When training doesn’t go to plan it’s common for people to blame the dog. Instead you should ask yourself how you can be a more effective teacher. This blog looks at common mistakes in behavioral training and what can be done instead to work through problem behaviors associated with fear, anxiety, aggression or hyper-activity.
Mistake # 1: Avoid stifling reactive or excitable behavior
Stifling or suppressing behavior is a short term fix that can lead to more stress, frustration and anxiety. Suppressing behavior has the potential to create more intense and less predictable behavior in the long term.
We need to train proactively, not reactively. Train in situations in which your dog is able to offer calm and engaged behavior *with ease*, and systematically build towards more challenging real world scenarios.
Mistake #2: Doing “too much, too soon”
We try to train in situations that are beyond our dog’s capabilities.
You need to break down one big goal into smaller, achievable steps. If you feel stressed or frustrated by the training, your dog probably feels the same way. Breaking things down ensures that you and your dog are set up for success every step of the way.
Mistake # 3: Training without a management plan
Our dog’s environment and routine shapes behavior. If your routine puts your dog into situations where they frequently practice undesirable behavior, like barking, lunging or snapping, those behaviors will become more habitual and more difficult to modify.
Sit down and come up with a solid management protocol that will minimize or prevent exposure to triggers that generate undesirable behavior. Stick with the protocol for a 3 month block of time, or longer, even as your dog begins to make progress in training. It’s important to give your dog plenty of time to practice healthier habits, before you “take off the training wheels.” (so to speak)
Mistake #4: Trying to stop bad habits, instead of creating good habits
There’s only so much progress that we can make when we focus on what we don’t want, instead of focusing on what we do want.
Start training simple behaviors that can replace undesirable behavior. For example, teaching your dog to check in with you in the presence of distractions is a great way to work through behavioral issues related to high stress or over arousal.
Mistake # 5: Blaming failure on your dog
People will say things like “he knows better” “he’s stubborn/ dumb/ defiant/ or dominant.” These labels create false assumptions about a dog’s motivation and abilities.
Set the stage for success. If training ever feels like you’re “pulling teeth” that’s a good indication that criteria or training conditions need to be adjusted.
Mistake #6: We underestimate the power of environmental cues
A lot of times when we think about training we think of verbal cues. We fail to realize that the environment is also teaching our dog to behave in a certain way.
Stop putting so much emphasis on verbal cues. Train your dog to freely **offer** behaviors. Then teach your dog to offer those behaviors in response to environmental distractions.
Mistake #7: Believing that our dog “knows better”
There are times where we go “over threshold” in our day to day routine. Times where we lose rational thought, struggle to control impulsive behavior, or communicate effectively with others. The same is true of our dogs.
Your dog’s behavior is a reflection of underlying physiological responses, like elevated cortisol levels and adrenaline (stress hormones). The best thing to do if your dog appears stressed or over-aroused is to practice calming exercises that conditions calm responses with triggers. The same exercises should improve communication, trust and help your dog feel safe.
Mistake #8: We focus on abstract goals, instead of concrete behaviors
Try as you might you can’t make your dog be social with people or dogs if they don’t want to. In fact, our best efforts, bringing a nervous dog to a dog park or to social gatherings, usually backfire.
Focus on well defined behaviors. If your dog is nervous in social situations you should focus on teaching them what they should do when they are stressed, like checking in with you or moving away from the trigger. Training should focus on actionable steps that are easy to follow.
Mistake #9: Placing too much emphasis on good or bad days
Training is a process. Every dog, just like every person, has good and bad days. This can lead people to stop training if their dog seems to be doing better or get frustrated and quit if their dog has a rough day.
Be steady and consistent. Create a well thought out training and management plan and then stick with the protocol. Have a clear understanding of how to adjust conditions to your dog’s ever changing needs. Having a training “flow chart” will help you work through the tough days, it will also help you know how to advance your training if your dog is ready for the next step.
Mistake #10: Assuming that change is impossible
A negative mindset is the biggest obstacle to positive change.
You gotta believe. Even on the hardest days you need to know that change is possible. It all comes down to knowing how to create the necessary stepping stones. Effective training breaks goals down into achievable steps that are fun and engaging for both you and your dog.
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