Your Own Worst Enemy

“I’m desperate for help, I have been trying to get my dog to stop jumping but nothing is working. I have tried everything! It was cute when he was a puppy but now that he’s 80lbs it hurts and is dangerous when my mother comes to visit. I don’t know what to do, can you help?”

I get emails like this one everyday from people who are frustrated and desperate for help. One thing I frequently discover is that many of these people are unknowingly sabotaging their training. I observed one family frustrated with their dog “not getting” the idea of staying out of the kitchen when asked. I observed the family and while they told the dog to get out of the kitchen and the dog complied initially, the dog eventually ventured back into the kitchen. He was cued out of the kitchen a few more times but on the 5th or 6th time he cam back in, one of the humans gave the dog a treat in the kitchen. So, all that work cuing the dog to get out of the kitchen and what did they ultimately do? Reward him coming into the kitchen (and begging). What did this dog learn… “If I am persistent enough with going back into the kitchen after being told to get out, eventually I will get a treat.”

Humans are not as consistent as we may THINK that we are and that can create a bumpy road to effective training. It is so easy for us to sabotage our own training without really being aware of it. We’ve got to be careful that we aren’t undoing the training that we’ve put into place. This is especially true with things like basic manners–jumping, door manners, begging, but can be equally as true with obedience behaviors.

Jumping has got to be one of the biggest behaviors that owners sabotage their own work. Maybe you pet Fido when he jumps up when you are having a particularly bad day and you appreciate the affection… perhaps your teenager doesn’t mind when Fido jumps so they give him cookies after jumping up… or it could be grandma who insists that it’s fine that the 20lb puppy jumps up because it’s cute. These are all “random” jackpot rewards for he dog and we use the same concept to make behaviors more reliable. When we start to randomly reinforce positive behavior (when we stop rewarding every ‘sit’ with a cookie and start rewarding random sits) it actually becomes a more reliable behavior because the dogs become good gamblers and it’s no different with negative behavior.

Before you think that your dog is incapable of learning or the methods you are using aren’t working, take a minute to consider if you (or someone in your family) may be accidentally be doing something to sabotage your training. Are you sometimes giving in and letting Fido pull you down the street to see the other dog? Are you falling for the “I’m starving please feed me” eyes and tossing your begging dog a treat from the dinner table? Do you secretly love when Fifi gently jumps on you to say hi? Do you ask for a sit but laugh, giggle, and reward your dog when he repeatedly lays down?

In going back and looking at a video I did with Rio doing fast downs, I had no idea that I was really sabotaging a solid drop on recall because I was rewarding him even after he popped up from the down. So the result was he’d hear the click and pop up from the down. I didn’t realize it until watching it on film that I was doing something to cause the little stinker to pop up. Once I figured out the cause of the popping-up, I was able to very quickly remedy the problem by fixing his fast-downs and adding in a release before tossing the treat out.

So, have you ever done anything to sabotage your training? How did you realize your mistake and what did you do to fix it?

1 Comment
  1. Great post! It really is all about us … how consistent we are (or not), and all the signals we are usually unaware of giving.

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