8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

As the great trainer Bob Bailey says, training is simple but not easy. The principles are very simple and straightforward, but actually applying them in practice can be very difficult.

I’ve mentioned many times that I am not a professional trainer. But I hang out with some phenomenal ones. Plus, I am a student of life and tend to do lots of observation of myself and others. (What, you had noticed?)  And I don’t mind sharing my own errors if it can help somebody along.

Here are eight of the top booboos in dog training. All of which I have done myself, and many of them on camera! (And guess what, I have 15-20 more! You can expect more posts on this if people enjoy this one.)

And by the way, these are errors made by trainers who are using the most humane methods they know and can learn. The list would be much different if it addressed mistakes made by trainers who make heavy use of aversives. I don’t want to write that list right now!

What Can Go Wrong?

Desirable door behavior

(1) Allowing the dog to rehearse the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. One of my trainer friends says this is the #1 problem she runs into with her clients. A client will say, “I bought my dog a bed for his crate and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed that one, too. I’ve bought him five beds and he’s chewed them all.”  That dog is getting really skilled at chewing beds, and has found a way to occupy himself in his crate.

If a dog has a problem behavior, it’s because that behavior has been reinforced. (Chewing is fun for dogs!) Usually not deliberately by us, but reinforced nonetheless. So we don’t tend to “count” it in our minds. But it’s just as if we had given the dog a cookie every time he chewed the bed, or jumped on the couch or whatever. But if we want to teach them to do something different, we also need to prevent those fun rehearsals of the “wrong” behavior and stop that reinforcement.

For example, you want to train your dog not to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. That behavior is reinforced every time she does it if you immediately let her outside. When you start to teach polite door manners, you doubtless start the training with an “easier” door. You practice with an interior door, and work on the behavior  you want. You reinforce with food.

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior–see the linked video–>

But in the meantime, every time you take your dog into the back yard to potty, she continues to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. Getting outside is obviously a potent reinforcer and nothing has happened to stop that. To get the new behavior in place at the back door, you will have to prevent your dog from practicing the old one. That can be a challenge without using aversives, but can be done. With three dogs, our back door behavior is a work in progress, but those bad habits do on occasion get reinforced. And reinforcement “on occasion” is enough to keep them alive and well.

The classic example of rehearsed behaviors and conflicting reinforcers is walking on a loose leash. If you let your dog pull you, using the same gear you use when trying to teach loose leash, that behavior gets reinforced every time that pulling gets the dog where he wants to go, just as purely as if you had given him a cookie for it. That’s why trainers always tell you to cease walking the dog or at least use completely different gear if you must walk the dog, if you are simultaneously trying to teach leash manners. You are shooting yourself in the foot otherwise.

(2) Lumping. Lumping means failing to break the behavior you are trying to teach into small enough steps. For instance, you are teaching your dog to get on a mat and lie down. Your dog is beginning to understand your cue. You stand right next to the mat and give the cue. Dog lies down. You stand two feet away from the mat and give the cue. The dog goes to the mat and lies down. You put the mat in the corner of the room, go back to the center of the room with your dog, and give the cue. Your dog says, “Huh?” Lots of misunderstandings between humans and dogs could be ameliorated if we just took enough baby steps when teaching a behavior. Here is a post about lumping, with a video starring my dog Zani, who lets her disapproval of my behavior be known.

Small black and tan colored hound looking at her trainer with her mouth open. There is a piece of tape on the wall behind her.
Zani says, “Quit that lumping!”

(3) Neglecting to generalize cued behaviors. Dogs are great discriminators. They notice every little thing in the environment. It’s all pertinent to them. They are not as good as we are at generalizing. And it is very very hard for us to get that through our human heads.

If a dog knows “sit” when in the kitchen facing east, she may not know it while standing on the piano bench in your front room facing north. And she almost definitely won’t know it if you lie down on the floor next to her or stand on your head before giving the cue. All along you thought she was responding to your verbal cue, but she actually was responding to the fact that she was standing in the kitchen facing east, and you have a clicker and treats, and you said a word (which turns out that it probably could have been any word). All of that was actually her cue. I have several movies showing dogs who respond incorrectly to a cue because of the human failure (um, mine) to help them generalize.

Zani can sit on a crate
Sitting on a crate was Zani’s idea

And here’s my moment to plug Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. The Training Levels are the best training program I have ever seen to build generalization into every step.

(4) And that leads to…not knowing what the dog’s cue actually is. It may not be what we think it is.  They are generally paying attention to our body language and props way more than we think. Almost all of us (border collie owners excepted, grin), think that our dogs understand verbal cues better than they actually do. I have lots of experience with this, having been blessed with two dogs who are probably less proficient than average at verbal cues. I have yet to teach them, despite many repetitions, some simple word discriminations that some breeds and individual dogs seem to pick up very fast. To really know whether your dog understands a verbal cue or not, you need not only to practice generalization, but get yourself out of the picture for the final exam. I have a fairly embarrassing post and video where I was trying to test my dog’s knowledge of the difference between her “crate” and “mat” cue. I didn’t realize until I saw the film that I was still cuing her with my body.

(5) Trying to train when dog is too stressed. Just about anybody who has gone to a dog training club has either done this or seen this. The dog is trying to take in this noisy, chaotic environment full of other people and dogs. Even if the dog is not scared of strange people or dogs, the noise and chaos make everything difficult. This is where it pays to know and observe your dog, and do some homework on dog body language.

It's not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train
It’s not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train

Here are some posts, photos, and videos of mine showing a stressed dog, a fearful dog, my own shut down dog, and some other shut down dogs. While some dogs can respond while stressed or fearful, a good teacher will help you work with your dog to get her comfortable in the environment before ever starting to teach “behaviors.” Most would agree that learning to be comfortable in a difficult environment is a more important lesson than learning to sit on cue. And it will really pay off in the long run.

(6) Not being aware of the dog’s responses. This is a more general version of #5. Once one starts learning about dog body language, it can be a revelation to watch videos of one’s own training sessions. You may learn that you are making your dog nervous when you ruffle his fur. Or that he ducks strongly away when you reach down to pat his head. You may learn that you are leaning far to much into your dog’s face. You may learn that you are unwittingly doing something to jazz up your dog when you are trying to teach a relaxed, duration behavior. Or like me, you may learn that your dogs are way more sound sensitive than you thought. (I had the camera on a tripod behind my back when I recorded this video.)

(7) Using a verbal cue too soon. I mean, we want to do it at the very beginning, and that’s exactly what not to do! It seems to be almost innate for us to assume that dogs do or “should” understand our own native human language. If you grew up in the “say ‘sit’ and push the dog’s butt down” generation, it is hard to imagine anything else. But remember, the word “sit” is a cue. It is a green light that says, “if you sit now, reinforcement is available.” But attaching that cue to the behavior is a latter step, not the first step. Chanting “Sit, sit, sit,” does not instruct your dog what to do. And doing the butt push move means that the first thing that Sit means is “Mom is about to push my butt down.”

The better way of looking at it, as Sue Ailsby describes it, is that we say to the dog, “That thing you are doing–we’re going to call it ‘Sit,’ OK?”

The first step is to get the dog sitting repeatedly. You can lure, capture, or shape. But it’s a good idea to keep your lip zipped and don’t let that cue come out. Some people say you shouldn’t use the cue until you are willing to be $100 that the dog will sit.

Here is a little video I made of Clara as a puppy. This is the very first time I had used a verbal cue for “down.” I had already gotten predictable and repeated downs by arranging the environment that way. Do you see how startled she is the first time I use it? It’s only the second verbal cue she has been exposed to. As far as she’s concerned, I have interrupted the game we were playing.

(Watching the video today makes me realize I know her better now. According to #6–watching the dog’s responses–I might have ended earlier. Her tail is wagging with a rather low carriage and she is working very hard for a wee one. She was more stressed than I would like.)

(8) Rate of reinforcement too low. “Rate of reinforcement” means the number of reinforcers per unit of time, for instance, per minute. When teaching a new behavior, and particularly to a dog who is new to training, it is desirable for the RoR to be very high. Dogs who know you have treats and are playing a training game but can’t figure out the rules of the game tend to get frustrated, lose interest, or even wander off. It is our job as trainers to arrange the teaching so that the pupil can have a high success rate and therefore a high rate of reinforcement.

Here’s a video of some behavior drills I did with three of my dogs. The highest rate of of reinforcement was in Zani’s first session: 12 treats in 43 seconds. That’s a treat about every 3.5 seconds, or 17 treats per minute. All of the other sessions shown came to a treat about every 5 seconds, which would be 12 treats per minute. Many of the behaviors had a little duration on purpose, so that’s not bad. I checked the video of puppy Clara I linked to in #7 above, and I delivered a treat about every 5 seconds in that one as well.

By the way, I made this list of booboos before I realized that I had examples of so many of them! How about you? Have any suggestions for my next post on this? Bonus points if you’ll step forward and show an example!

Other Resources

Here are a few other articles on common errors. I got a few ideas from them, but most of the above were from my own head and some trainer friends’ heads.

This post is part of a series:

Coming up

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

45 thoughts on “8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

  1. Thanks to your blog Eileen. I didn’t know I didn’t know, I just knew there was something that wasn’t working. Better yet, you provided the encouragement and instruction on how to back track, identify and correct where I went wrong. I appreciate your ability to break things down so that we can really see what is actually happening….so valuable.

  2. Thanks SO much for this post! I really needed to read it today. The more I read, the more I think that dog training is really training PEOPLE how to work with their dogs. *I* am the harder one to teach!

    1. You are welcome, Abby! I think most “dog trainers” would agree. Not about you personally, of course, just that it’s waaaaay easier to change dogs’ behavior than people’s!

  3. What do you do when a older dog starts chewing things: pens, power strips? My husband says we can not trust her. He says she has to he put to sleep. Help!

    1. Louise, the very first thing I personally would do is take the old girl to the vet. Very often, changes in behavior in older animals have physical causes. Even if this is a problem that can be approached with training, it is way beyond me to even speculate about it. You need to to have her seen by an experienced trainer in person. But start with the vet. Good luck and I hope your dog is OK.

  4. I just love your blog! I am learning operant training and your ” mistakes” are so informative. I have learned from your videos more than ” perfekt videos”. Thank you and please keep posting mistakes videos..(And yes, I have made all the mistakes too)

  5. First time on your blog; linked from Reddit /r/dogtraining.

    Wonderful article. I felt like I was reading a history or my training life lol

    I look forward to coming back and following all the links too.

    Best Regards

  6. Another fantastic blog. Better to own up to your “mistakes” and become a better trainer for it, than to blame and correct the dog and learn nothing.

    It seems very telling that “positive” trainers are willing to do this but “punitive” trainers are so willing to shift the blame. The former being the group that I usually observe appreciating and seeking out continuing education

    Shared. 🙂

  7. This article is very helpful to me. I have asked you about methods for positive training and this article and video answer my question. I think I would learn a lot if I would video my training sessions. I like your constant reminders to observe the dogs reactions. Thanks for a great blog.

  8. hi eileen
    you mention puppy clara’s ‘stress’ on the down sessions.
    both sessions or just one?
    other than the low tail, what do you identify as stress signs in her?
    i noticed a greater lag time to offer a down toward the end of each session, the paw bat at the end of session 3, and the head turn + very slow response at end of session 4.
    what did i miss?

    very informative blog as always. and yes, i have made every one of these ‘mistakes’. amazing how much our dogs learn in spite of us humans 😉

    1. Hi Diana,

      I had to look at the video again. Between 2:00 and 3:00 in the video (session 4) Clara’s tail slows to a stop for a lot of the time; pretty unusual for her. There is greater lag time as you mention and her movements are more tentative. Let’s see, by tentative I mean slow and there is stopping and starting. She is gazing up at me each time and it’s very hard to see what it is, but something about her facial muscles says “worry” to me. As an adult she gets deep vertical wrinkles in her brow, and I don’t see that. But I think maybe the set of her eyebrows shows some tension in those muscles. The head turn as you mention at the end of the session, followed by a head drop. My hypothesis is that it is the “adding the cue” thing that is stressing her a bit. Looks like at least it was a good thing to stop when I did.

      Thanks Diana. I agree; they are phenomenal learners, especially when considering our impairments as teachers!

  9. What a delight to find this this morning! — Because we are all experiential learners – and we are all community beings ( both dogs and humans) we learn from our missteps. My joy is that we can learn when others share their experiences. Thank you for sharing! Thank you for so clearly writing the missteps i have so often taken and so often see in my multi-species flocks ;). I love how it works to help eliminate the blame game – and move into the curiosity game and give active help for both human and dog!

  10. Great post, Eileen! It is an excellent idea to video our training sessions. We can see what we are really doing versus what we think we are doing and also gives us a chance to better read the dog’s body language. I always tell my students to keep the training sessions short (5 mins. or less) and end while the dog is having fun and wants to engage more. Generalization is something that a lot of people have a hard time grasping. I suggest “proofing” the cues by practicing a learned behavior in many different locations, on leash and off, and wearing hats, sunglasses, gloves, etc. Really mix it up and your dog will eventually learn that “sit” means the same thing no matter where we are or what we are wearing, how we are standing (or sitting, kneeling, lying down). I also find that many people are very stingy with the rewards. A high RoR is critical for learning. A good trainer really does train the humans to teach the dogs! Training is a skill that takes time to perfect.

  11. Hi, Eileen. I absolutely love your blog! I learn so much from your videos. I have a question about helping your dog learn to generalize. Is it ever okay to start over with a lure when it is a command your dog has mastered in other contexts? (Let’s say you’ve tried incremental steps in moving your dog closer to this particular new context OR you can’t find a way to really do that.) Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks, Mistake Maker! Love that handle. I bet you get a lot of things right though, too. I am hoping a pro or two will weigh in on your question. I almost never use food lures even to begin with (although I lure with my body or use targeting sometimes). I know how Sue Ailsby describes the process you are talking about though, in the Training Levels. More important than whether you use a lure or not is that if your dog can’t do a well known behavior in a new environment, she always says to

        take the cue off

      and reteach it from scratch.

      So I imagine if you lured it when you taught it in other contexts, a couple of lures in that situation would be OK. (Guessing, here.) One thing I know for sure, you wouldn’t want to give the cue, have the dog just stand there, then pull out the food and lure it. That reinforces a dog for not trying (doing nothing) and mixes up what the cue means.

      Hope that touches on your question somewhat, and hope some others will chime in as well. The general question is: How do you handle teaching something in an environment so different that you have to start way back in the process?

      1. Thank you, Eileen! I admit I’ve definitely been guilty of what you said not to do (however, I do wait a while to give him a chance at figuring it out) – even though I worried that was teaching him to only perform the behavior if a treat is used. I make LOTS of mistakes, and I’m amazed my dog ever wants to do any training with me, haha. You may not be a “professional trainer” but you sure do seem to have a knack for training! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

      2. When you are teaching a new behavior you should work in an area with no distractions. As the behavior is learned you gradually increase the criteria (more distractions, more distance or more duration). If the dog is not responding, you probably moved too fast. I would suggest going back to the last successful level and practice more before moving on. Hope this is helpful.

        1. Thank you, Linda! There was a particular situation recently where I had trouble figuring out how to increase the criteria without making too big of a jump. I’ll keep working on getting creative in finding smaller steps. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Dog Training | Dog Training Secrets
  13. What about consistency? I think it’s just as important especially with a family dog. It’s important that everyone is giving consistent signals so the dog isn’t getting a lot of mixed messages.

    1. Very important! I think part of it goes under my first point about not reinforcing the undesired behaviors. But there’s more, isn’t there. Cues. Agreement on what the goals are. Thanks, Adam. I’ll put it on the list for one of the next installments.

  14. Pingback: 8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales | eileenanddogs | k4canines / Blog

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