Not starting soon enough
The right time to start training your dog is as soon as you get your new puppy or older rescue dog home. Like people, dogs can learn throughout their lives but they are most receptive when young. Miss this window and you miss the best opportunity to lay down strong foundations for a well-behaved, happy pet.
Not enough socialization
No puppy is born knowing everything about the world. Insufficient socialization can result in a fearful animal. While some dogs manifest fear as timidity, others display it as aggression. Extensive socialization, with people, dogs and other animals – and ideally beginning even before a pup leaves its mother – is the best way to counteract this possibility.
It’s easy to think that all dogs learn in the same way and that, accordingly, any training method or class will do. However, like people, dogs are all different. What suits one animal may have no effect on another. Getting to know your pet and learning how they react in different situations will help you assess which training methods will work best.
Not training regularly enough
Training needs regular reinforcement if a dog is to retain what it’s learned. Many trainers suggest short sessions – perhaps only of five minutes – two or three times a day. Although tempting, a single weekly class of an hour or two is unlikely to bring the same results as shorter, more frequent sessions.
Thinking six weeks is enough
Dog training is a life-long skill. Many people sign up for short courses of training sessions, often with a new puppy, and think that’s all that’s needed. Although six weeks may be sufficient to teach your dog the basics, ongoing sessions will reinforce positive behavior. They will also provide necessary mental stimulation and help strengthen the bond between you and your dog.
Puppy classes are popular. However, check the structure of a class before you sign up. Whatever your pup’s temperament, an unstructured, free-play style of class is a bad idea. For an already timid puppy, this type of class can prove disastrous. Carefully run, however, a puppy class offers excellent socializing opportunities.
Using puppy pads
It’s natural to want to housetrain your puppy as quickly as possible. Although puppy pads seem to offer an easy way out from the inevitable cleaning that’s involved, they frequently prolong the process. That’s because your pup may become accustomed to doing its business on anything that resembles one of these pads.
Buying puppies who are siblings
If you want more than one dog, it can seem tempting to buy siblings. Unfortunately, while very young puppy siblings may get along well, problems often arise once adolescence hits at around six months. Sibling pups often bond so strongly with each other that it affects their bond with their owner. This makes training very hard.
Castrating an anxious dog
Although castrating your pet means he won’t become an unexpected father, it may affect temperament and behavior. Confident dogs are usually unaffected but an already nervous dog may become far more fearful as a consequence of the loss of testosterone following castration. A fearful dog may also display his fear through aggression.
Picking up your dog
Some people are tempted to pick up their small dog to keep it away from an exuberant or unfriendly larger dog. Try not to do this. It’s far better – and safer for you – to help your small dog learn to read other dog’s body language and approach them in a respectful manner.
It seems a harmless game that can also encourage a stronger bond between dog and owner. And, while the bonding part may be true, the harmless part is not. It’s common for smaller sticks to get wedged across the roof of a dog’s mouth, causing pain and distress. Even worse, a swallowed piece of stick can cause significant harm to your dog’s throat and stomach.
Reinforcing the wrong behavior
It’s all too easy to reinforce undesirable behavior. For instance, perhaps you have a small dog who begs prettily – paws up – for food. However, if you reward this behavior with treats, especially if they’re from your own meals, you could soon have a dog who is a pest at the dinner table.
Like many aspects of dog training, teaching tricks has its place. Giving paw, rolling over on command, or spinning in a circle can all be great fun for dog and owner alike. However, teaching them to the exclusion of other traits, especially sit, stay and down, is a mistake you could come to regret.
The dog training world is full of pieces of kit that were once considered mainstream. Choke chains are one such item. Essentially, a lead that ends in a chain that goes around the dog’s neck and tightens if it pulls, they are dangerous for your dog. They also rely on you having sufficient brute strength to use the lead to control the dog.
Not teaching “stay”
If your dog is a family pet, you probably want to involve him in as much of your daily life as possible. However, even the nicest, friendliest dog sometimes needs to stay where he’s told and not interfere. Children’s teatime, for instance, or if you have a tradesperson over to the house. A dog that understands “stay” has a very valuable command under his paws.
Dogs are sensitive, emotional creatures. They’re usually highly attuned to their owner’s mood and often quick to react accordingly. Additionally, as with people, some dogs are brighter than others. This combination of emotional intelligence and varying intellectual ability makes them very sensitive to an impatient owner.
Not using enough treats
It’s not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You can teach most dogs many things provided you give them enough treats along the way. Although the treats don’t replace verbal and physical praise, they are usually the primary incentive. Most dogs respond best to food treats but some will prefer toys.
The wrong timing
Knowing when your dog isn’t ready to learn something is essential. It’s not so much that some dogs prefer the morning and others the evening but more a case of ensuring that a dog is developmentally ready to learn something new. As with a child learning math, a dog needs good foundations before it can build on them.
Not giving a dog space
Most dogs give great cues when they need space. Lip licking, yawning and showing the whites of their eyes are all important early warning signs. Growling and snapping are later signs. Provided you and your children recognize those early signs and let your dog go off to his bed alone, you’re far less likely to have an animal that growls, snaps or bites.
If you want an obedient dog, you must provide consistency. If you sometimes ask your dog to sit before treating him but sometimes don’t, you’ll end up with a dog that never sits at all. Similarly, if you only sometimes bring the dog in because she’s barked at the postman, the dog won’t learn that you’re serious and will carry on barking.
Omitting mental stimulation
Dogs need more than just physical exercise. All dogs also need mental stimulation. Some breeds, like collies and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, need more than others. A bored dog is a frustrated dog, and a dog that’s likely to make its own entertainment. Kongs filled with treats and dog-safe peanut butter, scent work, and doggie puzzle games are all excellent ideas.
Too much emphasis on routine
While it’s true that many dogs thrive on a routine, they can come unstuck if that routine alters. Perhaps someone’s working hours change or a family member is in hospital. Whatever it is, dogs cope better if they have prior experience of routine changes, such as a day without a walk or a delayed mealtime.
Not learning dog body language
Many people anthropomorphize their dog. However, a dog is not a person in a furry suit with some slightly unsavory personal habits. Just as they don’t speak “human”, we don’t naturally understand their language. Knowing that a waving tail doesn’t always indicate a happy, friendly dog or understanding what flattened ears signify helps keep you, those around you, and your pet safe.
All dogs need physical exercise and some need more than others. However, you can over-walk a dog. For instance, a young dog has bones and joints that are not properly developed. Excessive exercise at this stage risks longer-term physiological damage. Equally, ramping up the exercise for a very active dog, like a Dalmatian, may result in a super-fit animal that’s never tired.
Shouting and physical chastisement should have no part in your dog training. Both risk methods rupturing the bond between you and your dog. And, while some dogs will respond by become more timid, others will react in ways that could be threatening or dangerous to you or others around you.
Think of a retriever endlessly engaged in a game of fetch. For that dog, the game itself and, specifically, the act of retrieving the ball, is the reward for the energy expended. Whatever you ask your dog to do, you need to imagine your dog asking itself what it will get out of the action.
Letting your kids play roughly with your pup
Kids and puppies get along well, right? Well, sometimes they do, but you always need to remember that puppies learn through playing – and part of what they learn concerns appropriate behaviour. Rambunctious play in a young puppy may be fun for all concerned. However, the same style of play in an older, bigger, stronger dog can have much more serious repercussions.
Shouting at a dog is, if you’re lucky, a sure-fire way to scare it. If you’re not lucky, it’s a quick way to antagonise it and possible provoke dangerous behavior. Either way, you’re unlikely to end up with a dog that does what the shouting was meant to instruct them to do.
Not proofing a behavior
It’s a fantastic feeling when your dog finally learns a new skill. Perhaps he now sits at the curb or goes to lie on his bed when you have visitors. Whatever it is, it’s a great accomplishment but, to ensure he retains the skill, you need to “proof” it. This means practising it in many different environments until you’re confident he can do it anywhere.
Not involving the whole family
Perhaps you’re the person who takes responsibility for training the dog. Maybe you train him in the garden or the dog park, or perhaps you take him to classes. Whatever you do, however, if you don’t want to end up with a dog that only responds to you and your commands, you need to get the whole family involved.
Not seeking professional support
It is possible to train a dog yourself, especially if you’re an experienced owner. However, even experienced owners sometimes find themselves with a dog that challenges their expectations and behaves in unaccustomed ways. These dogs and owners can really benefit from the professional support of a qualified behaviorist or trainer who uses kind, “no force” methods.
Whether it’s to other dogs, to people or to inanimate objects, some dogs are reactive. You may also have reactive tendencies but, as dog owner and trainer, you must curb them. Your job, in your dog’s eyes, is to be a steady, unflappable figure with whom the dog feels safe. Reacting negatively to your dog’s behavior threatens your spot as his safe place.
Taking it personally
Once again, it bears repeating that dogs are not people. They don’t misbehave deliberately and they don’t set out to upset you. Similarly, the road to a well-trained dog is not linear and it has no natural end point. Remembering all of this can help you take training hiccups with relative equanimity.
Although the “pack theory” has been discredited in the eyes of most trainers, your dog still needs to believe that you know what you’re doing. This is essential to help the dog feel safe and confident enough to make his own wise choices. The old advice of “fake it until you make it” can help but so too can playing bonding games with your pet.
If your dog doesn’t do what you’ve asked him to do, it’s tempting to repeat the command. However, just as children don’t respond well to nagging, neither do dogs. Moreover, an apparently disobedient dog that is usually reacting that way because he doesn’t understand the command. Repeating it is likely to result in an increasingly confused dog. Take a break and try again later.
Not focussing on grooming
Grooming is an essential part of keeping your dog healthy and in good condition. It’s also a valuable part of his training. A dog that will stand still for brushing, nail trimming and teeth cleaning is a dog that knows how to behave in many different circumstances. This level of tolerance can be particularly useful when you have to take your pet to the vet.
Not muzzle training
Many people dislike dog muzzles. They may think they’re cruel or they’re uncomfortable with implications of a muzzle. However, getting your dog used to wearing one has potential advantages. For instance, perhaps your dog becomes a voracious scavenger or he needs to go to the vet with a ripped dew claw. In either circumstance, life is much easier if he’ll wear a muzzle.
Not crate training
All dogs value a safe, quiet place that they can call their own. For older, well-trained dogs living in quiet and predictable homes, a dog bed does the job. For puppies, exuberant adolescents and any dog living in a busy home with visiting children, a crate is invaluable. Getting them used to a crate at a young age is invaluable.
Letting your puppy nip you
Puppies learn a lot about the world through their mouths. They also use them in play although the resulting “nips” can be very painful and frequently draw blood. It’s an essential part of learning bite inhibition to teach your pup that this is not tolerated. Distract them with a toy, say “no” firmly and be wary of making high-pitched squeals that may encourage the behavior.
Allowing the dog to pull on the lead
A dog that pulls on the lead is not much fun to take anywhere. Although the pulling might be manageable with a small dog, it can be painful and dangerous with a larger, stronger one. A pulling dog is not well-trained. If it can’t walk nicely to heel, you also can’t trust it to behave in other ways, for instance if it sees a cat.