10 Dog-Training Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making · The Wildest

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10 Dog Training Habits You Should Drop Right Now

Training a dog can seem pretty intuitive – until it’s not

by Marissa Gainsburg
6 March 2024
A woman cleaning up pee on the wood floors inside while disciplining a grey puppy with a raised finger of disapproval
zoranm / iStock

Training a dog can seem pretty intuitive: reward them when they do what you want; withhold said reward when they don’t. But in case you needed a reminder, dogs aren’t humans, which means our brains don’t always understand theirs. 

“People often make everyday mistakes that either confuse their dog, encourage poor behaviour or otherwise undo their training progress,” says dog trainer Kim Roche. Most dogs pay better attention than you think, and at the end of the day, even the most rambunctious dog wants to do right by you. However, trouble can ensue when they don’t know how.

Of course, being 100 percent intentional with every little move you make around your dog is impossible. But just being aware of the following common mistakes can make a huge difference in their manners – a win-win for you and your eager-to-please pup.

Calling them over and over

No shame if you’ve had to shout for your dog repeatedly at the park or on the beach. Recall – calling your dog’s name when they’re off the lead so that they come back to you – can be very challenging to teach. But according to dog trainer and breeder Jamie Hansen, it’s probably the most important part of training because it involves your dog’s (and potentially other dogs’) safety. 

Let’s say you call for your dog eight times before they show up at your feet. That’s bad, says Jamie, because instead of responding to their name, your dog has now associated your calls as background noise. “You want them to turn their head and come to you on the first call, or second if they’re really distracted,” she says. 

To train this behaviour, Jamie recommends attaching your dog to a lead or line outside where they can run to a certain point. Bring the extra-yummy treats and call them: as soon as they turn their head to look at you, throw them a treat – and keep doing that, throwing treats on alternate sides of you. This teaches them to stop whatever they’re doing – no matter how exciting that squirrel or tiny Chihuahua might be – and pay attention to you. Try it at least three times a week for a couple of weeks and you’ll see a huge difference in their response, Jamie advises. From there, you can start to work on the behaviour in safe off-the-lead areas.

Using only one reinforcer

OK, we just told you to use treats for recall. But for smaller good pup behaviours, you’ll want to think outside the biscuit box. “If you rely solely on treats to reinforce positive behaviours all the time, at some point the excitement of the reward fades a bit,” says Kim. And if you run out of treats or forget to bring them? You’re really at a loss.

Your move: mix up your reward toolbox, using other pleasurable incentives for everyday good behaviours like sitting when you ask them to. Stroke them on the head, give them a belly rub, play with them, throw the ball. According to Kim, “Any mix of things they love will cultivate a very stable dog that is able to work without food.”

Giving treats at the wrong time

“Dogs are self-important, which means that they’re looking out for their own needs and will manipulate us to meet them,” says Jamie. If you reward your dog in a moment when they don’t deserve the reward – say, when they finally lie down after you asked them to 14 times – you’re reinforcing that they get a treat when they do things on their own timetable.

Use “good girl” or “good boy” when they’ve listened after a while – if you’ve done even basic training work, they’ll know that if they do things better/faster, they can get a treat with this behaviour. Similar to the recall thing, save treats for only when they’ve listened on the first or second command. 

Going on autopilot on walks

We know, we know: sometimes the only time you have to make that important call or vent to a friend is on your daily walks with your dog. But try not to. “We’re all human, which means we are absolutely going to overlook instances of good behaviour sometimes,” says Kim. “But if we habitually do that, there’s really no difference to your dog between a behaviour going unreinforced because we forgot to applaud it or because we don’t want them to do it anymore.” 

Make a point to reinforce as many positive behaviours your dog does as possible in real time, including the spontaneous ones. Remember, they don’t go autopilot on you (just one more reason we don’t deserve them).

Shushing them 

Picture this: your dog starts barking when the Amazon delivery person knocks on the door with the harness you ordered. It’s natural to try to quiet them with a ‘shhhhhh’ the way you would a crying baby, but again, dogs aren’t crying babies. “Energy feeds energy, and the ‘shh’ sound can sound like a small animal or the sound of running through grass,” says Jamie. “What they hear is: ‘More energy!‘ So, the opposite of what you want.” 

Instead, use a cue word or phrase consistently, like ‘it’s OK’ or ‘calm’ in a soothing voice. In time, they’ll learn to match your energy.

Saying ‘down’ when inappropriate

Trainers generally use the word ‘down’ to teach a dog to lie down on the ground. If you’re using it for anything but – such as, to tell them to get down from the sofa or to go back to their spot in the car – you’re creating a miscommunication.

Try your best to save ‘down’ for when you actually mean lie down. Say ‘off’ when you need them to get off of something (be it furniture, a person or another dog). The goal is to be extremely explicit with each command. That way, your dog will do what you say, so make sure you’re saying what you mean.

Not using hand signals

On that note, dogs flourish with multiple cues for the same behaviours. Using one word alone can work for many instances, but you’ll increase your dog’s chances of listening success if they can understand you with their ears and eyes. (Also, if you’re ever in a loud or busy environment, or your dog ever goes deaf, you’ll be glad you started this.)

Kim recommends that you pair your go-to commands with a gesture that matches, such as pointing down with ‘sit’, flexing your hand like a stop sign with ‘stay’, and pushing air away with ‘off’. 

Not being direct

Especially with puppies or a rescue dog that’s new to your home, you want to give them actual instructions. “Imagine you have a toddler getting into things: you could never just say, ‘Stop doing everything and just do nothing’”, says Kim. “But you could say: ‘Go to your bed and lie down.’” Dogs are the same way.

Next time you want your dog to just chill out, be specific with your instructions (that may mean showing them the behaviour yourself, by going to their bed) and/or give them a project (like a rubber toy stuffed with treats) to occupy them. Seriously, it works.

Expecting too much

Oof, this one can manifest in so many ways. “Dogs are often smarter than we think, but we have to remember that they learn from us,” says Jamie. In other words, we can’t just assume they understand what to do just because it makes sense to us.

A prime example: you tell your dog to stay, then you walk away from them to test them and they break their stay. “We have to train them to understand the word, and to make that happen, you would wait for a second and give them a treat before they get up, not after,” says Jamie. “You want to reward the staying put, not the getting up part.” Once they get the hang of this, then you can start to walk away or do whatever you want as they sit there expectantly until you release them. Same goes for any trick or basic behaviour – patience is key.

Missing chances for training advancement

If you want your dog to be good all of the time (or realistically, just most of the time), you have to teach them. And that means making the most of even mundane moments, like feeding, to encourage wanted behaviours.

Have your dog sit before you give them dinner. Continue their walk only when they’ve stopped acting out. Make them work for every treat you give. Rub their belly (if they like that) when they stay by your feet instead of climbing on the sofa next to you. “You don’t need every training lesson to be an hour,” says Jamie. “Every minute of interaction counts.”

Marissa Gainsburg

Marissa Gainsburg is a writer, editor and content strategist who recently traded East Coast humidity for West Coast waterfalls (and wildfire smoke). She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her thru-hiker boyfriend (how cliché) and their freakishly intelligent Aussie, Miley. She previously covered all things wellness and lifestyle as the features director at Women's Health. Her work has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Men's Health. 

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