As I started writing this blog post, it rapidly spiraled out of control. What started as a list of ways we continually fail our dogs, quickly became a depressing reflection of all my current and past training shortcomings. Us trainers are human too. We fail our dogs.
So I shelved this post for a while, and when I started and stared at my original list, I realized most of our shortcomings can be lumped into three categories: having unrealistic expectations, unintentionally encouraging bad habits, and not training our dog in a way they understand. Seems a little more manageable, right?
I will say, this one is tough for me. As a trainer, I have high expectations for my dogs. Expectations are good, but sometimes they turns into frustrations. I think my dog should know something by now, but in reality I'm expecting something that is totally unfair. Maybe I haven't taught the skill to them in enough small pieces for them to understand. Maybe I think they should have more stamina.
A lot of people have expectations and a certain level of "humanness" they expect from their dogs. Many expect their dogs not to dig up the yard, but in reality digging is a natural behavior for dogs. They have to be taught not to dig, not just expected not to dig. Ever wonder why your dog barks? Because he's a dog, and dogs bark! It's our job to teach them when it is acceptable and when it is not.
And sometimes, we just forget that dogs have bad days too. It's unrealistic to expect them to be 100% all the time. Dogs have days they don't feel good. Sometimes they just have bad days too. We all are allowed bad days. Extend that grace to your dog. Sometimes the dog just needs to be heard.
Unintentionally Encouraging or Ignoring Bad Habits
Your dog paws at your hand, so what do you do? You pet them of course! And hey, I'm not here to tell you not to pet your dog. But then what happens? You stop petting your dog to answer your phone, so he paws again. Now the dog doesn't stop pawing for attention, or maybe because the pawing isn't working he picks some other destructive behavior to do while you are busy. And now all the sudden we are frustrated that our dog constantly needs attention.
> Dog sits and stares at our food nicely, so we give them a piece because they are just so cute! Now we now have a dog begging for food.
> Our dog whines in the crate, so we let him out. Dog learns that whining gets them out of the crate.
> Dog wants to go say hi to everyone, and we want them to be well-socialized, so we allow everyone to pet them. Dog now pulls you to every person he sees and gives zero attention to the owner's commands.
> Dog barks for attention, so we get up and get them a toy or a bone to stop the barking. Dog learns that barking brings them a source of entertainment.
And what about those harmless obsessions? Your dog frantically stares out the window at the squirrel. It's not hurting anything, right? Or your dog obsessively chases light or can't handle life when a tennis ball is present. It's not affecting your dog 95% of the time, so we pretend it's not a problem... until it is. You walk your dog and he pulls the leash out of your hand when he sees a squirrel. Your dog can't cope with normal, everyday life because he's constantly searching for reflections. You take your well-behaved dog to a baseball game, but he goes frantic when he sees the ball being thrown. Be careful. Bad habits don't just go away- they get worse without training.
Not Training in a Way the Dog Understands
Have you ever stared blankly at your dog or repeated a command over and over in shock that your dog isn't responding? They know how to sit, right? They do it all the time without fail, and then one day they just don't.
Dogs don't generalize command automatically. If your dog knows how to come when called in the house, that doesn't mean he will do it outside off-leash while playing with another dog. The things we expect our dogs to perform, we need to practice. Generalizing behaviors to new locations, situations, etc. is a crucial part of training.
In addition, dogs don't come pre-programmed to know what our words mean. Dogs understand reinforcement. If good things happen after performing a behavior, the dog will perform that behavior more. He sits, he gets a treat. Its simple dog logic. If bad things happen after performing a behavior, that behavior will decrease. If a dog is called to come then continually put in a kennel, he will stop coming when called. Bad deal for him.
Another form of training dogs will never understand is the lack of training. Well trained dogs take time and consistency. Training is a commitment to providing your dog with guidelines and then following through with those guidelines. It's not about sit, down, and shake. Reward often and frequently for the little things. The good, everyday behavior.
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About The Author: Megan is the owner and lead trainer of Havana Dog Training. She has been training canines for over 9 years and specializes in behavior modification, training foundations, and working with families and young children.