It took months of patience and diligence, but you finally have a trained dog. You’ve put in the work required, and, oh, your pet is something to behold. A thing of beauty. A work of art. You are the envy of your neighbors. Heck, you’ve impressed even yourself with your training prowess. At times during your daily walks, you scoff at those “untrained beasts” in your neighborhood who you see dragging their owners down the street. You walk your dog with an air of superiority and a faintly disguised disdain for those with lesser-trained animals. Life is good.
Then one Sunday morning at 6 a.m., you wake up as usual and take your dog out for their morning walk. After hooking them up to the leash and pouring yourself a big cup of coffee, you walk outside and stand in the middle of your front yard, still wearing your pajamas and slippers. Suddenly you feel the sensation of flying, followed by the sensation of falling, and the sensation of pain.
While you were in your morning fog, your dog saw a squirrel and took off, yanking you and your morning coffee halfway across the lawn. As you recover from the fall, you look up and see them flying down the road in hot pursuit of their prey. You jump up and race after them, screaming, “Come! Come!” They appear to have changed their name, as he shows no recognition of the words “Stop” or “Come.”
As you race through the neighborhood in your ridiculous morning getup, you notice your neighbors peering out their windows. Peering and pointing. And laughing. You’re sure that the grass stain that starts from your neck and runs down the length of your left leg will never wash out, and that the limp you’ve developed is permanent. You wonder why you have a dog and which lawyer you can hire to sue your dog’s trainer. Then you remember you are the trainer.
When you finally catch up with your dog, you grab the leash, push them into the house, and pour yourself another cup of coffee. You collapse on the couch and watch in numb horror as they complete their morning “duty” in the middle of your living room. Welcome to rock bottom. The local time is 7:11 a.m.
The good news is that everyone has been there, in some way or another. But why do trained dogs go off the rails? These are common training sabotages that most owners will encounter at some point.
Oh, Those Teenagers!
Like humans, dogs experience a defiant adolescent phase—more specifically, the age from 5 months through 18 months. Not all dogs go through this, and some go through it for only a month. Others will be in that “I know better than you” age for a long time. But during this time, you should expect to see some sort of rebellion in your dog, no matter how small that rebellion may be. By teaching new commands clearly and staying consistent, you can minimize the effects of adolescence on your training. For instance, “Come” today cannot be “Commere” tomorrow and “Get Over Here Right Now” the next day.
Another reason that training breaks down is that you haven’t trained thoroughly enough so that your dog completely understands the criteria for each command. Your dog comes to you when you call them in your living room when the two of you are alone? Well, unless you live on a deserted island, that’s not good enough. And if that’s the only time your dog comes to you, will you really be that shocked when he goes racing after another dog and doesn’t return when you call? I have students who are frustrated that their dog won’t come the first time they call, yet will admit (grudgingly) they always say the command about five times before they get up to enforce it. That’s not fair to the dog.
When you’re setting up a training session, make sure your dog understands all the ins and outs of the commands. For example, with the “Come” command, ask yourself if your dog understands:
- Who they should come to (you, not the person who’s on the bike, riding past your house)
- What they should do exactly (run to you and sit in front of you)
- When they should come to you (instantly, which will help save their life if they run into the road)
- Where they should come (no matter where they are, they should come and sit in front of you)
- How they should come to you (directly and quickly)
- Why they should come to you (because they know they’ll get rewarded)
Often, a break in training is due to the fact that the training has been breaking down an inch at a time for a while now and you hadn’t seen it or done anything about it. Do you notice when a picture hanging on your wall is a tiny bit crooked, or do you not notice it until it’s hanging off the nail? Dog training is like that. Pay attention to when your dog responds slowly to a command, and address it immediately instead of waiting until they won’t do the command at all. It’s far better to fix a slow response to a command on a leash during a training session than to realize it when your dog is in the middle of the road.
Sometimes people just become lax in their training. They do the same commands, in the same places, and at the same time of day, and their dog becomes bored. Can you blame them? To keep it interesting, make a list of every command your dog knows, and put each one on an index card. Every day, pull a few cards out and make those your training goals for the day. If your dog does a great job, the card goes into the discard pile until next week. If he needs more help, shuffle the card into the main deck. In addition, look at the games you play with your dog during a training session (you do play games with him during your training sessions, right?) and change them up, too.
So remember to be creative, be consistent, and be clear about your criteria.