals, places, and situations starting at 7-8 weeks of age. Go gradually, make experiences positive, and avoid overstimulation. Socialization is an ongoing process that should continue into adulthood. The more positive experiences a dog has, the more confident and well-adjusted they'll become.
Don't Make Assumptions About Behavior
Sometimes owners mistakenly assume their dog is deliberately misbehaving out of spite or dominance. For example, inappropriate toilet habits. But there's usually an underlying cause, whether it be incomplete housetraining, stress, anxiety, medical issues or inadequate supervision. Instead of anger and assumption of "guilty behavior", approach unwanted behaviors patiently. Seek professional guidance to identify and address the root cause through positive training and management. Never attribute human motives to dog behavior. There's always a reason behind it.
Do Seek Force-Free Professional Help If Needed
If you've hit a wall with your dog's training challenges, don't be afraid to seek professional help. Just be sure to identify trainers and behaviorists who use positive reinforcement, never punishment. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers is one resource for finding educated, humane trainers. Getting expert guidance tailored to your dog's unique needs can make a dramatic difference. The investment is well worth it in terms of pet happiness and the human-animal bond.
Avoiding common mistakes will set you and your dog up for training success. Focus on positive reinforcement, patience, smart management and consistency. Seek professional guidance when needed. Stick to proven humane methods. Understand canine psychology. With this approach, you'll be able to achieve wonderful things with your dog through the unbreakable bond of trust, respect and positive motivation. Your dog will feel safe, engaged and happy to work for you. That special bond makes training incredibly rewarding for dogs and their pet parents alike.