We all want to have a long, happy, and trusting relationship with our dog. But as we know, no matter how much we love our dogs, they often do things that frustrate us. Behaviors like excessive jumping or barking, being reactive on leash, and ignoring our commands can come seemingly out of nowhere.
After working over 3,500 hours with various owners, dog breeds, and behavioral issues, I have found 3 common mistakes that lead to most of this frustration between owners and dogs. The good news is that all of these mistakes are easily trainable! Read on to learn how to identify these common mistakes and how correct them.
1. Positively Reinforcing the wrong behavior
At any moment that you give your dog praise, treats, petting, etc., you are positively reinforcing them for whatever behavior they are exhibiting at that specific moment. This means that if your dog is jumping or barking and you pet them, you are encouraging them to do more of that behavior. An extremely common scenario where this occurs is when owners enter the house. We have all been there: you get home from work, open the door, and your dog is standing right there jumping, barking, running around, and getting overstimulated. The dilemma is that if you pet them and feed into their excitement, you will be reinforcing that behavior. In other words, if you give them affection in this scenario, you teach them that overexcitement, barking, and jumping gets them a reward, which encourages them to continue that behavior.
Another common scenario where this is shown is in reactive or fearful dogs. Let’s say we are on a walk with a timid dog through the neighborhood- when the dog gets fearful, scared, or overstimulated and starts to bark or whine, this is where the mistake occurs. Rather than coaching a nervous dog with calm energy and a simple command like “easy”, owners often feed into the fear with petting, reassurance, and words like “it’s ok” or “good boy”. The issue once again is that the owner is positively reinforcing the fear or reactivity without even knowing it. Therefore, they are rewarding the exact behavior they do not want the dog to exhibit, consequently giving unclear direction and leadership.
How to fix: The easiest way to fix this common problem is to always ask yourself:
“Am I rewarding a desired behavior or unwanted behavior?”
Remember! A reward is considered anything that the dog values; which includes attention, affection, “baby talk”, petting, treats, etc.
If you develop a habit of asking yourself “Am I rewarding a desired behavior or an unwanted behavior?” and acting accordingly in these scenarios, you will give your dog clear direction and leadership. This will lead to confidence, independence, and a reduction of any of the unwanted behaviors they are exhibiting!
An easy way to coach them through fear, barking, reactivity, aggression, or over-excitement is by giving them a calm “easy” command in these scenarios instead of love, attention, treats, or “baby talk”. Thus, if your dog does things like getting nervous on leash or jumping too much at home, try using an “easy” command with a calm, but firm voice.
Following the same logic, another important tip is to not feed into their energy! If they are overexcited or nervous and you feed into it with affection, petting, and your own excited or nervous energy, you not only positively reinforce it, but also escalate it. Therefore, if your dog is jumping like crazy when you get home and you pet it, you are rewarding the behavior and most likely teaching them to escalate that excitement even more and to greet all other people that way. The goal is to walk in the house nice and calm, ignore your dog if they are overexcited, and wait for them to calm down. You can give a few “easy” commands as you take off your shoes, wash your hands, or do anything else you need to. Once the dog has de-escalated themselves and calmed down, then you can pet them and tell them “good easy!”
The takeaway here is to positively reinforce your dog for calmness and confidence, and to de-escalate their fear, overexcitement, jumping, barking, etc., by staying calm yourself and giving a firm “easy” command.
2. Not establishing clear boundaries / rules
Your dog looks to you to decide what they can and cannot get away with. When your dog does something undesirable, it is essential that he is corrected dog for that bad behavior every single time, no matter where he is, or who he is with. (Read more on how to correct your dog for bad behavior here). By not being consistent with corrections, dogs become unclear about what their boundaries of behavior are.
The issue with setting unclear boundaries is that the dog is not given clear direction. Without this direction, you are not successfully teaching them right from wrong. Just like children, if they are not given this guidance, they start to define right and wrong for themselves. This is what leads to issues like being territorial of the house, being reactive on leash, and not listening at home. Dogs are pack animals and need leadership in order to understand the expectations that you are setting for them. If you are inconsistent with your rules in and out of the home, then your dog will not respect you or follow the routine you are trying to create.
How to fix: The fix for this common mistake is to make sure that everyone in the household is on the same page with the rules and boundaries. The more people that enforce these, the better! This will teach the dog to listen to everyone in the household, not just mom or dad! Setting rules at home are easy, and every house should have their own. Here are a couple examples from our training summary!
3. Being inconsistent and not following through with commands
We have all been there: your dog is in the backyard smelling something at the edge of the property, when you ask it to “come”. It turns around, looks at you, and then chooses to ignore you and goes back to smelling. The common mistake happens when you either let them get away with not listening and give up, or you ask them over and over again.
If you give up in that instance, then over time your dog will start to learn that is does not have to listen to you. It will begin to ignore your command as they have learned you do not enforce them and there are no consequences for their disobedience.
If you continue to ask over and over, then the command loses all of its value, because it is not being enforced or responded to. Commands are high value words and should only ever be asked twice before being enforced! If they are asked over and over, it just goes in one floppy dog ear and out the other.
How to fix: The easiest way to fix this issue is to not ask a command unless you are 100% committed to making sure that your dog does it. This means that in situations where you are unsure if they will listen and you are not committed to following up, do not ask! The more you ask and they ignore the more you train them to not listen.
The command should only ever be asked twice in order to set a clear expectation for your dog. Therefore, if we were going to ask it to “sit”, we would ask once, ask twice (with a firmer voice), and then put them in a “sit” if they did not listen the second time. This creates an expectation level of “I am only going to ask twice before I make you do it,” which is extremely powerful in training obedience and impulse control. This also conditions your dog to the power of the words you use for training, which will make them more responsive overall. If you are consistent with your follow up after asking the command for a second time, your dog will learn to listen and respect your words!
This “only ask twice” method can be used universally with all commands. Calmly coaching them to do it after asking for the second time creates an understanding across the board that they must listen. This “learned submission” allows you to create an expectation and will greatly increases obedience and impulse control.
The most difficult scenario to apply this is in recall training. When you ask your dog to “come” twice and they do not listen, this means that you must follow up with them. The goal is to take them from where they are and bring them to where you asked them to come. It is very common for them to try and run or play keep away in this scenario, but just stay firm and continue to pursue them. If you let them get away with not listening, they learn it is acceptable! It may take a 20-minute chase the first day in order to get them to understand, but consistency and time will teach them they must come when you ask and will ultimately create a stronger, healthier, and happier relationship between you and your dog.
(LPT: teaching the touch command is another great way to train recall and avoid having to chase your dog’s round the yard if they do not listen.)
Positively reinforcing the wrong behaviors, not establishing clear boundaries, and being inconsistent with commands are 3 of the most common issues I have seen contribute to frustration and confusion between owners and dogs. If you are struggling with any of these issues, try applying these fixes and let us know how they are helping! With time, providing your dog with consistency, direction, and clear feedback will strengthen the relationship between you and your dog. If you need additional help, we also offer free behavior assessments to help outline your goals and create actionable plans for your issues!
Originally published at https://craftycanineclub.com on September 3, 2020.