Expert Tips: Are you making these dog training mistakes?

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Training your dog can be tough stuff. Big puppy eyes make it easy to give in, and conflicting advice online makes it hard to know where to start. We asked local dog trainer Leigh Siegfried of OpBarks her thoughts on some of the most common dog training mistakes.

Starting small and staying small

“Preparing your dog to learn while getting to know one another and bonding is much more important than hurrying in to teach tons of skills,” Siegfried said. “Gentling your dog to touch and handling, and getting to know one another is key. If you are going to teach some skills, you can start small, but don’t stay small.”

Siegfried said that many dog owners teach cues like “sit” or “down” for a quick second or so. But instead, owners can successfully challenge their dogs from the start by learning to hold positions for short periods of time—up to five seconds to start.

When dogs are taught to sit only briefly, “sit” may remain a party trick as opposed to the reliable life skill that owners need it to be. Just because a dog knows how to sit for a second does not mean it knows how to sit and stay sitting instead of entering a busy city intersection. Siegfried said that training any skill for duration from the get-go—whether it’s sitting or maintaining eye contact—fosters a connection between the dog and owner in a variety of environments.

Teaching in states of high arousal

Training can be exciting and frustrating for dogs—just ask a hungry lab when an owner has a handful of treats or a ball! But often, owners mistakenly train their dogs in a super excited, frenzied state. While a highly aroused dog may be eager to please, it can’t concentrate on cues or relax. Siegfried said it is very important for owners to be able to understand their dog’s arousal level.

“A lot of what I do is teach people how to dial their dogs up or dial them down for training,” Siegfried said. “Dogs wind up going 0 or 60mph, and they can’t learn there. Owners need to learn to train them at 35mph.”

The goal is to help dogs and their owners find a state of relaxation and concentration, what Siegfried described as the “sweet spot.” Training a dog in a high state of arousal can result in the next problem she often sees.

Well-trained … but not well-behaved

Has your dog ever been offered a treat and, instead of doing the command you asked, she performed every trick she knows? Have you asked your dog to sit at the door, and after a half second sit, he still hauls you outside? Have you ever picked up a toy to play only to have it pulled out of your hand … or yourself knocked off your feet?

While the former may be cute, it can lead to the latter. This kind of behavior, where dogs “clock in” with a trained skill and then “clock out” with their excited, frenzied behavior, can undermine opportunities for play and freedoms in a dog’s life. It gives the illusion that training is working—look at all the tricks she did!—when really, your dog hasn’t truly thought about its actions.

“Well-trained and well-behaved are two very different things. Most of us want a dog that is well-behaved—one we’re not nagging to be polite for the rest of their lives,” Siegfried said.

When owners focus solely on cues in their training, they aren’t training for a well-behaved dog. Rather than learning to sit or be calm in certain situations, your dog simply learns to do what works, like sitting for a second at the door before bolting, or performing every trick in succession.

“When a dog does this, it isn’t concentrating. It’s just going through the motions and hoping one sticks,” Siegfried said.

Siegfried recommended that owners work with their dogs at 35mph and deliver rewards with intention. That way, owners can decide what actions they want to promote, and their dogs can understand them.

Too many treats

According to Siegfried, most owners rely too heavily on treats when training their dogs.

“It’s kind of like that ‘Portlandia’ skit, you know, ‘Put a bird on it.’ But instead, it’s ‘Put a treat on it,’” she joked.

While treats are particularly good in the early stages of training as a motivator, owners should eventually teach their dogs to do more for less. Owners should begin with a variety of non-food rewards early on. Treats, like any training tool, should be used wisely to prevent overuse. Siegfried finds that owners often develop a sense of dependency on treats—they feel that they can’t reinforce of even ask their dog for a behavior without them.

For that reason, Siegfried suggested owners be intentional about the use of food-based rewards. She recommended using life-based rewards over a reliance on food. Life rewards include things that your dog naturally wants, and then building manners around those things in order to get them. If your dog wants to play, invite them to play and start the session with a “sit” and some eye contact. Then play! That’s the reward—no treats necessary.

Leigh Siegfried, CPDT-KA, is owner of and dog trainer at Opportunity Barks, a Philadelphia-area training business. OpBarks recently opened a new training facility in Philly’s East Falls neighborhood offering day school, classes, lessons and boarding school programs.

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