How to Avoid Confusing a Dog During Training
There are countless ways you can go about training your dog, including hundreds of expert-sponsored methods, professional tutorials, obedience schools, and online training manuals. No matter which method you’re using, though, there are some universal mistakes which are bound to confuse your dog and play havoc with your training. Learn what commonly made missteps can get you and your dog’s signals crossed so that you can try to avoid them beforehand.
Choosing the Right Setting and Time for Your Training
Start small.You’ll only confuse yourself and your dog if you begin training with unrealistic expectations about what and how much you can do in a single training session. Set a goal for successfully practicing one command per session, and remember that this new command will require consistent repetition in different places and situations in order to truly master the behavior.
- Make sure you’re not trying to teach your dog tricks or behaviors for which they don’t have the proper foundation, and also that you’re not trying to pack too many lessons and commands into one training session.
- Obedience classes are perhaps the most efficient method of training your dog, but even these should be approached with moderate expectations. Just because you’re paying for expertise, you shouldn’t expect your dog to come out of an eight-week course looking and acting like a K-9 unit pro.
Set a schedule.Keeping an irregular or insufficiently frequent training schedule is sure to cause confusion for your learning pup. You’ll make much better progress if you practice every day or every other day, rather than sporadically doing so whenever you get a chance.
- It can help to use a training calendar or checklist to keep track of your dog’s curriculum. Compare notes with your personal or professional planner to make sure you can allot a portion of most days to concerted training and practice.
- Once you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, you should work these commands into daily life and routine. Have your dog sit and stay before each meal time, or have it heel when walking out to get the paper in the morning.
Keep training sessions brief but productive.Your dog will become confused and frustrated if you continue a session for too long, but you’ll have similar problems if you end your session before making any progress. Avoid these common timing problems by setting time-independent goals: conclude a session not after a certain amount of time, but after a certain level of success is reached.
- For example, if you're working on the 'Stay' command, stop the session after your dog successfully stays for five seconds two or three times in a row. This will get your dog used to being rewarded for success and keep it interested in training.
Change up your training location.If you always practice commands and training in one place, your dog can easily begin to associate this location exclusively with the new behaviors you’re teaching it. It will become confused when you expect the same performance in an entirely new setting, so make sure you mix up your training locations and show your dog that you expect obedience everywhere.
- For example, train one day in the living room, but move out to the backyard the next day. Eventually you should practice in other, public areas like the dog park.
Incorporate distractions into your training.If you’ve only ever asked your dog to obey commands in the quiet privacy of your living room, you can’t expect it to perform the same way under different conditions. Other dogs, cars, honking horns, and loud strangers’ voices are just some of the many factors which will confuse and throw off your dog’s behavior if you keep them isolated.
- Starting off, you should only train in highly controlled areas where you can keep distractions to a minimum. As your dog progresses, start adding distractions gradually so that it gets used to performing in less controlled environments.
- Remember never to train your dog before mealtime. Being hungry is a serious distraction which will shorten your dog’s attention span and make it frustrated.
Giving Clear and Positive Feedback
Reinforce positive behavior through treats and praise.Rather than telling your dog ‘no’ when it does something bad, reward it when it does the right things. Just reproaching your dog for bad behavior can be confusing because, while you’ve indicated what you don’t like, you haven’t shown the dog what you do want it to do.Reversing this habit and giving positive feedback gives your dog concrete, specific guidance about how you want it to behave, so try making this the fundamental principle of your training.
- For example, have your dog sit before you open the door or before feeding, and then give it a treat. This reward helps encourage the positive behaviors of not darting out the door when it’s opened and having good mealtime manners.
- Make sure your treats are small, easily consumed, and healthy. It can be a good idea to use individual kernels of your dog’s normal dry food so that you don’t develop any bad snacking behaviors.
Reward your dog at the right time.If you wait more than a few seconds to reward a trick or obeyed command, your dog won’t know which behavior it's getting a treat for. You need to make sure, then, that you give the treat right away, while the dog is still doing the right behavior.
- For example if you are training a dog to lay down and stay, but you only reward it when it gets up, you are confusing the dog about what behavior—laying down or getting up—you actually want it to do.
Use clear verbal commands.Be consistent about how you say a command—for example, don't say "Lay" sometimes and other times "Lay down"—and also how often you deliver the command. Repeating a command too many times will confuse a dog as to when it it expected to act or follow the command you're repeating.
- Some experts recommend using what’s called a verbal marker—a verbal cue or other sound like a click or short word—along with treats as a method of positive reinforcement. This is because you can give this marker more quickly than you can deliver a treat, so the reward is more instantaneous and more closely linked to the right, praiseworthy behavior.
- If you find verbal clicking or speaking too taxing, you can buy a small clicker device which makes a clicking noise when you press on it. Your dog will learn to associate this distinct sound with positive reinforcement and praise, and you don't have to worry about confusing it with different words and tones of voice.
Keep your dog motivated.Rewarding positive behavior can be an incremental process: for some more complicated commands, you’ll need to break the behavior up into smaller steps and give treats at each interval. For example, to teach a dog roll over, you should first have it lie down, then lie on its side, and only then to roll over.
Avoiding Inconsistent and Confusing Signals
Maintain consistent boundaries.Your dog will become confused about its place in the family if you treat it like a person, and these blurred lines will make training difficult and frustrating for both of you. Keeping healthy boundaries that show your dog that it’s lower on the pecking order than you are will help avoid confusion and conflict.
- For example, avoid picking your dog up too frequently or constantly letting it up on the couch or bed beside you. If your dog sees the difference between canine and human status, it will be more likely to follow your instructions when training.
Don’t punish your dog physically or verbally.Forcefully reprimanding your dog may produce results in the short term, but ultimately you’re just confusing it. Your harsh words and forceful actions scare your dog and corrode trust between the two of you, so make sure you never resort to this kind of punishment when training your pup.
- Even when you have to say 'no' or be firm about something, try to keep your tone of voice low and calm. Overly emotional or harsh tones will probably make your dog stop what it's doing, but it's actually responding to the tone of your voice and not understanding what bad behavior it shouldn't be doing.
Stop when your dog gets confused.Even if you’re following all the rules and being a good, consistent trainer, your dog will occasionally get confused. When this happens, your dog will start barking or lunging excitedly while ignoring you and your commands. Responding to these signals poorly and continuing training as before will just make the problem worse, so stop in your tracks when your dog displays these signs. Drop a few treats on the ground, take a deep breath, and relax until the air is cleared and you can begin afresh.
- If this keeps happening, you’re probably attempting a command which is too sophisticated or advanced for your dog. Try breaking it into smaller steps or moving to a simpler command so that you don’t keep repeating the same mistakes.
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