Whether you’ve brought home a new puppy and want to start out on the right paw or you’ve got an older dog with bad habits, it’s important to remember that the way you discipline your dog — and the mistakes you make along the way — will have a big impact on the happiness of your family and your dog.
As anyone who’s seen a single episode of Dog Whisperer or It’s Me or the Dog knows, owner error is most frequently to blame for misbehaving canines. The reality is, dogs don’t always communicate the way we do, and much like teaching your child, if you can’t put it in terms they understand, you’re going to have some serious issues.
So we asked professional trainers what they thought are the most common errors people make when disciplining their dogs.
Top 5 errors people make when disciplining their dogs (according to trainers)
Yelling at your dog does no good. First, it doesn’t have a full English (or whatever language you speak in the home) vocabulary. Also, especially if it’s engaging in “normal dog behavior,” while yelling at it does convey you’re displeased, it hasn’t given your dog the most important part of the lesson — what to do instead.
This is especially true of trying to keep it from barking. Tammie Howe, behavior specialist and owner of Behave – Dog Training & Behavior Modification in Olathe, Kansas, explains that if a dog is barking at something or someone passing by, in its mind, it’s doing its job. If you yell, your dog thinks you’re joining in (and you agree there’s a threat). “The best thing to do is to acknowledge that they have done their job,” she says. “You need to physically look and see what they are warning you about.” Then matter-of-factly give your dog a scratch to let it know it’s done with the job.
She says the same goes outside. If you have a barking problem outdoors, you can use citronella spray as a deterrent.
2. Discipline without witnessing the crime
Tommy Grammer of MyDogTrainingSpot.com, which teaches you to train your dog online, tells us we need to witness the bad behavior. He says that we shouldn’t assume a guilty look means a guilty dog. The dog is just reacting to your demeanor and being submissive in an attempt to appease you.
If you don’t witness the dog in the act of, say, digging through the trash, he says, “The dog usually repeats this sorting through the trash behavior because they don’t know what they did wrong in the first place. The dog then begins to act submissively anytime that trash is on the floor and the owner comes home. In many cases, the owner themselves can turn over the trashcan and then walk in through the front door and witness the same appeasement behaviors even though the dog had nothing to do with spilling the trash. Dogs learn that trash on the floor when the owner walks in through the door is bad, not… the act of getting into the trash.”
3. Failure to lead
Howe notes a failure to take a leadership role shapes your dog’s behavior, and if you don’t step up, your dog may have to, which can lead to dominance issues or aggression, separation anxiety or hyperactivity.
4. Relying only on “no”
It isn’t that your dog can’t learn what no means, but instead of telling it what not to do, you have to show it what to do instead — or just remove the stimulus.
For example, if your dog is jumping on you and you push back, you’re essentially doing the same thing… pushing back with your front paws. Even if you say “no,” your actions are reinforcing the behavior. Instead, Howe suggests simply avoiding eye contact (which would be a welcome sight for the dog that’s missed you all day) and simply walking into it. Your dog will eventually learn that it’s not a welcome game.
If your dog gets into the trash, you need to either remove the stimulus (close the door to that room, place the trashcan where it can’t get to it) or make the trash less appealing by spraying it with something the dog will dislike.
5. Thinking dogs are human
Grammer reminds us that dogs will always be dogs. Many of the mistakes humans make when training is forgetting to ensure they understand how canines see the world. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn to live in harmony in a human world. Grammer notes, “It is the owner’s job to teach them how to be well-mannered around humans.”
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