Sometimes, teaching your dog a new behavior will feel nearly impossible. It takes forever, your dog doesn’t seem to “get it,” methods that you used with previous dogs don’t seem to be working, and you both leave the interaction feeling frustrated. Making a few changes to the way in which we train can often significantly improve our communication with our dogs and help us train more efficiently and effectively.
Reward the behavior you like.
Our dogs learn new skills faster when we tell them what we want them to do rather than what we don’t want them to do. If you find that you are frequently using the word ‘no,’ stop and think about what you would like your dog to do instead. Many unwanted behaviors can be replaced by another behavior, such as sitting in front of us instead of jumping on us when we get home from work.
In some situations, we see an unwanted behavior because our dog is scared or frustrated. In these cases, using rewards like food and play can help our dogs build positive associations with things that they normally react poorly towards, such as barking and lunging at other dogs on walks. Learn more about building positive associations here.
Polish your mechanics.
It’s important that we are clearly communicating to our dogs exactly which behavior we like. Identify the exact moment that you would like to reward your dog. For example, if our goal is to reward our dog for pottying outside, we want to reward them the second they finish pottying; if we wait for them to run over to us to reward them, we are actually rewarding them for coming to us. Using a clicker or a marker word (like, “yes!”) helps us precisely mark the exact behavior that we want to see more of.
For behaviors that your dog already knows but doesn’t always perform on cue, following this order of operations helps make your communication with your dog clear:
1. Say the cue: Only say the cue once. Saying it over and over will weaken it. If your dog does not perform the behavior right away, proceed to the next step.
2. Use a physical cue, if needed: Use a physical cue to prompt your dog to perform the behavior. This could be patting your leg to encourage the dog to move towards you, or using a hand signal to prompt the dog to sit.
3. Mark the behavior: The second that your dog performs the behavior, mark it with a clicker, the word ‘yes!,’ or any other marker that your dog recognizes.
4. Reach for your food: The most common mistake is to grab your food before or as you give the cue. The food should be out of sight until you have marked the behavior. A treat pouch is really handy for this, but you may also put the food in your pocket or somewhere else out of the dog’s eyesight.
5. Deliver the food: Bring the food directly to your dog’s mouth or place it on the floor.
6. Reinforce the behavior every time: If we only reinforce the behavior every so often, it will likely weaken as the dog cannot predict whether or not he will receive reinforcement, so the behavior doesn’t feel ‘worth it.’ The reinforcement does not need to be food each time, nor does it need to be the same thing each time – it can be any of the things listed above or that your dog enjoys.
For more troubleshooting tips for mechanics, check out this post.
We can think about consistency in a lot of ways, and they’re all important. Consistency in our expectations, training patterns, and routine all make an impact on our dog’s behavior.
If our expectations are constantly changing, it’s difficult for our dogs to predict what we want them to do. If, for example, we scratched our dogs’ ears when they jumped on us yesterday, but today we scold them for jumping on us, they’ll struggle to guess what our reaction will be tomorrow. This can increase stress and anxiety in our dogs – and in us, too. Try to stay consistent in what you are asking of your dog. It’s okay to make exceptions, but try to think of ways that we can communicate to your dog that this is an exception – can you give a particular cue before you make the exception? Is there a specific context in which the behavior is okay, and is it easy for your dog to recognize?
Training is a lot like studying for a math class. We do homework in between classes to make sure we understand an equation, and even if we memorize an equation to pass a test, we may forget the equation soon after if we don’t need to use it again. Our dogs often need to revisit a behavior or concept a few times before they truly understand it, and if we don’t use it again for awhile, they may forget it. It’s important that we are consistent in practicing a new behavior, helping our dog understand it in a variety of contexts (in different environments and around distractions). If we don’t, our dog may not be able to perform it later on in a real-life setting.
Establishing a routine is a great way to set both your dog and yourself up for success. It helps us set expectations for all aspects of our day – play time, meals, training, exercise. But remember that it’s okay to take breaks, too – if you or your dog simply aren’t feeling up for training today, spend some extra time having fun together with play, enrichment, or cuddles instead.
Utilize management and prevention.
Sometimes, preventing a behavior altogether is the easiest solution or can tide us over while we work on training. Think about when and why a behavior is happening. Is your dog bored, excited, scared, or frustrated? Does the behavior only happen at a certain time of day or during/after a certain event?
Providing a variety of enrichment projects can help prevent boredom and work your dog’s brain. This may help with behaviors like barking, chewing, and getting into the garbage. Restricting access to certain parts of the house or other animals with baby gates or a leash may help with avoiding conflict between dogs and potty training. Establishing a ritualized greeting for guests coming into your home may reduce behaviors like jumping up.
Training and management tend to go best hand-in-hand, but if you find yourself in a position in which training simply isn’t possible, getting creative with prevention and management can go a long way. A Certified Professional Dog Trainer can help you determine your best course of action.
Know your dog’s limits – and your own.
Training takes time. It requires patience, dedication, and communication. All dogs learn at their own pace, and some dogs will need extra assistance with learning certain behaviors or concepts. It can be easy to overdo it, though; keep training sessions short, and try to end sessions while you are both still having fun. If you feel yourself or your dog getting frustrated, it’s time to take a break, and you may need to alter some aspect of your training to set your dog and yourself up for success. When in doubt, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer can always point you in the right direction.
If you are struggling with training a particular behavior or are wondering whether training is actually possible, check out this free webinar, Is this trainable? We discuss how age, breed, physical ability, and past behavior history can effect training, methods for troubleshooting training, and management options.
If you need help developing a training plan, sign up for a video call consultation with a trainer to create a customized training plan that suits you, your dog, and your lifestyle. Our Four Weeks to Success program is a great way to stay on track and make meaningful progress towards your training goals in just one month.
Have questions? Contact us!