Sometimes, training doesn’t go according to plan!
If your dog isn’t trained yet, and you are not sure why, check out the list below
Some of these may apply to you. But don’t panic!
At the end, we’ll look at how to put right any mistakes you may have made along the way
- You didn’t motivate your dog
- You didn’t start at the beginning
- You forgot your marker
- You didn’t break it down into small steps
- You left too long between sessions
- You moved the goalposts
- You were too slow
- You don’t understand the rules
- You lost your temper
- You didn’t show up
Let’s take each one in turn
1 You didn’t motivate your dog
Dogs are just like us in this respect. They don’t persist in doing things that have no benefit whatsoever.
All animals need motivation to make an effort. And if you are training a dog, its up to you to provide that motivation.
Motivation can come in two forms
- Improving things
- Avoiding things getting worse
So in animal training, if you want to motivate your dog, you’ll need to reinforce the behaviours you like with rewards that matter to him (motivate him). Some trainers also punish behaviours they don’t like, though this can be problematic (see the downside of punishing dogs)
The main problem most people have in providing motivation is that they don’t correctly assess what is motivating to their dog. Many dogs for example are not highly motivated by petting and stroking. And studies have shown that dogs generally are not motivated by verbal praise alone.
So, if you want to motivate your dog, you are going to need to cough up and provide some worthwhile rewards. Check out choosing rewards for more information
2 You didn’t start at the beginning
There are five stages to learning a new behaviour.
- Get the behaviour
- Pair the behaviour with a cue or signal
- Teach the dog to respond to the cue
- Proof the response
- Maintain the response
People often get in a muddle because they start in the middle. If you start at the beginning with each new skill and work through each stage in turn, you’ll find training goes a lot more smoothly.
Pick the simplest skill and start at the simplest level too. Don’t add any distractions or complications to begin with.
In other words, begin at the beginning.
3 You forgot your marker
Dogs don’t always get what we want. So it is up to us to help them understand. One of the best ways to tell a dog what we want is to give him a signal every time he does it.
We call this signal an event marker.
You can find out how all about event markers and how to mark behaviours here. It is well worth while including a marker into your training sessions, you’ll see the benefits right away
4 You aren’t breaking things down
Teaching a dog a new skill needs to be broken into ‘bite sized’ achievable chunks.
If the steps you take are too big, you and the dog will quickly become demoralised.
So if you can’t get your dog to fetch a ball, teach him to hold one first. If he won’t stay in his bed whilst you eat dinner, teach him to stay in his bed for two minutes first. Then three.
Don’t focus on what he can’t do, focus on what he can do and build on that.
5. You left too long between sessions
So, your dog is looking at you as though you just fell out of a space ship.
SIT you say SIT, SIT? Whilst he stares blankly in confusion.
Could it be that the last time you two got together for training was several days ago? Time flies past and it is easy to assume you can just pick up where you left off.
But many dogs need regular daily sessions, at least initially, in order to build on what they learned before.
Try and train every day, even if it is only for five minutes, for several days in a row. And when you do take a break, try not to leave more than three days between sessions.
If you haven’t trained for a week or more, go back to something very simple and build up again in stages.
6. You moved the goalposts
“My dog won’t come back” is a frequent complaint. “He knows the recall whistle, and comes back in the garden, but when we are out in the woods, he just ignores me!”
Or “my dog will lie down when I tell him, unless visitors come, then he ignores me completely”
What you did here, was to move the goalposts.
You taught your dog to recall, or sit, or lie down, where there were no distractions, and then suddenly expected him to do the same when there are other dogs to play with or rabbits to chase.
If you want your dog to recall away from other dogs, you need to teach him to do this. For example, you can have him on a long line to begin with, and only release him to play until he has first come to you and touched your hand.
This kind of training is called proofing, and it is the longest and most challenging part of training a dog. It is also the most worthwhile, and you need to know how to do it.
7. You were too slow
Most of us realise that timing is important in dog training. Getting the timing right takes practice, that’s all. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Many of us, especially when we have been training using traditional methods for a long time, are far too slow.
Modern dog training is FAST.
You need to mark behaviours quickly, and follow them up with rewards quickly, and then mark the next behaviour quickly.
If you are too slow, your dog won’t get what you want and will probably wander off to take a nap. Don’t worry about this, just do it. You’ll get faster as you go.
8. You don’t understand the rules
Dog behaviour, any behaviour really, follows some set rules, or scientific ‘laws’. There are laws of behaviour just like there are laws of physics.
These laws are reliable and dependable. If you understand them you will be able to figure out for yourself what to do in any situation where you are interacting with your dog, and everything you have read so far in this article, will make a lot more sense.
The rules are not difficult to learn, and I’ve tried to set them out in a way that is not too dry and dusty. Give them a go, here they are: How dogs learn
9. You lost your temper
We’ve all done it. You feel the frustration building up and up, then all of a sudden you snap at the dog. He is upset, you are upset, and you feel bad. You are a rubbish dog trainer, aren’t you?
Well, no. You are not. You are human.
But here’s the thing. If you stop worrying about correcting bad behaviour and focus totally on rewarding good behaviour, almost all the frustration and stress incurred in dog training sessions will disappear.
If you are watching out for behaviours to mark, rather than trying to push or pull a dog into position, you won’t feel angry. If he isn’t offering behaviours you can mark, break it down into easier chunks. If you ask yourself what he can do, and build on that, you’ll find that sessions become more fun and tempers stay even.
10 You didn’t show up
Here is the most common reason that dogs don’t get trained. The dog and his owner simply weren’t in the same place, focusing on each other, often enough for anything to get learned.
It seems obvious, but if you want a trained dog, you need to turn up and train him, often. And for many of us that is challenging in a world where we work and are busy.
The important thing to take away from this, is that all these things can be remedied – for the most part quite easily
Putting things right
It is not hard to pick better rewards – try roast chicken, or little cubes of cheese. Most dogs do not find a pat and some praise motivating. This is annoying, but true.
If you didn’t start at the beginning when you were teaching your dog, do so now. You can pick a new cue to associate with the behaviour if necessary, and just train the skill again.
Pick up a clicker for a pound or two and mark good behaviours so that the dog knows what you want him to do. Write a plan for training a specific skill, break it into little chunks and train for five minutes morning and evening, each day for five days. That’s ten sessions – you’ll see real progress.
Proof your training – this is harder – but essential if you want to succeed. You’ll need to rope friends in or go to a good training class to do this. Get a long line and use it to prevent the dog being naughty in the meantime.
Speed up your training – get twenty tiny food rewards and see if you can deliver them to the dog in two minutes. Choose something he can do easily and quickly to begin with, such as touching your hand with his nose. Learn to work fast and be interesting to the dog.
Read up on how dogs learn. Just a few minutes each evening for a week and you’ll be a pro. Find out all you can about positive reinforcement training and learn to avoid punishment in order to stay calm and enjoy your sessions.
And above all – turn up – every day for a few days – until you see some progress. This will motivate you more than anything else.