Watch out for these common training mistakes
We all make mistakes: it’s only human. Sometimes, however, we’re not aware of these errors until we experience the consequences — and the same is true when training our dogs. Training mistakes, especially if they’re repeated over and over, can lead to behavior problems or even emotional distress, which is the last thing we want to accomplish.
Here are some of the most common training mistakes, according to animal behaviorist Karen London.
Inconsistent treat delivery
We need to remember that dogs associate rewards with the behavior that immediately preceded it. If you ask your dog to sit and she does, but she jumps up on you before you give her the treat, she associates the jumping behavior with the reward.
You also need to be careful not to associate the reward with the wrong kind of good behavior. Let’s say you’re training your dog to come when called: she comes running, and then darts around your feet, at which point you give her the treat. She’s likely to associate the action of running around with the reward, when what you’re really trying to do is encourage reliable recall. Make it crystal-clear what behavior you’re rewarding: many trainers use a clicker or even a word like “Yes!” at the exact moment the dog does what they want, then immediately give her the treat. That way, she understands what behavior earned her the goodie.
Punishing good behavior
It may seem odd to advise you not to punish good behavior, but you’d be surprised how many times inexperienced trainers do this unintentionally. In psychological terms, this is called “positive punishment,” and here’s how it happens: you call your dog to come, then subject him to something he dislikes like a bath or nail trim. What you’ve done is not just discourage the dog from performing the good behavior of coming when called, you may actually be “poisoning” the cue by teaching him to associate a cue such as “come” with something unpleasant.
Reinforcing poor behavior
This is another one of those things that can also happen accidentality. For instance, you’re trying to teach your dog not to jump up on people when she greets them.
Unfortunately, what often happens is that the guest being jumped on reinforces the behavior by sweet-talking or petting the dog, which in effects “rewards” the dog for the bad behavior.
Instead, the next time you have a guest, leash your pup and don’t allow her to jump, or put her in another room until your friend is inside. The same goes for leashpulling: you can inadvertently reward this irritating behavior by allowing the dog to pull you in the direction he wants to go, rather than where you want to go. (Don’t confuse this with your dog stopping and sniffing, which is a perfectly natural canine trait.)
Contradictory or inconsistent cues
Clear communication isn’t important just for humans: it’s also crucial when you’re communicating with your dog. Misunderstandings can end up confusing your dog about what he should or shouldn’t do — after all, you’re trying to communicate with a different species! If, for instance, your verbal cue for recall is “come,” you’ll only confound your dog by switching it to something like, “come on, girl” or “here.” By the same token, if you always say “Lie Down,” don’t arbitrarily change it to “get down” or “on the floor.”
If you’re unsure about training, get your vet’s recommendation for a trainer. Training your dog isn’t easy, but doing it wrong can have some very unwelcome consequences for you both.
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her golden retriever Joey, her Maine coon cat Indy and the abiding spirit of her beloved golden retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at joan@ joanmerriam.com. And if you’re looking for a golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.