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The number one mistake dog owners make when training

While there are many ways owners can go wrong when it comes to training dogs, there's one overarching key action that trickles down to the others.

Can you guess what it is?

a woman asking her fluffy dog to sit.
Photo: The Spruce/ Kevin Norris

If you guessed lack of effective communication, you get a gold star!

Inability to communicate effectively with our dogs is ultimately what breaks down the success of training.

This first mistake starts with being inconsistent. Your dog needs clear, black and white indications of what you want. As humans are emotional and sometimes fickle creatures, this can be hard to do.

For example, when you're feeling sad or sick you want the comfort of snuggling on the couch with your pup, but then other days you want him to be obedient and not get on the couch- maybe even being frustrated that he is trying to climb up with you.

It can also be the differences between how different people in the home follow through on training.

Dad lets the dog jump up and encourages this kind of excited greeting, while mom wants the pup to sit and wait because of the neighborhood kids that come over- and one even got knocked down by the pup once. Then the kids may or may not follow through and may find it funny when the dog tugs on their clothes when they've been asked not see the problem.

What message is the dog getting? Really, none.

With so much different information and so many different expectations and allowances, the dog is left to fill in the gaps of inconsistency and differing expectations- which will always be with what they really want...chances are that is not to be patient and obedient!

Dogs also fill in the gaps when they are not given enough information at all.

For example, the puppy pees on the carpet and gets yelled at. After this happens a few times, what do you think the puppy learned?

Chances are the pup did not learn at all that it's peeing on the carpet and in the house that upsets you. Rather, they learned needing to go to the bathroom is scary and unpleasant- and they may start to hide and do it where you can't see or don't notice. They may even start to develop fear responses, cower and or begin to act out from stress and anxiety- which only create new problems.

Instead, when the puppy pees on the carpet, quickly and calmly put the leash on/ pick them up and take them outside. Say "Potty outside" or some kind of mantra you will use as a cue. If she goes, have a "potty party" with lots of excitement and praise. Make a big deal out of it (one of the few times you want to encourage excitement).

If she doesn't go, then put her back in the crate or playpen and try again in 15-30 minutes. Keep doing that until she does- and now if you know it was 90 minutes from the last time she peed, you can anticipate the next potty in about 90 minutes. Now you can proactively try to get the pup outside, rather than react to the thing you don't want.

If the next few times the puppy pees inside, but they next thing they know their feet touch grass, they will quickly start to associate peeing with outside- and you will be communicating effectively with them!

Next, many times people inadvertently reinforce behaviors they don't want.

For example, the dog is barking and lunging on the leash at another dog. The owner bends down and starts petting the dog saying "It's ok, don't worry. It's ok".

The owner wanted their dog not to respond and react and was trying to comfort the dog to stop them doing the action.

This is not the message the dog received at all, however.

Instead, the message received was: "Good dog for barking and lunging. You are a good dog for doing that. Keep doing that".

And that's exactly what the dog does. He gets worse and worse in his behavior and the owner just can't understand why.

And lastly, dogs don't understand our words at face value- they understand actions and consequences.

When they learn the words we use it is because they understand the expectation of a certain action in response to that sound- not because they inherently understand the word itself.

For example, you tell your dog no. No, No, No. "I tell him no but he doesn't understand". Correct- you may as well be speaking Klingon because that's what the words sound like to him.

However, if you have the leash on. You have him in a sit and then he tries to move, you say "no" and put him back in the sit. He tries again and you repeat this- probably a few times. Now, when you start using no for things- and then actively stop him doing it- he will begin to understand no means "stop." It doesn't mean "You're a bad dog" or even "I don't like this". It just means stop what you're doing.

Sometimes people feel saying no to their dog is wrong- however I truly disagree.

No is not always a negative thing.

For example if your child were reaching for a hot burner and you said, NO, to stop them, is that a negative, punishing action? I don't think so because instead, it's an attempt to stop a negative, punishing action you know will hurt them.

If that same situation were your dog running into the road and telling them no meant they'd stop and not get hit by a car, is that a bad thing?

No is a real part of life whether you're a person or a dog- and I do believe it is important to share with your dog the praise for what they do right and give them a cue to stop what they shouldn't be doing.

If you are struggling to communicate with your dog, think about your actions and how your dog might perceive them.

Do not think about what you want, but simply the specific message you are giving- which likely is too little, too confusing, a sound they don't understand or flat out opposite of what you actually desire.

It is always recommended that you seek the help of a trainer who can monitor and guide you into more effective communication with your dog- which will also significantly improve your bond.

You will not regret taking a class to improve your relationship and get what you want from your dog- so give it a shot!

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