by Ryan Krogh | on August 25th, 2011 | in Features, Training
This past weekend, Mike Stewart and our friends over at Wildrose Kennels put on one of their popular Adventure Dog programs in Buena Vista, Colorado. The class is designed to show dog owners all the skills they and their pups need to do everything from float rivers to mountain bike together. I was at the class with Magnolia, my eight-month-old yellow lab, and came away with plenty of new tips. I also came away with a new appreciation for the mistakes I was making with her that kept setting her back. And I wasn’t the only one. Here are the seven mistakes that nearly everyone in the class, included me, made—and how you avoid them with your own pooch.
Mistake #1: Not Mastering the Basics
Most dogs sit and lie down at home just fine. They’ll even heel around the block. But add in a new location, like hiking on an unfamiliar trail or walking down a crowded Main Street, and the dog is pulling on the leash, trying to chase rabbits, or chomping at a four-year-old’s ice cream cone. It’s simply because the dog hasn’t mastered all the fundamental skills: Sit, Stay, Here, Heel, and Leave It. As soon as you add in a new stimulus or a new location the dog goes off track, because those skills haven’t been fully ingrained yet.
Correction: Dogs are place-oriented. Your pup may be able to sit still in the house, but not so in the campsite while you’re roasting marshmallows. So practice having him sit in multiple locations. Same with heeling: Don’t always take the dog on the same after-work walk. He’ll do fine in familiar territory, because the routine is familiar, but he’ll run off as soon as he sees a chipmunk while hiking. Mike Stewart’s rule is that if a dog can consistently perform the skill five times in five different locations, with a distraction or two thrown in, he’ll be able to do that skill nearly anywhere.
Mistake #2: Being Inconsistent With the Dog
The tendency for most dog owners is to want a dog that is chill around the house but on point as soon as you step out the front door. It’s impossible to get that unless you act nearly the same in the house as out the door. As Stewart is fond of saying, “Dogs are not an On/Off switch. They’re creatures of habit.” What he means is that if you let a dog run roughshod over the house, that’s exactly what he’ll do when you open the door.
Correction: You need to be consistent with how you reward and scold them, so that the dog actually learns. If you want a dog to sit and stay still whenever you want, you need to work on that in the house first. And yes that means you’ll need to change your routine with the dog, because your daily routine with him needs to line up with your end goal. Instead of letting him have the run of the house, make sure he sits still on a mat. Then do that in five different locations. The add in a stimulus, like a kidding running around or a ball tossed in front of him. When it comes time to sit around the campfire, he’ll be ready sit calmly and not dive after your marshmallow the first chance he gets.
Mistake #3: Using Rewards Indiscriminately
All weekend long, we saw various dogs misbehaving, wandering around, and then getting petted when they sidled up to someone. That’s rewarding the dog for misbehaving, even if it wasn’t you that did the misrewarding. The indiscriminate rewarding also happened with owners who were petting (or worse, feeding) their dogs when they came up while we were sitting around a picnic table eating lunch.
Correction: Make sure you’re not reinforcing bad habits by encouraging them. The classic example is whining or barking. If walk outside every time they whine, they’ll quick put two and two together and keep on whining to get you to come out the door. The dog is training you at that point. Leave them be until they’re quiet, then go over and pet them. The same thing goes for feeding. If your dog is begging you for food at a BBQ and you feed him, don’t be surprised when he starts hopping up on your lap at the dinner table. Playing tug of war with the dog? No wonder he chews on everything and then brings it to you to destroy further. Instead, play games with a purpose so that you can focus the dog on things you want. Around the house, you can work on getting your dog to “Shake” hands with you or jump “Over” your lifted leg. They view this as fun. On a walk, don’t let them retrieve tennis balls randomly. Throw one that they have to ignore, and then another that they can pick up by you calling their name. That way you can reward good behavior at the right time and keep the dog focused. The mental energy expended on these games will often be more than enough to wear the dog out.
Mistake #4: Relying Too Much On Verbal Commands
“Dogs don’t talk,” Stewart said all weekend, earning him a chuckle every time. But he’s right: dogs have no idea what you’re saying. They only associate a verbal sound that you make with a behavior that you’ve reinforced. The much stronger message is always sent via body language or the tone of your voice. Most people were yelling a screaming at their dogs in long complicated sentences to get back in line—all of which meant little to the dog.
Correction: Dogs are extremely perceptive. Try a training session in which you don’t say a word and only attempt to communicate to the dog via your body language or hand signals. You’ll be amazed at what the dog picks up. Now add that same “language” to the specific command you’re working on. Be stern when the dog does something bad, but effusive when he does something right.
Mistake #5: Missing the Dog’s Signals
Just like your dog picks up on your nonverbal cures, you can pick up on the dog’s noverbal cues. If he is supposed to be sitting still but he’s leaning a little too far forward as another dog passes, you can bet they’re about to break. Same thing goes for a high tail, or a raised head. A dog is always communicating.
Correction: At least three times during the weekend I saw dogs give signs before they bolted away from their owners, snapped at another dog, or barked at a waitress. It’s only because I happened to be watching them at that exact moment. Pay attention to your dog, and make mental notes on any signs he gave that preceded an unwanted behavior. If he gives those signs in the future, rather than testing the dog, simply call their name to have them refocus on you. That way you don’t have to continually make harsh corrections when the dog gets out of line.
Mistake #6: Forgetting that Praise Is Just as Important as Scolding
We saw this one all weekend, and I’ll admit that I’m guilty of it myself. When a dog does something bad, everyone’s natural reaction is to scold him immediately so the he learns not to do it again. But many people forget to praise is just as effective, except you have to be just as effusive with it. More often that not, when a dog does something good, that’s all they’re rewarded with, a terse “good.”
Correction: If the dog has just done something exceptionally well, or done something for the first time, don’t be afraid to get down and make a show of it. Praise him while petting. Tell him “Good Sit,” “Good Stay,” “Good Backflip,” or whatever he did right. That way he learns without harsh corrections exactly what it is you want him to do.
Mistake #7: Expecting Your Dog to Change Overnight
It’s just not going to happen, unfortunately. Younger dogs will pick up habits, so instilling them with correct habits is much easier than correcting bad habits. Older dogs with ingrained habits will be much more difficult to change. (But it’s not impossible.) It just takes time, and you need to be realistic about how much time it actually takes, whether to train a new pup or retrain an old dog with new tricks.
Correction: The good news is that dogs are sponges: they pick up whatever you’re throwing at them. You just need to keep practicing it with them until it becomes a habit (again, older dogs will be harder but not impossible). But it’s your responsibility to incorporate that training or retraining into the dog’s everyday life. And do it consistently over many days and months. Stewart reiterated multiple times over the weekend that “You need to begin with the end in mind.” He meant that if you don’t have a vision for what you want out of your dog, you won’t be able to recognize the necessary steps that you need to do in order to get them there. Make the training and dog’s daily life line up with what you want. And again, don’t expect change overnight. But if you’re consistent and diligent, pretty soon the dog will be heeling on command, coming back to you every time you tell him to, and getting a beer out of the fridge, if that’s really all you want.
by Alicia Carr | on August 31st, 2010 | in Features, Training
This week, Mike Stewart takes us on a short hike with trail dogs Indian, Deke, Opus, and Drake. Follow along.