The “Don’t Do It” List: Common Dog Training Mistakes

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Even though we focus on the positive here at Spring Forth, there are some behaviors (performed by both people & dogs) we recommend you avoid. Here are a few mistakes we see frequently enough to complain about them!

#1. You’re using low-value treats in high-distraction environments.

The "Don't Do It" Dog Training List | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

Not training treats, you guys. Bedtime snacks, perhaps, but not training treats.

The value of your rewards needs to match the distraction level of your environment. Kibble and store-bought dog treats are great for your living room, but almost certainly won’t cut it in the “real world.”

As Tim Ferriss put it during his podcast with dog trainer extraordinaire Susan Garrett, “It’s a crowded bar. You’ve gotta tip with twenties.”

(Pro tip – download & listen to that podcast. You will learn a TON.) 

What do most dogs consider to be a $20 bill? Hot dogs, cheese, steak, boiled or baked chicken, meat-based baby food, kielbasa, breakfast sausage, or liverwurst. Bam, there you go – all stuff you can pick up at the grocery store the next time you’re picking up some snacks for yourself.

 

#2. Your leash is too long.

The "Don't Do It" Dog Training List | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

A 4′ long leash is the Goldilocks leash. Not too long, not too short, “just right!”

If you ever feel the need to wrap the leash around your wrist (which is super dangerous, by the way) – it is too long.

Probably 95% of our clients need a 4′ leash. The pet store industry standard is 6′. Unless you are a very tall person with a very short dog, you don’t need that much length.

Can’t find a 4′ leash? We sell them in our retail store for a whopping $9. Stop by this week and pick your favorite color.

While we’re on the topic of leashes, here’s a bonus tip: if you’re using a retractible (Flexi) or bungee leash, you’re teaching your dog to pull. Learn more about teaching Loose Leash Walking on our blog, or join our Polite in Public group class for hands-on help.

 

#3. You’re teaching your dog that sometimes it’s okay to put paws on people.

The "Don't Do It" Dog Training List | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

If one paw is okay, then why not this? The more paws, the merrier, right?

If you’re struggling with a dog that jumps up on people, don’t teach them to put their paws on people to earn a cookie. 

This creates a massive grey area for your dog. “Sometimes” it is okay to put your paws on people.

Dogs don’t do well with grey areas and “sometimes.” They do well with black and white: is is never okay to put your paws on people vs. it is always okay to put your paws on people. I just wrote a blog post on this called “Why Paw is Problematic.”

Get the jumping under control (our Self Control group class will help), teach your dog plenty of self-control, then introduce paw – and get it on stimulus control right away so your dog only does it when you specifically ask for it, like Strata demonstrates here.

#4. You’re repeating your cues.

The "Don't Do It" Dog Training List | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

Want him to respond the first time? Then only ask him once!

“Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit. Fluffy. Sit. Fluffy. Fluffy! Sit! Fluffy, sit!”

Stop! Get your dog’s attention non-verbally. Get up, move around, walk away. Praise as soon as your dog pays attention to you. While they are still looking at you, ask once. Repeating your cues teaches your dog to ignore you.

If you’re not getting anywhere and can’t seem to get your dog’s attention, ask us for help. We’re happy to help you troubleshoot! (You can learn more about adding a cue here.)

Remember: the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing yet expect a different result. Don’t drive yourself insane. Change your training plan!

#5. You’re over-feeding your dog.

The "Don't Do It" Dog Training List | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

Calories eaten out of a Kong are still calories, and you need to factor those in when deciding how much to feed your dog.

The “Feeding Guidelines” on your dog food bag has to assume that dog food is the ONLY source of calories for your dog.

No training treats, no rawhide, no edible chews, no peanut butter in a Kong, no table scraps, no biscuits. Just dog food.

Most of our clients need to feed about 30% LESS than what the dog food bag suggests in order to account for their dog’s hard-earned snacks. Yes, even if their dog is getting lots of exercise.

If you’ve got a “young adult” dog, also keep in mind that most dogs need significantly less calories after their “teenage growth spurt” around 6-8 months of age, so you will need to reduce feeding amounts around that time.

You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs easily without having to hunt for them underneath a layer of fat. If you have a smooth-coated dog, you should be able to see the last couple of ribs as your dog moves around and flexes her body.

How does this relate to training? Overweight dogs don’t feel good! The weight puts more stress on their joints and spine and can make sitting, holding a stay, or running on a recall uncomfortable or downright painful.

Over-fed dogs are also generally less motivated to work. (Some people think their dogs “aren’t food motivated,” which couldn’t be further from the truth.) Getting rid of your pup’s “spare tire” is likely to make them more interested in your treats, which will make training them a lot easier!

#6. You expect your puppy to communicate like a human toddler.

The "Don't Do It" Dog Training List | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

A busy puppy will not stop what he is doing to signal that he needs to go outside and potty.

At many of my Puppy Day School evaluations, clients lament that their puppy is not signaling to them that he needs to go potty. My response is that signaling to go outside is a double edged sword, so be careful what you wish for.

First – young puppies should not be expected to signal in any reliable way that they need to go outside. They don’t know they need to go outside… they think they should just eliminate when they feel the urge. It’s your job to anticipate their needs and take them out frequently. (Very frequently. More frequently than you probably think.)

Many of my clients persist in teaching their dog some sort of signal, such as pawing at the door or ringing a bell. What happens most of the time? The dog signals because he wants to go outside, not because he actually wants to go to the bathroom.

Going outside and romping in the yard, or going for a nice walk, is way more interesting than lying on the floor listening to your conference call. So, owner beware – most folks ultimately decide that teaching a signal to go outside is a mistake.

Where have you erred?

Have you made any training mistakes you’d like others to learn from? Tell us in the comments section below!

 

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Myth Busting: Dogs That Aren’t Food Motivated

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Strata Gets a Treat

We once thought Strata was “not treat motivated” when in reality, he needed to lose a bit of weight and be offered tastier treats!

When dog owners find out that clicker training requires using a lot of dog treats, some express concern. They start to tell me that their dogs are not food motivated. I have good news: all dogs are food motivated!

Dogs have to eat. If your dog wasn’t motivated by food in some capacity, she would be dead. This seems obvious, but many people don’t see the connection between “food” and “treats”!

It is certainly true that some dogs are more food motivated than others. But your dog doesn’t need to be a perpetually hungry chow-hound for you to use treats in training. Here are my considerations when it seems that a dog doesn’t enjoy treats.

Does the dog need to lose weight?

Approximately 40% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. (Source.) It is common for dogs that are overweight to refuse treats because their caloric needs have already been met. I tell owners to talk with their veterinarians about reducing their dog’s weight. You can start by reducing your dog’s meals by 15-20% and removing fatty snacks like pig ears from her diet.

Does the dog like the treats that you offer her?

Often the owner is offering something that is mediocre from the dog’s perspective, like hard biscuits or kibble. In a previous blog post, I covered the subject of what makes a great dog treat. The best treats for training are small, soft, and very tasty. This is in stark contrast to a big, hard, stale biscuit!

Is the dog stressed out or distracted?

Generally, dogs that are afraid or over-tired will not take treats in that state. If you are offering a treat that your dog usually enjoys and your dog is refusing to take it, consider what is different now. Many dogs will happily eat kibble at home, but ignore it in a social situation, like a training class. These dogs are too distracted by what is going on around them.

In those situations, you need a treat that is more desirable to your dog. If your dog seems nervous or worried, and is showing other calming signals, get your dog to a place where she is more comfortable and relaxed before trying to give her treats.

Is the dog in pain?

This is often the case with teething puppies, or with older dogs with periodontal disease. These conditions make chewing painful. Offering a softer treat, like peanut butter or other “lickable” treat, is a good temporary solution. We use a lot of meat baby food or canned dog food with young puppies. You can use a spoon or dip your finger in it to deliver it to your dog. If you suspect your dog is experiencing oral pain, discuss it with your veterinarian.

How is the dog fed at home?

If your dog is being “free fed”, meaning kibble is available to her at all times, she is less likely to take treats. Leaving a bowl of kibble down 24/7 is a bad idea for a myriad of reasons. As it relates to training, the primary issue is that you never know when the dog is hungry. Hungry dogs are more motivated by food treats.

I’m not advocating that you starve your dog for better training results, but switch to feeding your dog two or three times a day. It will also make the dog’s potty schedule more predictable and keep you abreast of any changes in your dog’s appetite. As a personal anecdote, I have yet to meet a free fed dog that couldn’t stand to lose a few pounds. They nearly always eat to excess.

I hope these points give you some “food for thought” about how to encourage your dog to be more motivated by treats. As a bonus, here’s a link to the high-value sardine dog treat recipe we recommend for finicky dogs!

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Why “Paw” is Problematic

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Why "Paw" is Problematic | Spring Forth Dog Academy in Providence, RI

Photo by Bonner Springs Library (Flickr Creative Commons)

Many of you know that I enjoy teaching my dogs tricks, so today’s post might come as a bit of a surprise. However, there’s one behavior that dog owners love to teach that often interferes with their progress in Day School and makes their training path harder. That behavior? “Paw” or “shake.”

Teaching your dog to put his paw on you to earn praise or a treat is easy and seems like fun. But if your dog jumps up on people or paws at you for attention, you’re building value in your dog’s mind for the same behavior you’re trying to get rid of in other circumstances. It’s confusing to your dog. Is it acceptable to put your paws on people or not?

Additionally, the way most owners teach this behavior is problematic. In most cases, the owner puts a treat in their closed fist and waits for their dog to start pawing at it. When the dog makes contact with their hand, they release the cookie. We don’t want dogs to make contact with us if we’re holding food. Watch my Self-Control Around Food video and you will see why teaching “paw” in this manner is counter-productive.

We typically run into trouble while teaching down to a dog who knows paw, too. We teach down using a food lure, which turns into a hand signal. That looks a lot like the closed fist many owners use to teach “paw.”

Is it ever okay to teach “paw?”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you never teach your dog this behavior. I have! While earning my certification through Karen Pryor Academy, I taught it to Strata on the cue of “pound it.” It’s super cute!

But at that point, Strata had already learned over twenty different behaviors. He had extremely solid self-control around food, and he never jumped up on people.

So before you teach “paw” or “shake,” make sure that you’re satisfied with your dog’s progress with these skills:

-Your dog no longer jumps up on people.

-You have already taught “down.”

-Your dog’s self-control around food is solid.

-Your dog does not paw at people for attention or to seek petting.

Pushing a Button with a Paw | Spring Forth Dog Academy in Providence, RIWhen you are ready to teach it, I recommend using a combination of shaping and targeting rather than luring to decrease confusion. Specifically, I like to shape the dog to touch an object with her paw first, and then transfer it to my hand later. This is what I did with my dog, Strata.

In the picture to the right, Charlie is learning to push a button with his paw. Later on, his owner could hold that button to transfer the behavior from the button to her outstretched hand or fist. Here’s a video showing how to clicker train your dog to touch a target with her paw.

Then, make sure to take the time to get it on stimulus control. That’s a fancy term that means your dog will only offer “paw” when you ask for it, and never offer “paw” in response to another cue. Eileen Anderson wrote a great blog post explaining how to achieve stimulus control, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I encourage you to check that out!

If that sounds challenging, you could consider teaching “wave” instead. With this alternative behavior, your dog isn’t rewarded for making contact with your body! That makes it an ideal skill for dogs who are still struggling with making inappropriate contact with people.

Summer Trick Training Challenge

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AKC Trick Dog Testing and Titles | Providence, RITrick training grows your bond with your dog and builds your training and communication skills. It’s a great way to burn off some of your dog’s energy when it’s too hot or rainy to play outside. Plus, it’s a ton of fun!

The American Kennel Club recently added a Trick Dog program to their catalog of events, which means your dog can earn official AKC titles for passing four different levels of tests.

For all of these reasons, we’re always trying to find ways to encourage our students to spend some time teaching tricks. So, we’re doing something brand new: a Summer Trick Training Challenge!

From now through August 31st, any dog who is signed up for one of our Intro to Dog Tricks classes will be added to this board in our lobby…

Trick Training Challenge Progress Board | Spring Forth Dog Academy, Providence RI

This board will keep track of everyone’s progress through the Novice and some Intermediate level tricks! For each trick you complete, we’ll place a sticker in the corresponding box on the board.

More info