When it seems like your training isn’t working, your dog isn’t getting the concepts and/or training is frustrating instead of fun, check out the troubleshooting items below:
Medical – Is there an underlying medical or neurological issue that needs to be resolved first? Does the dog have health problems that cause pain or discomfort? Is the dog on a quality diet? (Poor diets can cause dogs to feel crummy and can affect behavior and training.) Post spay/neuters, dogs in heat and pregnant dogs find focusing and training challenging. Take a break during these times and make sure they get physical exercise and plenty of chews and food dispensing toys.
Environment – Have there been changes in the dog’s life that are causing stress, is the environment too distracting or are there events that make training difficult? (In the process of moving, thunderstorms, family member is in poor health, etc…).
ROR (Rate of Reinforcement) – Are you rewarding the dog frequently enough for them to connect the rewards with the desired behavior?
Quality of Reinforcement – Are you paying well enough for the behavior you want? For example, if Kibble is a low-value reward for your dog, you can’t expect them to work for that around high-level distractions (like other animals or finding cheesecake on the ground). Try upping the value of the reward.
Timing – How well do you time your marker and rewards after the desired behavior? Studies tell us that we have tops 2-3 seconds after a behavior occurs to give a marker and reward the dog will connect with the behavior. However, if the dog offers multiple behaviors within that window, they will associate the reward with the last behavior they did. This is why the timing of markers is so important.
Attitude – Are you treating training like it’s a chore or a game? Your dog can tell the difference! They get excited about what you get excited about so bring on the energy and the happy tones! DO NOT train if you’re in a bad mood or you’ve already had a stressful day. Take a break from training and give your dog something else to do instead. If you don’t feel a little silly when you work with your dog in front of others, you might not be doing it right.
Length of sessions – Try shorter training sessions with just 2-5 repetitions at a time. Many dogs struggle with new exercises and don’t have the brain power and attention span to handle longer training lessons. When starting new behaviors, train for 5-10 minutes max. Keep in mind that puppies, adolescents and seniors tend to struggle more with focus and attention span. The key is multiple short sessions each day.
Take a break – sometimes dogs, just like people, get burnt out and need a break. Especially with any training that can cause additional stress (like reactivity training). It takes 72 hours for stress hormones to leave the body. Start with a 3-day training break (but still play with them and give them things to do), then try again. Puppies and adolescents in particular, seem to need longer training breaks sometimes. Try giving them up to 7 days, then try again. Note that you don’t always need to take a break from ALL training. Known cues or easy behaviors for your dog should be fine to practice.
Check your three Ds (Distance, Duration and Distractions) – Are you adding too much at once? Are you going too far too fast? Remember that training often happens in baby steps. Go back to an easier step and use the 90% rule. Don’t increase the difficulty in any area until your dog is 90% consistent in performing the behavior at the asked-for level of difficulty.
Learning style – changing the approach to teaching may greatly benefit your dog depending on their learning style and likes and dislikes. Pairing recall with a fetch and retrieve game might work better for a dog who loves to play fetch. Pairing recall with a chase game might work better for a dog drawn to movement.
Threshold – This really falls under the 3 Ds, but it’s worth repeating. The point at which your dog no longer takes treats, won’t listen, or can’t perform known behaviors (like sit), is their threshold point. They literally can’t focus on your and can’t learn because their brain is in a state of over arousal. Don’t punish them or get frustrated, just dial back the difficulty a few notches by decreasing the 3 Ds, then try again. *Note that for fearful and reactive dogs, if they’re past threshold, their brain goes into fight or flight mode. Learning will not occur in this primal survival mode their brain is locked in if they’re past threshold. The best thing you can do is put distance between them and whatever’s causing the reaction. If they do have an outburst or run to hide, give them a break for three days while you practice easy stuff or work on your relationship at home. This will give their body a chance to flush stress hormones.
What are you rewarding? – Make sure you’re rewarding desired behaviors far more than correcting undesired behaviors. Remember that reinforced behaviors occur more frequently and punished/ignored behaviors decrease. Only the learner decides what’s reinforcing and what’s punishing.
Management – Management simply means taking steps to ensure they can’t reinforce themselves for bad behaviors. For example, if your dog likes to get into the trash can, put the trash cans behind doors or out of reach when you aren’t actively supervising your dog. Are any of your management areas failing? If so, fix them or find alternative management methods.
Don't forget to reference the Human Hierarchy for help with which tools to use and when! If you need help or have questions, please contact us. We're more than happy to help and we offer online lessons as well!