When it comes to dog training, there’s no doubt that we learn a lot of valuable information from “do this to achieve this” articles, but it’s also valuable to learn from mistakes.
Anyone who has worked closely with their dog knows that dog training does not always go as planned and that expected results are not guaranteed.
I’m definitely tired of “that didn’t go as planned” and “why didn’t I realize this sooner?” moments, so I wanted to take a few minutes to share a few. Here are 5 dog training lessons I learned the hard way.
Yelping won’t stop puppy biting
To say that Laika was a challenge when it comes to teaching bite inhibition is a lie. She wasn’t just a challenge, she was a nightmare. I had huge scratches up and down my arms and legs, to the point where I started wearing long sleeves and pants in the summer just to avoid all the “oh my god, what happened to you” questions.
I don’t know why it was so bad, I just know it was bad. So I immediately read everything I could find about preventing your puppy from biting. And one method that appeared regularly was the ‘yelp method’. Every time your puppy bites you, you should let out a yelp, and in turn your dog will stop biting because he will realize that he is hurting you. Do you know what happened when I tried that? She bit down harder.
And funny, I thought I was doing something wrong, so I kept going. Every time she bit me I started to whimper, and every time I whimpered she bit harder. Thinking my whining wasn’t convincing enough, I kept practicing. Finally I let out a realistic scream that got through to her, right? No luck, she kept biting.
It turns out that the screaming method doesn’t always go as planned. Some dogs get even more excited and excited once their owner starts making funny noises, and Laika was no exception. Looking back, it should have been obvious; Making strange noises can make puppies even more excited and faster? Who knows? Well, I didn’t, and since I read about it on the internet I just knew it had to be true.
Eventually I became smart about the whole scheme and switched to different methods. As soon as I switched to the bypass method I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had finally found something that really worked. It turns out that drawing your dog’s attention to a toy instead of your bare arm works quite well when teaching your dog to “bite this and not that.”
Training is about more than just tricks
I have been obsessed with dogs for a long time and growing up I got my hands on everything dog related that I could find. That included a lot of books, and some of them were all about dog training. They taught you how to potty train your dog, how to teach him to “come here” and how to do some basic tricks like sit, down and stay. What they haven’t done is go beyond the basics.
And then the internet came along and I was completely blown away. I was amazed to discover things like impulse control, loose manners, and the importance of play. The books I had read were not about behavior-related topics, so growing up I was under the impression that a dog’s behavior was largely due to its personality and not anything related to training (or lack thereof).
So if my dog was pushy or impatient, I simply attributed it to his personality. I didn’t think, “Oh well, he could probably use some impulse control training,” I just thought, “Oh, he just knocks people over because he’s a young, overly friendly Lab who doesn’t know any better.” Looking back, it’s clear he didn’t know any better because I didn’t bother to teach him how to properly greet visitors.
I thought my neighbor’s dog, who barked and growled all day whenever anyone came near, was just mean. The idea that “he’s probably frustrated because he’s chained up all day and isn’t used to interacting with new people” didn’t occur to me.
As sad as that may be, I thought, and so many of us thought not so long ago. (the internet did not exist yet; the ability to look things up on a whim is relatively new) No emphasis was placed on the correlation between training and behavior; it was all reactionary.
Not all dogs are very food/treat driven
If you had told me ten years ago that there are dogs in this world that spit out meat because they are more interested in something else, I would have called you a liar. What kind of dog spits out food, let alone meat? Well, Laika does.
I discovered this a few years ago when trying to manage her reactivity during walks. If you’ve ever worked with a reactive dog, you’re probably familiar with their threshold, i.e. the point at which they become too excited to concentrate. If you cross that threshold, it’s almost impossible to get your dog’s attention back, even if you hand out meat. Dealing with reactivity is an extreme example, because if your dog is overly excited by something nearby, there is no amount of meat that can get his attention back.
But what was interesting to me was that food does not hold Laika’s attention during walks, even when there is nothing exciting to see. If I give her a piece of food while walking, there is a 75% chance that she will spit it out right away. She just doesn’t care much about food, even if it’s meat. She will go through the action of ingesting it, but she will immediately spit it out and move on. Yes, such dogs exist and Laika is one of them.
Now if I give her a treat while we’re inside, she’ll eat it, but she doesn’t get very excited about it unless I really talk about it first. And 9 times out of 10 after giving her that treat, she follows it up by grabbing the nearest toy and dropping it at my feet. It turns out that not all dogs are highly motivated by food; some really prefer to play.
So I started using her love of play while training. Instead of just using treats, I started taking her tug toy on walks. Guess what? It works damn well. It turns out my dog doesn’t really like meat, but she’ll do almost anything for a game of tug-of-war.
The environment makes a huge difference
Saying it out loud is embarrassing now, but I admit it; I didn’t realize that Where where you are when working with your dog makes a big difference. I pretty much thought, “My dog knows this, so she’ll do it everywhere.” End of story. Sounds simple, right?
It turns out that keeping your dog’s attention while seventeen squirrels are running around is easier said than done. And trying to get your dog to do all his fancy new tricks in front of fifteen people is more difficult than when you’re alone in the living room.
The most obvious example of how environment makes a big difference is what happens when we try to teach dogs a reliable memory. After working with our dogs on the “come here” command with great success indoors, we head outside. And guess what usually happens? They don’t “come here” when it’s time to go back inside. It’s not that they don’t remember what “coming here” means, it’s that they might prefer not to.
If you think about it from your dog’s perspective, it makes sense. For Laika the decision was; A.) would I rather stay outside chasing squirrels, or B.) do I want to go back inside where there’s nothing fun to chase? It’s not surprising that option A would win. I struggled with this for a long time until I learned to make option B more attractive.
Instead of making option B less fun by angrily shouting “come here” a hundred times, I chose to make option B the best available. I combined it with all kinds of fun things, such as a game of tug or finding treats. To quell my dog’s excitement about the environment, I started working on making myself more fun and exciting than those stupid squirrels. I rewarded her well every time she chose option B, and it didn’t take long for her to realize that coming here doesn’t just mean coming in and being bored; it means we’re going to do something as fun as chasing squirrels.
Being a tree isn’t the only way to stop your dog from pulling on the leash
Are you familiar with the ‘Be a tree’ method? It’s the moment you stop every time your dog starts pulling on the leash. The idea is to teach your dog that “when I pull, we stop, so I will stop pulling to avoid all that stopping.”
Do you know how many times I tried to be a tree during walks with Laika? 1329, well I lost count there anyway. And do you know how she reacted? She kept pulling and whining the whole time, occasionally looking at me like, “What are you doing, crazy woman?” You know this isn’t how walking works.” I combined it with treats and it didn’t get any better.
I did this for months. Every time she pulled I would stop, and even if I made her stop for a moment, she would start pulling again on the next step. It didn’t work, and from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem to work on many dogs when used alone. After a while it improved Laika’s ability to stand still during a walk, but it didn’t help due to the ridiculous amount of pulling she did as soon as we started walking again.
If your dog has been pulling for years, it is difficult to break this habit; and you’ll probably have to add some additional methods like switching directions to make it stop. Instead of just stopping to be a tree, try it changing directions. Combine that with a treat to keep their attention and encourage them to stop pulling and follow you.
What dog training lessons have you learned the hard way?
So these are some of the dog training lessons I learned the hard way, what about yours? Have you tried certain methods that just didn’t work for your dog?