Dog training has a mystique. The casual dog owner is mesmerized by the well trained dog and dogs that appear in film or work for a living alongside law enforcement officers are amazing to behold. Yet, there is no reason that we all can’t have a relationship with our dogs that allows for two way communication at all times. The easiest way is to avoid some common training mistakes.
1. Mistake: Sit comes first. Most people teach their dog or puppy to sit for a treat right off the bat. This is a mistake because whatever we teach first we usually spend the most time on. Dogs will offer this first learned behavior when they are confused about what to do. Unfortunately, sitting is not a very useful behavior in an emergency. I recommend teaching contact with a target (most commonly the trainer’s hand) first. This is a much more useful behavior for general control and works as a reliable recall in an emergency.
2. Mistake: Teaching complicated tasks from start to finish. To teach a dog to fetch we often throw a toy hoping he will run after it, pick it up, carry it in our direction, deliver it. While this may work, it’s much more important to teach a dog to deliver the toy first when fetch is the goal. Those of us who are old enough remember reciting long passages of prose, remember learning the last line of an assignment first. This is so that as you go through your speech you gain confidence by moving toward the lines you know best, rather than trailing off as you forget the least studied parts of your assignment. So teaching a dog the end of a task first then tacking on the step just before that, then adding the beginning is a much better way of teaching a complicated task. If you have doubts, think about how your dog knows what you are going to do next based on the shoes you put on. This is not because he understands boots are for hiking, it’s because over time he’s associated each thing you do with the one just before, until he appears to see the future.
3. Mistake: Showing the reward before making a request. Holding up a treat or shaking the cookie jar is bribery, not training. If whatever the dog is doing is more fun than a treat, your gyrations fail. Relying on food to GET your dog’s attention is weak. If you don’t warrant your dog’s attention, you need to work on that. We rely on food to pay our dogs for doing things they already will do. This is not necessary. If your dog likes to go out side, ask him to sit before you open the door. He already wants to go out. He can earn it. When you are clearly the source of all good things (open doors) your dog will notice you.
4. Mistake: using the leash for training. We have to leash our dogs in public and well we should. We can’t control public. However, puppies naturally want to be with the pack so using a leash to move your puppy about is going to turn out to be a bad habit when you find yourself without one. Older dogs need to learn that some of our chatter has meaning. If you don’t work with your dog in safe off leash areas, you’ll never know if he can hear or see you. When you move, the dog is tugged along. No reason to pay attention to you at all.
5. Mistake: Marking the wrong behavior. We pay attention when dogs jump on us or bark. We ignore dogs who lie quietly and chew a bone. Then we complain when our dog spends too much time being annoying and not enough time entertaining himself. That’s so easy to fix. Pay attention to the things your dog does that you want more of. Save withdrawing your affection for times when he is annoying. Oh, and when you “pay attention” be absolutely sure it’s in a way your dog likes. Many people mistakenly believe their dog likes the sound of their voice or even being patted on the head. If your dog doesn’t beg for you to talk or bop him, that means it isn’t a “reward”.
Finally, we make the mistake of misunderstanding work. We all have to pay the rent. Usually, we have some skill that is valuable in the market place that we can exchange for money which we use to get what we need. This is certainly called “work” and in many ways, we’d like to do less of it. But the value of contributing to a community by growing food or building shelters is rewarded not by money, but by food and comfort. Investing effort into acquiring food and comfort is real work. If we don’t do it, we die. It is rewarding to your dog to earn food and comfort with his behavior. Dogs may try to avoid situations in which they have to perform repetitive tasks for biscuits but they want to be part of a successful pack that has territory and food. Misunderstanding what it means to a dog to contribute through a job will take you down the road of spoiling your dog and failing to meet his intrinsic need for meaningful work resulting in food and comfort.
Use the things you know your dog wants to reward your dog for behavior you like. Before you know it, your friends will be asking how you got such an amazing dog.