- You don’t train your dog often enough
Most of us do teach basic behaviors and routines to our new dogs. But once the relationship stabilizes, we often allow our dogs to go on “auto-pilot.” Consequently, response times for important behaviors can worsen; often a dog won’t even respond. This degradation is simply a function of a lack of practice; if you play golf only once a year, you’re going to stink at it, right?
Instead of “training then forgetting,” keep your dog’s established behaviors sharp by working them randomly and regularly, several times each day. “Sit” for dinner, “wait” at doors, “down” at the dog park; be spontaneous and unpredictable. Then, each month, teach a new behavior—a trick will do—to keep your dog’s mind and motivation up. The larger your pet’s repertoire of behaviors, the smarter he or she gets, and the more important you become.
- You repeat commands
I see this often, especially among newbie owners with challenging dogs. The owner has taught a behavior such as “sit,” but, due to distractions, bad technique, or confusion on the dog’s part, the pet fails to respond. The owner asks repeatedly until, after the sixth or seventh attempt, the dog halfheartedly sits. This stalling becomes a learned behavior, one that’s hard to break.
This often occurs with behaviors that haven’t been fully proofed, or with one the dog doesn’t particularly like to perform. Headstrong dogs, for instance, hate to lie down, as it is an admission of deference. Timid dogs also resist lying down, a position they might deem too unsafe.
When I teach “sit,” I do so as if it’s a fun trick; I treat reward at first, praise, then work it in other locations, reducing reward rewards along the way while increasing praise. I make sitting, lying down, or coming when called the greatest things to do.
Once you are sure a dog knows a behavior, ask only once! If you are ignored, it’s either because you haven’t taught it properly, or the dog is distracted or simply rebellious (yes, they can be!). Take Fido to a quiet spot and ask again; if he still doesn’t respond, go back to basics and re-teach, avoiding the mistake of asking multiple times, or of making the behavior seem dreary or unbeneficial. If you suspect your dog is simply blowing you off, don’t be afraid to show your disappointment by saying in a convincing tone: “No; sit.”
One other tip; after asking once without response, wait a moment, while looking your dog square in the eye and moving in a bit closer. Often this will be enough to get the dog to comply. Then praise!
- Your training sessions run too long or too short
Teaching new behaviors to a dog is a process of evolution, not revolution. The key is in knowing that it’s usually going to take numerous sessions to perfect a new behavior.
Time spent on a training session should reflect some positive result; as soon as you attain some obvious level of success, reward, then quit. Don’t carry on and on, as you’ll likely bore the dog, and actually condition it to become disinterested in the new behavior. Likewise, don’t end a session until some evidence of success is shown, even if it’s a moment of focus or an attempt by the dog to try to perform. Remember that ten one-minute sessions in a day trump one ten-minute session every time.
- Your dog’s obedience behaviors are not generalized to varying conditions
If you teach Fluffy to “sit” in the quiet of your family room, that’s the only place she will reliably sit. It’s a mistake that many owners make; failing to generalize the new behavior in different areas with varying conditions and levels of distraction will ensure spotty obedience at best.
To generalize a behavior, first teach it at home with no distractions. Then, gradually increase distractions: turn the television on or have another person sit nearby. Once that’s perfected, move out into the yard. Then add another person or dog. Gradually move on to busier environments until Fluffy will perform consistently, even on the corner of a busy city street. Only then will the behavior be “proofed.” This generalization is especially vital when teaching the recall command, a behavior that might one day save your dog’s life.
- You rely too much on treats and not enough on praise, esteem, and celebrity
Treats are a great way to initiate a behavior or to reinforce that behavior intermittently later on. But liberal use of treats can often work against you. There can develop in the dog’s mind such a fixation on food that the desired behavior itself becomes compromised and focus on the owner diffused. Think of it: you’ll rarely see hunting, agility, Frisbee, or law enforcement dogs being offered food rewards during training or job performance. Why? Because it would break focus and interfere with actual performance. Instead, other muses are found, including praise and, perhaps, brief play with a favorite toy. Most of all, reward for these dogs comes from the joy of the job itself.
By all means, initiate new behaviors with treats. But once Fido learns the behavior, replace treats with praise, play, toy interludes, or whatever else he likes. Remember that unpredictable treat rewards work to sharpen a behavior, while frequent, expected rewards slow performance and focus. Also, understand that you are a reward as well; you responding happily to something your dog has done will work better than a treat, and have the added effect of upping your “celebrity quotient.”
- You use too much emotion
Excessive emotion can put the brakes on Fluffy’s ability to learn. Train with force, anger, or irritation and you’ll intimidate her and turn training sessions into inquisitions. Likewise, train with hyperbolic energy, piercing squeals of delight, and over-the-top displays of forced elation, and you will stoke her energy levels far beyond what is needed to focus and learn.