Top 3 Dog Training Mistakes That Confuse Your Dog

Hello dog lovers and welcome back to another edition of our free dog training blog! This month we are looking at the Top 3 Dog Training Mistakes That Confuse Your Dog.

So many people first get involved in dog training at puppy classes, it’s been that way for decades and most owners still feel it’s the best start of their dog.

Puppy classes have a lot of pros and cons (check out our other blog in that subject). The main con being, they are only a few weeks long and don’t always translate smoothly into the bumpy road of “teenage” dog behaviour. Maybe you’ve got first hand experience of this.

There is so much more to training a dog that just holding a treat in the right way and giving a reward.

Dogs need clean lines of instruction, body language, boundaries, good tools, confident handling, a nutritious diet and a great routine to reach their full potential. When these things are skewed or missing, most dogs fall into bad habits or develop behavioural issues.

If you’re struggling with nuisance dog behaviours that are just plain old annoying like not listening on walks, excessive barking, pulling on the lead an inability to settle or generally getting into a flap – you just might be confusing your dog.

How do humans confuse their dogs?

Does sit really mean sit?

Obedience is great fun for our dogs and provides not only some mental stimulation but a wide vocabulary to help them understand what we need from them at any given time. Cues and commands allow dogs to be good citizens. It’s at the core of responsible ownership. It is not optional. Training equates to safe dogs in a human-centred world.

But where does it go wrong?

Obedience can become confusing for dogs, simply because of human error.

When your dog sits, how long does it last for? Do they get up and wander off as soon as they have snatched a treat from your fingers? Do they suddenly being to fidget or stop listening around distractions? Do you even have a reward?

A release command is the secret sauce to getting obedience spot-on. It sounds something like this:

“Sit, good, okay!” > Reward.

Or for a longer sit: “sit, wait, good, [reward], good, [reward], okay! > Reward.

A release command tells the dog an action is over. Popular words are “break”, “free” “okay”, or “go sniff” are all good examples.

Try to find a word that does not sound like or rhyme with another commonly used word in your house such as the dog’s name or another command.

Rewarding the wrong state of mind

As a nation we love our dogs deeply (sometimes more than biological relatives). Our dogs are the faithful companions we cherish. They are charming, funny, characterful, comforting and provide an extraordinary feeling of reciprocated love.

But when we love our dogs, we can send the wrong message at the wrong time.

Physical affection, food, baby-talk, toys, walks, bones, and games are all in one way or another, encouragement. A green light for “go”. You might know it better as a “reward” or motivation.

Timing is everything

For good training to occur, that positive, reward-based encouragement needs to happen at the right time. The right time being when the dog shows a perfectly calm state of mind. It’s easy to see – the dog will be relaxed, open mouthed, almost smiling. Their body will be wiggly but easy-going. Their eyes will be soft and easy commands like “sit” or “wait” will look breezy with no fixed agenda.

When are dogs are showing signs of feeling highly excited, fearful, stressed, or worried they need us as handlers to be their advocates to ensure they understand boundaries, so that good choices can be made. It’s all about setting the dog up for success.

It’s also easy to recognise a dog in a heightened state such as overwhelm or hyper-arousal. Dogs who are over-excited or under pressure are stiff in their body. Their eyes are wide and their focus is often scattered. Frightened dogs may pant, freeze, retreat or crouch down. The more confident end of the spectrum tend to have little regard for human or physical boundaries and will launch themselves into the situation they are desperate to be involved in.

Either way, if encouragement or rewards are used during the wrong state of mind, the dog will have no idea what we want from them. They might even do the opposite – and interpret petting, food or freedom as a a confirmation that you want the madness to continue.

Dachshund case study

A good example of mixed messages through praise is a lovely little Dachshund we had in for 1:1 training recently. His name was Lionel and his problem (as described by his owners) was “highly fearful reactivity and barking”.

After an initial consultation, it was obvious that Lionel was not fully “scared” or being traumatised but simply insecure and lacking direction. Nothing seemed to calm him.

Part of Lionel’s issue was that his owners also felt insecure, and worried when he kicked off in public. What would people say? All those judging glances from onlookers! They were embarrassed by how out of control he looked. And he was.

Dog-and-owner relationships are unique

Through their fears and sheer dedication to prevent upsetting him further, they did everything to comfort their dog. Barking and overwhelm were met with petting, cooing and food when he was in a state of mind driven by panic.

Comforting behaviours we use with children don’t always translate well to dogs. Of course it all depends on the individual, the situation and the breed but thats what our 1:1 sessions are for. Analysing every single area of the dog’s life to find the answers.

Over-arching concepts

Dogs are very smart, but they need help contextualising commands. This doesn’t just mean consistently rewarding cues at home and on walks, but also consistency at the very core of what each command means.

Dogs need crystal clear definitions that are not open to wide interpretation. Humans can cope with this, animals not so much.

Common mistakes we see in the training room are commands with double or triple expectations attached to them.

“Settle” – meaning to lie down or get into bed or stop barking all at once.

“Down” – being used to mean both “lie down” and to deflect a dog that jumps up at people.

“Stay” and “wait” – being interchangeable or with inconsistent set periods of time.

“Drop” – commonly meaning drop that thing on. the floor, let me take that out of your mouth or retrieve directly to my hand.

It’s plain to see just how easy humans can confuse their canine companions. We don’t mean to do it, but human psychology, logic and rationale are cheeky blighters that effortlessly works their way into animal training. Be ready to call them out when you see it.

How to be clearer…

Here are some alternative commands, cues and definitions that give the dog more clarity.

Settle – lie down and stay. Start off in a crate or bed before working other areas of your house, pubs or cafes with a designated mat.

Down – lie down with “off” for deflecting jumping up.

Wait – a short stay with a quick release with 10 seconds.

Stay – a long stay. With practice dogs can learn to stay for several minutes at a time before release.

Drop – drop the item in your mouth onto the floor.

Let go – let go of the tug toy we are playing with together.

We hope you enjoyed this month’s blog. As always our topics are chosen by our clients, friends and followers on Facebook and Instagram. We hope you will join us in voting for the next topic!

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Watch the before an after video of this reactive German Shepherd puppy – results from just 2 sessions.

Top 3 Dog Training Mistakes That Confuse Your Dog
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