Trying to train a dog offers its own special challenges. Humans don’t share a common language with dogs; we don’t even use similar body-language signals.
The biggest advantage we have is our ability to use our brains to make a sensible training plan and to consistently follow through with that plan.
Here are five common training mistakes to avoid.
Getting a late start – Old-time training wisdom dictated that it not start before a dog turned 6 months old. This is the equivalent of keeping your child out of school until she is ready to start the third grade. Think of the valuable time lost while the other kids were learning to read, write and do arithmetic, let alone the lost opportunity to learn communication and socialization skills. A puppy begins to learn the day he is born. Obedience training can begin the day you bring him home. Early obedience training helps prevent problem behaviors by setting boundaries and defining acceptable behavior.
Reinforcing unwanted behaviors – Every interaction with your dog is a training session. Either you are training him or he is training you. This means you must be critically conscious of everything you do with your dog. If you want your dog to jump on you when you come home, then just keep petting and hugging him when he puts his paws on you. If you want to be stared at as you eat, then feed your dog bits of your meal during dinner. Be careful, that automatic pat you offer after your dog nudges you with his nose can quickly turn into an insistent demand for attention. Start early and only reward the behaviors you want to encourage.
Poor timing – You have just gotten your puppy to sit on command for the first time. In your excitement, you reach into the wrong pocket for his treat reward. By the time you locate it and reward your puppy, he’s standing up again. Oops, you just rewarded your dog for standing back up. It’s not always easy, but you need to stay one step ahead of your dog. Work out the logistics of your training sessions so that your timing can be as precise as possible. Using a treat bag attached to your belt and filled with small, easy-to-manage treats can be very helpful.
Giving commands that you fail to enforce – One of the cardinal rules of dog training is to never give a command that you cannot or will not enforce. If you tell your dog to sit and stay for his food but let him eat when he breaks his stay, he will only learn that obeying your commands is optional. It’s better to not give the command at all than to undercut your own authority by failing to follow through with your commands. Your consistency will pay dividends in the long run.
Only training at home – Most dogs with at least some training behave pretty well at home. Knowing that your dog will respond to your commands in all circumstances is the real test of obedience training. Dogs often don’t realize that the training you practice at home applies to the rest of the world. Your job is to help your dog generalize the commands that you teach him to a wide variety of situations. Practice in the house at first, then progress to the backyard and then on your walks through town. Use your imagination to create challenging situations for your dog, such as walks in the park so that bicyclists and joggers can act as distractions.
Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at www.alphacanineacademy.com.