I see a lot of dogs that come to me for behaviour problems, whilst some of these are genetic problems and things outside of the owners or current owners control, a large percentage are related to the way the dog is raised and trained.
I might see 20 – 30 different dogs of different breeds in a week and many will be presented with the same problems. This sort of takes some of the focus off genetics, breed, sex and whether or not the dog is desexed.
So I have written a “what not to do” so that if you’re going to get a dog or a puppy, you might think twice about allowing these habits to develop in your next dog.
10. Ask your dog to do things you have not trained it to do.
This sounds incredibly simple but, it would be the most common reason dogs don’t respond to their humans. Walking into the back yard and saying “come” isn’t training your dog to come, in fact you might actually teach your dog he doesn’t need to come…
Everyone I see doing this gives me a smile and says “oh he knows, he just doesn’t want to“. Understand that “not wanting to” is worse than not knowing how to.
Professional dog trainers go through a system with each exercise which includes teaching the dog what the exercise is and how the dog will be rewarded for it. Training the dog in the exercise which includes generalisation of things such as the location / environment, time of day, reward delivery and consequences for failure if needed.
The exercise should then be proofed under very mild distraction through to a level of distraction you are likely to encounter in your life. This might be asking your dog for a down stay whilst another dog walks by, or a sit stay whilst you stop at a crossing.
What we don’t do is call “come” 600 times, offer no reward and assume the dog will comply under huge distraction in a new location every time, then get annoyed when it doesn’t and punish it. So you shouldn’t either.
9. Punish your dog with his name.
People will see their dog Max start to do something they don’t want Max to do. Straight away they scream “MAX!!!” and then carry out punishment.
If you consider a great deal of what a dog learns is associative learning (classical conditioning, pavlovian pairing etc), then the word “Max” in a negative tone, followed by some punishment is going to label the word “Max” as a word that is said before punishment.
If you’re the guy from number 10 on this list who doesn’t teach his dog either, you enter the back yard and call “Max, come“. Max then thinks “OMG I’m outta here“.
Perhaps you will say that you don’t punish your dog so this won’t happen, understand punishment comes in many different forms. If your dog was going to eat a dropped Hamburger off the ground and you stop him from eating it, this is called “Negative Punishment“, and whilst you might call this “taking him away“, he would call it, and you, something else.
The fact is that removal of the reward is a very powerful punisher, and whilst this is something that some of my programs may involve, I use it methodically to alter behaviours. Nevertheless, removal of a reward has power because it is felt by the dog as a negative experience, it can (un monitored) add stress and anxiety to some dogs that have high value for rewards.
8. Call your dog to punish it.
Often when people discover their dog has done something or is doing something wrong, they call the dog, perhaps by its name, and request the dog come to them for a telling off or worse.
Can you see how this is going to turn out?
Max (negative tone) come (untrained exercise) PUNISH.
Later that day you call your dog to come to you for a pat, he doesn’t come? Wonder why…
Because you don’t reward him and the circle of “command – comply – reward” is broken. Training and your relationship with your dog is going backwards now.
Reward every recall when teaching, sure there are better and worse ways to utilise rewards but pay and pay well until your dog thinks the recall exercise is the best one he has.
When I train my clients they often report a (first world) problem, “I go to the park and my dog won’t leave me, he just wants to be with me“.
Well I have that problem with my dogs too, but I don’t have a recall problem! I am happy for my dogs to enjoy the environment but only to a degree, that degree means that I want my dog to monitor me and always keep his ears tuned for my recall. (watch him here)
7. Free roam the house
This has absolutely nothing to do with pack structure, Alpha / Dominance theory or any such thing, it is just not allowing the dog to wander around the house freely until it makes a mistake and the guys from points 8, 9 and 10 from this list, jump on the dog.
Common behaviour problems I see related to this are: –
- Barking aggressively at visitors at the door
- Barking with excitement at visitors at the door
- Counter Surfing
- Toilet accidents (not really an accident the dog meant it!)
- Getting on furniture
- Going places in the home you don’t want the dog to go
- Pestering owner for affection 24/7
- Messing the house up with hair, dirt and captured rodents etc
and the list goes on…
Dogs would much prefer to roam your house waiting for you to scream their name and punish them for doing something they didn’t know was wrong.
6. Don’t lose the “NO!”
The “no” signal is very commonly used by people when training their dogs, there is a movement of people who feel any negativity towards dogs at all is wrong and unjust and you will go to hell; but I’m not talking about either here.
The “no” cue in my training is a No reward Marker, this is explained a little more in the next point but generally the No Reward cue is a signal to the dog that the thing he is doing right now, won’t pay.
In my Training in drive program I use No Reward Markers to switch off behaviours. This has to be conditioned though, again you can’t just say “No” and expect your dog to understand the meaning from the Oxford Dictionary.
Your dog only knows what you teach him.
Now plenty of people will laugh and say “oh he knows what ‘no’ means!”.
These people are often seeking help to try and extinguish behaviours that the word “no” has no effect on, so I guess he doesn’t know what “No” means or more likely, doesn’t care.
When introducing the no reward marker pair it with something that your dog won’t like. You can be creative here by using a water spray bottle, reward loss, physical correction or anything you feel has power, but if you don’t pair it with something of negative value, it will just fade through desensitisation.
5. Leave your dog confused
Dogs are hedonists, which means pleasure seeking, pain avoiding creatures., so they will design their lifestyle to gain pleasure and avoid pain, basically. Whether you use physical corrections such as collars etc or not, it is imperative to teach your dog how to gain reward and under what terms and how the dog can avoid punishment.
As mentioned above, punishment in your home may simply be just taking something away the dog wants, this could even be just putting the dog outside when the dog desires your attention.
I think that using a verbal marker, verbal encouragement and praise in training dogs is essential, not so much as a reward in itself but to let the dog know when the reward is coming and for what.
Many people (including myself) use a clicker for this communication, whilst I don’t use clickers for older dogs very much, I think puppies really work well in clicker training principles for a number of reasons. Having a reward marker (terminal bridge) also stops you from having to keep the food out of the dogs reach, which can mean punishment as I have covered earlier.
The same applies to use of punishment, say for example you are using a check chain on your dog, your dog starts a behaviour that you find undesirable and you jerk the chain.
I find it very useful to put a verbal cue, a conditioned reinforcer before the punishment. Now many people will smile as they will say “no” before or as they apply the punishment, we covered that, right?
This is not what I mean, the problem is that people will get a puppy and spend the first week screaming “No“, as explained in point number 6 from this list. The first few days, perhaps in pure startle response many times, the pup stops what it is doing, other times the pup becomes frightened of you.
As time passes you say “no” and the effect reduces, in other words you say “No!” and the pup ignores you!
In behaviour modification, this is called desensitization, basic rules are the application of a stimulus, in this case a noise (NO), paired with no outcome. No = nothing. It is helpful to use the word “no” and pair this with a negative outcome, this may be the removal of a reward through to a physical punisher.
These are a couple of what I call my primary communicators, “yes” tells my dog he has done something right and reward is coming, “Nope” tells my dog he just lost the chance of reward. I can use these as non physical behaviour controllers, sort of like a game of warmer and colder, but the added benefit is my dog knows exactly what pays and what attributes to loss.
So he is very clear on the behaviours that suit us both.
4. Teach your dog nothing and expect something
This is a bit of a play on Einstein’s saying “doing the same thing today as you did yesterday and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity“
This goes along the same lines as point 10 from this list, but to another level. A good example is the person that gets a new dog, perhaps from Rescue and expects the dog to be house trained, leash trained, social and obedient. I prefer to expect nothing and be delighted with anything!
Even if I bought a dog that was “fully trained“, I would run through all the exercises to familiarise myself with the cues and build a reward history with the dog.
I might also build rules and boundaries on these cues and test the dogs ability to deal with and overcome distraction. During this process I would be developing a relationship with the dog and teaching the dog how I will communicate with him or her.
This is really a simple way to define the relationship and build on that foundation with a new dog.
3. Engage in a training system that suits you and not the dog.
There are some dogs that really do well with a small piece of food delivered passively, in my experience maybe 30% of dogs will be ok with this style of training.
The problems is that over 90% of people try and use it, that leaves some 60% of dogs pretty uninterested in training. This means they will not be motivated to either learn or repeat the exercise and they certainly won’t ignore distraction for it.
This isn’t because you just need to know how you use food better or starve your dog or correct it, in most cases it is because the dog has very little work ethic and doesn’t understand a basic rule I teach all dogs, “if I do something, I get something“.
This has the unmentioned rule “if I do nothing, I get nothing” that underpins the power of the first rule. This might mean that you take away your dogs food bowl and replace it by hand feeding your dog throughout the day when the dog offers the right behaviours, backed by the wrong behaviour or no engagement with me at all would equal nothing. This might be a plan that needs to be installed so that the dog is willing to “look for work“.
In many other cases, food just doesn’t do it for the dog, sure they like it, sure they eat it, but if their primary reward system is prey and you are offering food, you might be outbid by things that really excite your dog.
A few years ago I would go to an obedience club to give a talk and everyone “had to have” a check chain and a load of food and/or toys were not allowed.
These were standard requirements before anyone even considered the dog. So the training was method specific rather than individual dog specific. If you think about this mathematically, I said earlier that about 30% of dogs will do ok with this method. So if we were lucky enough to have dedicated handlers who were 100% proficient at this method, we would have 3 dogs in every 10 working nicely.
If reality takes over maybe half of those handlers will be consistent and coordinated and posses the correct timing, so we could be at 1 – 2 dogs that are working nicely. This is why they had a need for the check chain to “make” the other 8 – 9 out of 10 work.
2. Politics in dog training
I want to add something here about the use of correction collars and aversive etc. as I think it is necessary to set a base level of understanding.
I don’t think teaching a dog to do something using an aversive like a check chain, e collar, prong collar etc is a great way to teach. I think very skilled trainers will do ok with this but the large majority wont.
I have no personal political stance on the use of aversive strategies or reward systems or the ratio that someone uses them in. I think that there has become way too much emphasis on the method over the goal.
I travel a lot and see a lot of dogs in training and or behaviour modification, I can honestly tell you that there are just as many dogs that are stressed in positive training as their are in aversive training. Dogs that feel a reward is available and not given the opportunity to get that reward feel pressure, I call this reward pressure.
When the session is ended on a no reward marker and the dog fails to get a pre promised reward, the stress from this can last a long time, scientific studies have shown a good many hours with some dogs. I don’t feel this is an issue if the trainer understands and takes this into consideration.
When a person gets frustrated with their dogs and lashes out with an over the top, frustrated correction to try and combat the dogs reaction to a distraction the dog has not been trained to overcome, this too can cause stress and anxiety.
The only place a “purely positive” training system exists is in the mind of an inexperienced person.
The harm I see is that every week there is another outburst from a trainer who has found a poor abused dog that was on the end of a check chain and they have brought the dog into the positive light and we are all happy again, and this is often combated elsewhere by the “balanced” trainer who just met a dog that was being fed cookies and was stuck in the back yard due to lack of reliability, and with this persons balanced methods the dog now has the much desired freedom.
My Belgian Malinois Venom is trained without the use of aversive, he is just over 2 and I have been training him this way since he was a pup. He has enormous drive and I feel confident to say that I am very good at using drive to shape and train a dog.
Venom is trained in many disciplines including bite work using the bite suit. I think that when a dog is trained to engage a man in combat that it must be under very effective control. Having that said, I still use no aversive tools, but I do use a very well conditioned No Reward Marker.
If at any stage he decides that the cues I give him are optional, I will run through the process of penalising him with a No Reward Marker, and if he still doesn’t feel compelled to follow the advice I give, I would without hesitation use aversive tools.
I coach many people in Competitive Obedience, just about all of them use zero aversives in their training as we too have established good communication and reward systems.
It is when the dog has learned and rehearsed a bad or dangerous behaviour or a number of bad behaviours that sometimes the use of aversive strategies are beneficial. This doesn’t mean that this dog cannot be trained without them, but often some of the smaller building blocks such as loose leash walking etc need to be developed to address a much larger issue, such as aggression for example.
If I spent 3 months establishing a communication and reward system so that we could then start training the dog to walk on a loose leash, then not pull on the leash or lunge, we might be a year in before we even touch the aggression.
Programs like this are not user friendly, this means that people give up and either resign any notion of rehabilitating their dog. This leads to either lack of freedom or exercise etc and often spawns the dog to become destructive. These things combined frequently see the dog labelled as unfixable and unliveable and it is euthanised.
This is the harm that I feel is caused by political arguments over who is best. A good dog trainer is a person who can train a dog and a good behaviourist is a person who can diagnose the dogs problems and modify the behaviour, not the person who does or doesn’t use a certain method.
1. Don’t teach your dog to love everyone and everything
For years I have been advising people not to over socialise or create huge values for things they cannot control, such as other people or other dogs. This seems foreign to many people but then again, so is a reliable dog.
I think back in the 1970’s when people wanted a guard dog, they were told by the resident experts to chain the dog up and not let anyone pat it. This caused the dog to be somewhat unsure of people but also territorially confident and you had a dog that would bite people who entered your property.
To avoid that, people seemed to go head long into the complete opposite of that, by teaching their dogs as pups that other dogs are the most awesome thing to play with, and then wondered why the dog won’t come away from other dogs when called.
I have written an article on this subject (here) and it would be a good idea to read it and see what I’m talking about in more depth. In short I will introduce my dog to other dogs, but I will keep them engaged with me and let the play in parallel. I don’t let the interaction attain what the pup would call highly rewarding. I want the pup to see other dogs as part of the background not the shining light in the foreground. I want my pups to know what to expect from other dogs and that is not a high reward experience that I will have to compete with.
This video is helpful to watch some of the exercises I complete, whilst this pup is Venom’s Daughter, he doesn’t know her so this is his typical behaviour around other dogs when out of drive. If he was in drive he would not notice her.
This post isn’t about how to train a dog, it is about what not to do, there are many thousands of ways to train a dog but most people don’t struggle there, they hit brick walks when trying to combat some of the things they create with lack of understanding from the dogs perspective.
Some people focus on whether or not to use corrections, some feel everything is about being the Alpha and some want to reward the dog for everything.
I am about getting results with the dog in front of me.
This means I have to consider the dog, the goal the owner has in mind and the skill level, patience and knowledge the owner has. Once all of these are part of the equation I find moving forward in training much easier.
Once we pollute these basic concepts with the things mentioned in my list of “10 things not to do with your dog“, things get very complicated, very quickly.
When your dog hears a known command, is he optimistic about the outcome, or pessimistic, does he think he has been caught, or just got lucky? This really depends on you more than what he was just doing.
Training your dog can be great fun, for you and your dog, that is if you’re doing it right!