Do you feel like your dog isn’t living up to your expectations? If you constantly feel discouraged or disappointed in your dog or your training sessions, chances are it’s because your expectations are too high or unrealistic. Setting realistic training expectations is important regardless of whether you’re taking your first dog to puppy kindergarten or are competing at a national level.
But My Dog Knows That!
A good indication that you may have set your expectations for your dog a little too high is if you find yourself regularly getting frustrated while training because your dog isn’t doing a behavior that you’re convinced they “know.” Dogs are not spiteful; they don’t try to embarrass us in front of our training friends. They don’t selectively forget cues just to make us look bad. If you’re asking your dog to perform a specific behavior and your dog doesn’t do it, the criteria have likely shifted to a level beyond what your dog is currently capable of performing.
For example, if you have only ever practiced your dog’s tricks at home in your living room, bringing your dog to a busy park or training center and asking them to perform probably won’t go well. That’s because you haven’t worked up to your dog being able to focus with that level of distraction yet. If your dog isn’t responding to cues, it’s a good sign that either they don’t fully understand the behavior, they haven’t yet learned how to focus with the level of distraction, or the reward you’re using is not high enough value for your dog in this set of distractions/circumstances. Instead of getting frustrated, try to adjust your expectations to help your dog be successful with the new criteria or distractions.
Did You Teach That?
When working with your dog—whether it’s on basic manners around the house or on competition skills—it’s essential to not expect them to do things they haven’t been taught. This sounds obvious, but because our dogs are so closely connected with us, it can be easy to forget that they aren’t mind-readers. This can become especially problematic in multi-dog homes where owners can easily forget that just because they taught one dog something, it doesn’t mean that the other dogs know it. It can lead to frustration when owners ask and expect a specific behavioral response but the dog has no idea what they’re supposed to do. It isn’t fair to ask or expect our dogs to do behaviors we haven’t taught them!
Setting realistic expectations for your dog doesn’t mean that you need to have low expectations, but it does require being honest with yourself. If you want your dog to be well-trained and responsive to your cues, it requires you putting in the work with regular training. Working with your dog is a team activity. It’s not enough to go to training class once a week—you have to put in the time daily. It’s okay to aim high with your goals, but also be realistic about what your dog can achieve right now based on your training experience and your dog’s age, temperament, health, and level of training. If you aren’t sure if you’re being realistic with your training goals and plans, talk with your trainer. They’ll give you a professional opinion about whether the goals you set are realistic and how you should adjust them to be fair to yourself and your dog.
Dangers Of Pushing Too Hard, Too Fast
It’s easy to get excited with training and be in a hurry to achieve things. If you want your dog to breeze through basic manners or if you’re in a hurry to start collecting ribbons and titles in your sport of choice, it’s important to curb your excitement and focus on the fundamentals. Rushing through them during training can lead to learning gaps for your dog that will require you to go back and retrain these skills later.
Pushing too hard, too fast can also have long-term detrimental effects not just on your training trajectory, but on your dog’s overall health. With some high-impact sports and activities, setting unrealistic expectations can even be physically damaging to your dog. For example, if you have a young dog or puppy who isn’t physically mature, by starting them too early on high-impact exercises or skills like jumping or weave poles, you risk causing long-term damage to their body.
Don’t Make Training Sessions Toxic
We want training sessions to leave our dogs feeling confident and engaged, not shut down and discouraged. Regardless of what you are training, it’s important to always keep your sessions positive. This means working at a pace that your dog can follow and be successful at and not increasing the criteria too quickly. This can leave your dog feeling frustrated and confused to the point where they don’t want to engage in training at all.
One of the best things about the internet is the way it has brought dog people around the world together in unprecedented ways. But while it helps dog owners feel less isolated, the internet can also foster unhealthy levels of competition and cause us to set unrealistic expectations for our dogs. Whether you’re just starting to train your dog or you’re a seasoned competitor, it’s easy to start comparing yourself to what others are achieving. This can lead to a big problem of setting expectations too high for your dog’s current age and level of training. Remember that those online posts you’re comparing your dog against don’t show the total picture. We all curate what about our dogs, and training that we post online.
Instead of comparing your dog to the fantasy dog in your head, or to other people’s dogs, try to focus on what your dog knows, and build on that with the expectations you set for your training. Whenever possible, try to always set your dog up for success by keeping your training sessions fun for both of you. These realistic expectations will also help you gradually work towards the big goals you have for your dog.