10 training mistakes and how to avoid them


06 January 2022
Nobody said training your dog was going to be plain sailing — and we all make mistakes sometimes. Top trainer and behaviourist Jackie Drakeford looks at some of the most common errors.

The basics of training are straightforward — know what you want, make it clear to your dog what that is, make it worth his while to do it, and proof the successful result with rewards.

But, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Different dogs, categorised by breed type, individual character, and life experience, need training that matches their specific nature, and what works for one may leave you wrong-footed by another’s lack of engagement. 

Some dogs love to learn new skills, and your time together is blessed with ‘What are WE going to do next?’ Others prefer only to obey when they can see a clear advantage to doing what you want, and their mantra is: ‘What’s in it for me?’ Although you can train most dogs to do most things, you cannot train an attitude that isn’t already part of the individual breed type or mix. You could well create resentment and disengagement if you push a dog too hard to do something that goes totally against his genetic programming. So, let’s have a look at some common stumbling blocks.

Discover which rewards work for your dog.

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1. Make your rewards rewarding! 

Not all dogs are motivated by food (yes, really!); some prefer a game, a retrieve, or a good snuggle, while others are indifferent or positively horrified at the suggestion of anything but the subtlest control. Many dogs would rather down tools than do something they wouldn’t normally choose to do, for a human who offers rewards they don’t enjoy, which by definition aren’t rewards at all! For those who are unenthusiastic about food, sometimes a really delicious treat will cut the mustard, but more often a game of tug or chase will be much more appealing. Others will work their hearts out for anything edible, however dull. Find out what makes your dog’s heart sing.

Be realistic about your dog’s ability to ignore distractions such as other dogs. 

2. Environment

Are there lots of distractions such as other dogs, wildlife, exciting scents, uncomfortable weather, noise? There comes a time to ‘proof’ training in a variety of different and more testing circumstances, but don’t expect PhD responses from
a kindergarten dog. Move up the levels of challenge subtly, and secure each level in your dog’s mind before you trade up. Never get so fixated on ‘doing training’ that you override common sense if a situation unfolds that could cause your dog to respond in a way that may undo the trust between you. If, for instance, an unruly off-lead dog is running at yours, don’t try to make your dog sit and watch you, because that puts him at risk. Instead, be proactive and take control of the situation before it escalates. Step in front of your dog so that he is on the furthest side of you away from the other dog, and move to increase the distance between the dog and you, using your body to block its approach. It is permissible to use a firm ‘voice of doom’ to tell the other dog to back off, as long as you will not spook yours by doing so. 

Your own dog will be so appreciative of you taking charge in a positive manner and will soon be happy to let you deal with such situations.

When things go wrong, go back to practising something your dog can do easily and willingly. 

3. Mistakes 

We all make them! It’s so easy to ask too much, too soon, especially by asking for one more repeat of an exercise when the dog has had enough. The solution here is to step back to an earlier exercise that the dog can do easily and willingly, reward lavishly, then stop so you can finish the session on a successful note. Remember, there will always be another day.

When things go wrong, go back to practising something your dog can do easily and willingly. 

4. Don’t blether

Give the precise command once, a hand signal if you use them, then be quiet. It’s nice to chat with our dogs, but when training, cut the cackle. Body language works well with dogs, and they use it all the time with each other. A change in your posture and facial expression will tell them a lot more than a torrent of words.

Let your dog run off any early excitement.

5. Capture the mood

If your dog is being skittish, do some running around exercises with him first, such as fetch, recall, or ‘Find it’ until he has run off his early excitement and is ready to settle into more controlled work. If he takes a while to warm up into training mode, concentrate on more static exercises such as stay and wait. Never confuse these two: stay means ‘remain where you are — I will come back to you’ while wait means ‘another command is coming’.

6. Know what you can’t train 

Nobody can make a dog ‘be friends with’ another dog, eat what he doesn’t enjoy, or be affectionate with people he doesn’t trust. Accepting his viewpoint, no matter what other people say he should be doing, will secure his confidence in you. After all, we don’t like everyone we meet or eat food we dislike either.

7. Train the dog in front of you

Not an ‘ideal world’ dog, any of your previous dogs, or a dog belonging to someone else. What one dog has off pat at six months of age might take another much longer to master. Every dog is different, but all dogs will communicate with us if we only stop and listen to them. If something isn’t working, find out why. I once saw someone attempting to make her dog sit in a patch of nettles, and recollect another who hadn’t noticed that her dog was standing in a puddle.

8. Match your dog’s training to your own requirements 

If you like him to walk a little in front of you so you can watch his take on the world, or behind you so you don’t fall over him if he stops suddenly, rather than to field-trial competition heel standards, that’s perfectly fine. Coming straight back to you is what you need for recall; he doesn’t have to do an obedience competition style finish, unless of course that is your aim. If he pulls like a freight train when on-lead, or runs away directly you take the lead off, that isn’t acceptable, and so needs work.

Don’t be surprised if your terrier starts digging a hole.

9. Know when to train and when to manage

Training is never 100 per cent although it can come very close, but management always works. Put the lead on him, shut the door, bolt the gate. Avoid risking foreseeable accidents and be proactive rather than reactive. Be aware of breed traits. Even if your dog is a non-working pet, sometimes temptation touches base with genetics and something that shouldn’t have happened does. There is no shame in avoiding potentially dodgy situations. Dogs will always be dogs, no matter what or how well we have trained them to do or not do something, and the call of powerful inborn urges can unravel the best training. Keep terriers away from holes in the ground, herding breeds away from groups of animals, poultry, and children, gundogs away from gamebirds, and sight hounds away from wildlife. Avoid being that person who says, in the wake of a horrible mishap: “He’s never done that before.” So often the combined pressures of working instinct, circumstance, and the presence of another dog or dogs creates a maelstrom of temptation that shows beyond doubt that even the best training is not always certain proof against an unwanted incident.

Older dogs may develop problems with sight and hearing.

10. Consider physical and mental circumstances 

These manifest at different times in a dog’s life. Adolescent dogs, like adolescent people, have their minds all over the place, and with many, it’s best to ‘tread water’ in training until they have evolved into a more cooperative mindset. This is a true, unavoidable developmental phase, and cannot be rushed. 

Very young puppies have the concentration span of gnats, and so this is a time for bonding, and establishing your role as a ‘safe place’ rather than formal training. 

Bitches who are close to coming into season as well as actually being in season, or undergoing the subsequent false pregnancy, are all hormones and attitude, and with most, this is no time for learning new skills. 

Male dogs, whether castrated or not, have their minds on natural desires when in the proximity of in-season bitches or their beguiling scent, even if they don’t have a clue what it is all about. 

Elderly dogs can suffer from mental changes, ranging from gentle battiness to full-blown dementia, plus may well suffer from physical aches and pains which make some exercises very uncomfortable. Additionally, they may develop issues with sight and hearing, which many can hide so well that it takes owners quite some time to appreciate the extent of their sensory deterioration. And certain extreme breeds, whose appearance has resulted in unnatural shapes or restricted breathing, will find some exercises difficult, uncomfortable, or almost impossible.

Enjoy your training!

There will be good days...