It is simply amazing that our dogs are able to learn the things they do. The fact of the matter is they are learning ALL THE TIME, even when we don’t think we are training!
Here are some very common errors that teach our dogs to do just the opposite of what we want them to!
1) Pulling: Owner puts a 6’ leash on a new dog/puppy, puppy runs to the end of the leash and tugs, owner follows the tugging puppy. Puppy learns that tugging/pulling makes him go further!
Alternative #1: When the leash goes tight, be a tree! Hold still until the dog looks back, or better, returns to you!
Alternative #2: Owner teaches the puppy when they are not pulling good things happen (by clicking and treating), but when they pull all forward motion stops (by holding still and WAITING for the puppy to come back).
Alternative #3: Owner uses a longer leash so the puppy doesn’t get to the end of it so often, then holds still when they do.
2) Jumping: People walk into the dogs space, dog jumps on them, owner says, “No” and pulls dog off! Puppy learns greetings start with jumping on people, everybody gets excited and this is fun!
Alternative: Owner sees people coming, steps on leash BEFORE people have a chance to interact with puppy. Puppy learns jumping doesn’t work but feet on the floor results in petting.
Alternative #2: Owner sees people coming, stuffs a really yummy treat in puppy’s nose (at nose level), letting him nibble on it while people are petting. Puppy learns new people make cheese appear, who needs to jump?
3) Dog is off leash before ‘come’ is fully trained, owner yells ‘come’ many times, dog does not respond. Dog learns come doesn’t really mean much and stops hearing it at all.
Alternative: Owner leaves a long line on untrained dog when in the woods, making sure the end of the line is always nearby. This means they can prevent dog from running away, jumping on people, getting into the yucky swamp, all without yelling at the dog. Owner also practices calling their dog when there aren’t so many distractions many, many times with rewards each time the dog comes back. Dog learns coming when called is AWESOME!
4) Dog is let off leash at a park or dog park, owner doesn’t call dog until they are ready to go. Dog learns – in the presence of other dogs and interesting stuff, owner is gone, and if you come when they call the party’s over – bummer – won’t do that again!
Alternative: While dog is playing with other dogs, owner steps in, presents high value reinforcer (for owner’s dog ONLY), plays with dog, released them to play with other dogs again. Owner repeats this process many times during play, perhaps even engages in a rousing game of tug with their dog. Dog learns, owner is always there and can be more fun than the other dogs and they need to keep one ear open for them in case they have hotdogs, cheese or a tug toy!
5) Jumping on owner. Little puppy jumps up on owner for attention, owner reaches down and pats their head. Puppy learns jumping up makes good things happen (they get greeted). Later in life, puppy jumps up on owner, owner shouts, ‘NO’ and pushes puppy off of them. Puppy learns jumping up is a great game! Their owner gets excited and they get to jump up get pushed, jump up and get pushed several times, not unlike the way they play with other dogs!
Alternative: Early on, puppy jumps up, owner ignores puppy, puppy gets down, THEN owner praises puppy. Puppy learns four on the floor gets him the attention he wants.
Alternative #2: Older puppy gets ready to jump up, owner says, ‘Fido sit!’, older puppy sits (because the good owner has taught him this trick already), puppy gets praised and fed for sitting instead of jumping. Puppy learns sitting gets him good things.
There are innumerable ways we can inadvertently teach our dogs to do just the wrong thing. The key is to understand the relationship between what we do after a dog does something and whether that is actually reinforcing to the dog or not.
The bottom line is, if a behavior is not going away or is increasing, the dog is being reinforced for the behavior. So ask yourself, what happens just AFTER the dog does the behavior, and THAT will be the reason the dog continues to do the behavior!
By the way, trainers make these mistakes too. My last dog, Winter, got up one morning at 5am, went to the refrigerator (where her dog food is) and barked until I woke up. Being a bit groggy and not wanting her to wake the rest of the house, I fed her! BIG MISTAKE!
The next morning at 5am, yep, she's at the 'fridge barking her fool head off! OK, I admit it, I fed her again - what was I thinking.
By day three I finally figured out we have a problem. Instead of feeding her I gently guided her back to the bedroom and SHUT THE DOOR so she couldn't get access to the refrigerator. She laid down with a thump and a harumph
but didn't bark any more.
That said, for the next several months, about once month she would try an early morning bark at the fridge, just to test things. I was good and didn't feed her, so eventually the behavior went away.