Why It's OK When Dog Training Goes Wrong
It can be really frustrating when things go wrong during training. You’ve got yourself all excited to teach your dog a new skill, you can’t wait to give it a go but it’s just not working out. Your dog just doesn’t seem to be getting it or doesn’t seem want to play along. You may find yourself getting cross and thinking that your dog is just being stubborn. You may even feel like you’ve failed or that your dog has let you down.
Yet every failure during dog training is an invaluable learning experience. If something isn’t working out, I know the dog I’m working with is telling me something isn’t right. Often working out what has gone wrong is more useful than several successful training sessions. Sometimes the answer is relatively simple. For example, if a dog is thirsty, needs to go to the toilet or is too hot you are unlikely to get much focus from your dog. However, at other times the answer is a little more complicated.
First things first. If your dog is comfortable and ready to work check that your rewards match the effort you are asking for from your dog. If you are teaching something completely new and/or of higher difficulty for your dog then your rewards need to reflect this in order to keep your dog motivated. A bit of boring kibble just isn’t going to cut it! Rewards are in effect payment for work well done. The harder the work, the better your reward needs to be.
Secondly, are you asking too much too soon? If your dog is struggling often the easiest way to solve the problem is to break the training down into smaller steps. So if your dog just won’t do a down? Reward them for any bending of the back or lowering of the body then try to gradually decrease the distance to the ground bit by bit. Want to teach your dog to stay but they keep trying to follow you? Then practice building up duration on the spot before you start to move away. Setting your dog up so they can succeed is the key to any good training session. It’s better to be successful at lots of small improvements than ask for too much and have it all fall apart.
Another thing that is often misunderstood in training is what can be referred to as fidgeting about. This is when your dog suddenly decides they must scratch their ear, have a little sniff of the ground or simply wander off. It may appear as though the dog has just lost interest but these are key signs of emotional conflict. When a dog is experiencing conflicting emotions they will start fidgeting. Most often the dog is excited to work but has also become stressed by something. This could be something as simple as your dog picking up on your own tension which is making them feel under pressure. Alternatively, what you are asking for may be too difficult for the dog and they are getting confused as to what they are being asked to do.
Often when training goes wrong is when we ask our dogs to do something we have already trained them to do but in a different environment. To us, it seems obvious that sit means sit wherever you are but to your dog, the whole picture appears very different. There are lots of different sounds and smells, everything looks different, you may be wearing different clothes and be carrying various items, there may be other dogs and people too. To your dog, the situation is so completely different that they become confused. Dogs just aren’t as good as humans at generalising; they can’t pick out the one common thread in the situation (i.e. the word sit). This means that you may need to go back some stages in your training whenever you are in a new environment.
One of the most common reasons for a training session to fail is by increasing the difficulty too quickly particularly in terms of distractions. A common example of this is when teaching a recall outdoors. Many owners struggle with recalling their dog out in the park. Usually, because the recall is attempted when there are too many distractions instead of being practiced at quieter times first. It’s just too big of a step up in difficulty to go from recall at home to a recall from other people and dogs especially if you don't have an exciting reward to offer on your dog's return. A special toy that only comes out for recalls is a great way to keep up your dog’s enthusiasm to come back to you when there are lots of doggy playmates around.
When other dogs and people are too close during a training session your dog’s level of distraction will quickly tell you so. For dogs that react towards other dogs and or people by lunging and barking, your dog is telling you that you need more space. You can’t learn when you are stressed out or over excited and neither can your dog. So, if your dog has no focus take this as useful indicator that you need some more distance.
If you find your dog tends to bark, bite the lead and jump about whilst you are trying to train, this is an indication that your dog is getting frustrated. Training sessions that are short and sweet are preferable to a training session that goes on too long. A couple of minutes followed by a quick break is generally more effective than a lengthy session. If your dog is barking, then you need to reward faster and build up the duration between rewards slowly. Some dogs just get so excited for that tasty treat they struggle to contain themselves. You could also work on some self-control exercises such as a ‘stay’ and ‘leave it.’ If your dog is lead biting and jumping about, you may also need to make the training a little easier as you could be asking for something your dog doesn’t understand or is finding too difficult to perform.
In summary, a training session that doesn’t go as planned can tell you a lot about your dog. Your dog may be stressed, frustrated or distracted. You may be asking for something that is too hard or where there are too many distractions. Your dog could be tired, need a break or simply not motivated by the reward that’s on offer. It’s important that as owners, we have realistic expectations of our dogs and don’t expect too much too soon. Dogs are sensitive to human emotions and getting frustrated or angry with your dog during training will only harm their progress and the owner-human bond. So instead of being disappointed when your training doesn’t go as planned, take it as an opportunity to learn something new about your dog. You’ll be amazed at what a difference a few small changes to your training can make.
Tamsin is a qualified animal behaviourist having obtained an MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour from Lincoln University in 2013. In 2017 Tamsin started running Puppy School classes in Solihull, having received tutor training from renowned author, dog trainer and canine behaviourist Gwen Bailey. Prior to running Puppy School Solihull Tamsin spent over two years working at Dog’s Trust gaining valuable experience in caring for and training a wide variety of rescue dogs. In 2014 Tamsin and her husband adopted their own rescue dog, Milo, with whom Tamsin has worked successfully to reduce his reactivity towards other dogs. In addition to dog training, Tamsin enjoys writing articles and resources on the topic of dog behaviour for both professionals and dog owners.