Are you working on a new behaviour or skill? Do you feel like things aren’t going the way they should be? There are several common errors that people make when they are training. Here’s a quick checklist to help you avoid these common dog training mistakes.

Where are you teaching and practicing?

There’s a reason why trainers suggest teaching and practicing new behaviours or skills in the home first. Even behaviours that are intended for outdoor use should begin training in the home. A quiet, calm area will help the dog focus on the training. Only once you have reached the success checkpoint for that step in the home, should you move into another location or add some mild distractions.

Are you a clumper?

When people put on their training cap, they often focus on the finished behaviour. Without a good training plan, people tend to teach the behaviour in steps that are too big for the dog to be successful. The training won’t even get off the ground if their first step is too big. Be sure to split up the training into manageable pieces. Smaller progressions will help keep you moving forward.

Clean up your act

There is a mechanical side to good training that requires consistency in food handling and timing. Poor mechanics can be confusing, even frustrating to the dog and slow progress. Keep these in mind:

  • be mindful that you are not holding or handling the food in a way that is distracting
  • practice using your marker or clicker to improve your timing and ensure you are marking the right thing to your dog
  • make sure you are doing things in the right order. 1. Your dog does the desired behaviour. 2. Click when that happens. 3. After clicking, feed the dog.

Take care when transitioning to the outdoors

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say their dog is great in the home but go outside and BAM! It’s like they haven’t done any training at all. If you’re in too much of a hurry to move forward, you can run into this problem.

  • be sure you are reaching your success checkpoints before moving on
  • the reinforcement history for the behaviour may not be strong enough to move to a harder location or context. Even if you have reached a success checkpoint and are meeting an 80% success rate, there is value in spending more time practicing the same step to build a better reinforcement history before trying the next step.
  • once you feel you’re ready to move on, be careful in how you transition outside. Don’t be a clumper! Be creative in the way you work from indoors to outside. A few examples are working indoors in front of a window; working in the entrance inside with the door closed; and then with the door open; working on the front steps.

Does your reinforcement make the grade?

Every behaviour has a value and an expense. In addition to building good value using reinforcement, you also have to consider how expensive the behaviour is for your dog. When you begin practicing around distractions or in more challenging contexts, you must reinforce accordingly. Using the same value treat you used to reinforce your dog in the house when you’re practicing at a soccer game isn’t going to get you very far. And what about the behaviour itself? Recalling your dog means they have to abort a mission they’re on or end something they are busy doing. That’s expensive. Training an expensive behaviour requires (and deserves) better reinforcement. And just like us, every dog will find some behaviours harder than others. If you recognize that a particular behaviour is more challenging for your dog, make the payout better. Sometimes all that’s between a non-responsive dog and one that’s rocking it, is a juicy morsel.

Don’t just keep making the training harder

As mentioned, it’s ok to spend some extra time on a step that your dog is already having success with. The additional practice will make your dog a superstar and build a better reinforcement history for the behaviour. You can also yo-yo the difficulty, by going back to easier steps throughout the training, including reducing the difficulty of distractions or the length of time you ask your dog to do the behaviour (duration). By not making the training linear, your dog will continue getting reinforced without the work always being harder. It’s a great confidence booster, too!

So keep these in mind the next time you grab your treat bag and want to start training. Avoiding these common training mistakes will help you get off to a great start with your dog and keep your training a success!

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