6 Common Dog Training Mistakes You’ll Regret Making

Forget about being a "pack leader" or thinking that treats will spoil your dog. Here, celebrity dog trainer Zak George reveals some surprising truths about how to train your dog.

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Mistake: Dogs are domesticated wolves, so you need to establish yourself as pack leader

Truth: Dogs are not wolves, but unique animals predisposed to learn very advanced concepts from human beings. We likely first selectively bred today’s domestic dogs at least 15,000 years ago to cohabitate with us, provide companionship, and perform certain tasks such as hunting, herding, or alerting us when a stranger is near. To ignore the human influence in the domestic dog reflects a failure to acknowledge why the modern dog even exists at all. Yet many mainstream dog trainers seem to completely disregard this central point in favor of using methods that undermine the intelligence of our dogs.

Also, these trainers are basing their philosophy on an archaic understanding of wolf behavior that has been discredited by researchers who study wolves extensively. For instance, renowned wolf expert L. David Mech refuted the “alpha” wolf concept. When wolves are randomly placed in confinement together, they do fight for resources; however, that happens only when these animals are in a very unnatural environment. “Wolves in the wild—the wolves that our dogs descended from—get to the top of their pack merely by maturing, mating, and producing offspring,” says Mech. “In fact, leadership roles are simply parental roles. The pack is actually a family social structure, a lot like human families.”

Any training ideology that relies on your being a “pack leader” or an “alpha” instead of a loving parent to your dog is fundamentally flawed from day one. If your dog is curious, try giving him one of these puzzle toys.

Mistake: Domination is the only way to get a dog to listen

Truth: Real teaching is about communication, not domination, says Zak George. Our goal when teaching a dog should be not to make a dog do something by forcing her into submission but to make a dog want to do something. Trying to dominate your dog by yelling at her, flipping her on her back in an “alpha roll,” or using certain collars designed to create discomfort or pain will only greatly hinder both your relationship with your pet and the training process. Such training focuses on teaching what a dog shouldn’t do rather than what she should do. These tactics could even undermine your dog’s trust. Furthermore, your dog will not behave consistently when you take those special collars off or don’t use forceful methods.

On the other hand, positive training works with virtually any dog. In fact, if you have a dog with aggression issues, studies have shown that using forceful methods will likely make the behaviors worse. One study in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior found that confrontational methods such as striking dogs, intimidating them, alpha rolls, and staring them down often led to an aggressive response. “When you use confrontational methods, you are just making yourself more threatening and increasing your dog’s motivation to use aggression against you,” explains Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study and director of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s like fighting fire with fire.” Also, avoid these puppy training mistakes you’ll regret later.

Mistake: Once you use treats, your dog will never listen without them

Truth: Your dog will learn to listen without treats, but you’ll probably need to use them longer than you intuitively might think, possibly up to six months after she first learns a behavior. However, we’re talking about your dog knowing a skill completely. For her to do that, she’ll need a lot of repetition and have to practice under various circumstances. Say your dog sits for you when you are home alone even if you don’t give her a treat, but when you take her to a park where there are lots of distractions, she doesn’t. That’s because dogs don’t generalize well. In fact, the single biggest thing you can do to throw your dog off is to change her environment or other variables. When you do, you’ll need to reteach her that skill or trick in the new environment.

Once you think your dog knows a skill completely, don’t just cut out the treats cold turkey. Instead, follow the principle of intermittent reinforcement. Dogs really excel when you randomly reward. Perhaps give a treat for a particular behavior, then skip the treat the next two times your dog does it, and then treat three times in a row. Eventually, your dog will learn to generalize the behavior without a treat.

Mistake: Dogs can’t understand that much, so speak in very simple terms

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Truth: Most trainers advise you to keep your phrasing very simple and limit your requests to one word at a time. There’s certainly validity to this when introducing a brand-new concept like “sit,” but there’s nothing wrong with evolving your language after the first few weeks of basic training. Of course, you can still use one-word requests, but saying “Sit down please,” “Have a seat,” or whatever else you want to say to your dog can actually help broaden her vocabulary. Research has clearly shown that dogs can have a huge vocabulary, comparable to a toddler’s. The average dog can learn at least 165 words, while highly intelligent dogs can learn 250 words, or even considerably more. (One Border Collie named Chaser holds the current known record, at more than 1,000 words!)

There’s no need to dumb down your grammar. If your dog is barking, for instance, you can abandon phrases such as “No bark!” Instead, use proper grammar by saying “Stop barking please,” and teach your dog your language as you would teach a young child. Feel free to speak in a way that comes naturally. You’ll be shocked by what your dog can understand. Can your dog read your mind? Here are 13 astonishing things your dog might know about you.

Mistake: You can only teach puppies new things

Truth: This line of thinking has been around a long time: In 1534, an Englishman named John Fitzherbert wrote in The Boke of Husbandry, “The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe.” Translation: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Clichés often have a good bit of truth to them, but that’s definitely not the case here. Dogs love to learn at all ages, and you should always continue teaching them new tricks and concepts to keep them mentally stimulated. No offense to Mr. Fitzherbert, but don’t buy into this old idea for a second. Here are more fascinating facts about dogs you never knew.

Mistake: You can only teach your dog one thing at a time

Truth: Dogs are remarkably intelligent. Just like humans, your dog can process many concepts simultaneously. Of course, don’t expect your dog to master ten tricks in one day. There’s a fine line between covering multiple concepts and confusing your dog. You’ll have to find that line with your own dog, but a general rule of thumb is between two and four simple tasks at a time.

Most importantly, don’t think you have to perfect a concept before moving on to the next one. Many people assume they need to, say, master housetraining before they move on to basic training, as though it’s sequential. Make sure that this is not your mindset. While you’re housetraining your dog, you should work on other basic skills. Dogs want to work with humans, and you speed up your dog’s learning teaching her multiple things. If training isn’t going as planned, you might need obedience training if you notice these 11 behaviors in your dog.

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The new book Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution is a groundbreaking, comprehensive guide that teaches people everything they need to know to raise and train their dogs. Also, visit Zak George’s website at dogtrainingrevolution.com.

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