The Usual Suspects: Dog Training Problems

Illustration of police lineup with some usual suspects in dog training problems, including a checklist, steak, cheese, dog, vacuum cleaner, and first aid kit

He’s stubborn. She knows what she’s supposed to do. He doesn’t listen. She’s just being spiteful. I hear these complaints quite frequently. And I get it. It’s really frustrating and difficult when your dog isn’t doing what you’d like them to do. But, they aren’t doing it (or not doing it) just to be difficult or naughty.

So what’s really going on?

Training problems are often undertrained dogs.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Training takes way more practice and repetition than most people realize. It’s kind of like weight lifting, playing a musical instrument, dancing, rehearsing for a play or speaking another language. You’ve got to get your reps in. Practice over, and over, and over again.

Closeup photo of fingers playing piano
Dogs learn through repetition and practice, much like humans when learning to play a musical instrument.

Incremental steps and a variety of contexts.

Train your dog using an incremental plan. Start with what your dog can do right now, and add distractions and difficulty gradually in a step-by-step fashion to build towards the final goal, much like in the human examples above. If you’ve only practiced a skill at a kindergarten level (coming when called inside the house from feet away), don’t attempt a graduate school problem (coming when called away from a squirrel or in the middle of play with your best friend). And if we make one aspect of the exercise more difficult, we may need to make another aspect a bit easier. Your dog sits at home every time on a verbal cue, but may need to go back to a hand signal or food lure to be successful when near a group of kids at the bus stop.

Photo of a squirrel
Build up the difficulty level gradually. Don’t try a graduate school level problem, like calling your dog away from a squirrel, if you haven’t worked up to it.

It helps to practice in a variety of contexts. Ever change the picture for your dog, and all of a sudden they’re thrown off? Ask your dog to sit while you’re sitting on the sofa, when you’ve only ever practiced sit with you standing, and see what happens.

I asked actor Harvey Guillen about the steps to prepare for an episode of What We Do in the Shadows. Click here to read his response.

Dogs Need Motivation

Jean Donaldson writes, “Dogs are completely and innocently selfish.” They do what works…for them. We’ve been sold the myth that dogs will do something for nothing, or that they’re “eager to please,” but it’s just not true. There has to be something in it for them, too. At My Fantastic Friend, we use good the stuff to motivate dogs — carrots — rather than things that frighten, intimidate or hurt them — sticks. Examples include food (we use a wide variety of food and treats, and a lot of it!), chasing a ball or frisbee, a game of tug-o-war, a trip outside or play with other dogs. There are many options, as long as it’s something that particular dog finds motivating at that particular moment, making it more likely that they’ll repeat the behavior next time. It’s got to be worth their while!

Dog licking lips in anticipation of food.
Food is a powerful, effective and efficient motivator.

What a dog finds motivating can wax and wane or change depending on the context. For instance, if a dog is stuffed after a huge meal, even a delicious piece of steak might not be very motivating. And just forget about a piece of kibble. (Hint: Train your dog when they’re hungry, not right after a full meal.) That dry training treat might be motivating to your dog at home when nothing else is going on, but not so much when they encounter fascinating dogs on a walk. (Hint: Upgrade to a more interesting, more delicious treat. Break out that steak!) Many dogs find other dogs irresistible. By giving those dogs lots of opportunities for off-leash play and social interaction, other dogs may become a bit less fascinating. (If you’re taking a group class, give your dog some playtime time with another dog before you arrive.)

We also set it up so the things we’d like to see less of stop working for the dog; they no longer pay off. What do you think will happen if every time your dog jumps up on you when you come home, you turn and go back out the door? Jumping up on you no longer works for the dog — it makes you go away rather than get your dog the attention they desire. We’d expect to see less jumping up. Think about that for a moment. The way we get rid of behaviors we don’t like is to stop them from paying off. What do you think will happen if you stop paying your dog for the behaviors you want to see more of?

Check out some of our favorite dog training treats on our resources page and in our MFF Tidbits Facebook album. For more info on motivation, read this piece by Allison Wells of I Love Your Dog, this one by Casey McGee of Upward Hound, this one by Kristi Benson of Kristi Benson Dog Training, this one by Tim Steele of Behavior Matters Academy, and this one by Suzanne Bryner of Lucky Fido Dog Training. Check out this podcast by Lori Nanan about reinforcement.

Keep them feeling safe.

A frightened or worried dog may not be able to do what you’re requesting. If you thought you heard an intruder in your house or were being held at gunpoint, would you be interested in helping your friend remember the words to a song or solve a math problem? No, you’ve got bigger things to worry about. Watch your dog’s body language and help them if you see signs of fear or worry.

Check out Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe by Zazie Todd of Companion Animal Psychology.

Potential medical concerns.

Pain, illness or other medical issues can get in the way of what we’d like our dogs to do. Maybe a dog won’t sit or jump into the car because his hip hurts. (That’s another reason why I never push down on a dog’s rear end in order to get them to sit.) Maybe he’s not interested in treats because he’s got a tummy issue. Consult your veterinarian if you see sudden changes in your dog’s behavior or suspect any issues. Make notes, take photos and record videos to give your veterinarian as much information as possible.

Dog being dogs, doing dog things.

Many behavior problems are just dogs being dogs, doing dog things that happen to be a poor fit for our human lifestyles. We restrict dogs from doing a lot of natural, normal dog behaviors. The onus is on us to help them fit into our weird human constraints.