13 Common Dog Training Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The common mistakes many people make when training their dog.

A Jack Russell terrier enjoys a training session outside. 13 common dog training mistakes and how to avoid them
Photo: Alexei_tm/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Training your dog is one of those things that everyone expects to be easy. You ask the dog to do something, give them a treat, simples! But, it’s not always so simple, especially if you are training  a dog for the first time. Here are some common mistakes that many people make when they are training their dog. 

Sadly, because anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, some dog trainers make these mistakes too! In particular, don’t hire a dog trainer who makes any of the first three mistakes on the list, because studies show these techniques either risk harming your dog or are ineffective.

Using shock, prong, or choke collars

Unfortunately, using shock, prong, or choke collars has risks, according to scientific research. 

All of these methods are aversive. Using aversive methods risks fear, anxiety, stress, aggression, and a worse relationship with your pet. If you want to know more, see my report on a literature review on using aversive methods in dog training or my report on a similar review specifically about the risks of using of shock collars to train dogs. As well, the SF SPCA has a page specifically about what’s wrong with the prong collar.  

Why are they aversive methods? It’s because technically they use either positive punishment or negative reinforcement. Unfortunately, because dog training is not regulated, some trainers will try to persuade you otherwise. But they only work because something unpleasant happens to the dog when they do the wrong thing, or something unpleasant stops happening when they stop doing the wrong thing. 

If you got a training collar because your dog pulls on leash, instead try a harness or head halter while you train your dog to walk nicely. There are lots of harnesses with front clips to choose from, including the RUFFWEAR Front Range, the Sense-ation harness, or (for dogs that don’t like something going over their head) the RC Pet Products Step in Harness

Using leash corrections

The problem with leash corrections is that they too are an aversive method. In fact some studies have compared training at dog training schools that use leash corrections (as well as other aversive methods) to schools that use only positive reinforcement. One study found that dogs trained with rewards only are more optimistic while another found that if people use aversive methods, their dog is less likely to have a secure attachment to their owner.  

If your dog is pulling on leash, see the recommendations for harnesses above. When scientists looked at the body language of dogs being walked on a harness, they found that harnesses are fine from a welfare perspective.  

Using praise to train a dog

A lot of people expect their dogs to work for praise. If only, because this would make life so much easier, right? The thing is, if you want your dog to do what you ask, you need to motivate them. If, every time you say, “Good dog!” you follow it up with a treat, then your dog is going to pay attention when you say it because it means they are about to get a treat. Yay! But if you don’t… then it’s just meaningless to them.

In case you’re wondering, this is something scientists have tested. See for example the importance of food in dog training to learn more.

Not using good enough treats

All dogs are individuals and have preferences. Plus, since they are probably used to getting their kibble in a bowl, you will need something better to motivate them. Little pieces of chicken or cheese are my go-tos for training, but you can also use pieces of hot dog, freeze-dried salmon or minnows, any kind of dog treat. If you need more ideas, see the best dog training treats.   

Scientists have even shown that dogs will run faster for better quality treats. Some dogs are easier to motivate with food than others (hello, Golden Retrievers…) so you have to figure out what works to motivate your dog. 

If you think your dog is not motivated by food, most likely you didn’t find good enough food. Yes, there are some dogs that don’t like hot dog… try cat food, or roast beef, or steak instead… (hello, Siberian Huskies!).  It’s also possible they are already full, in which case train them before their meals, not right after. Alternately, it could be that the dog is too stressed to take the food (see below).

There may be occasions when you decide to use play or petting as a reward instead, and that’s absolutely fine. But for most training situations, food works best because it is quick and easy to deliver, and dogs love it so it motivates them.   

Not giving the treats fast enough

When training your dog with positive reinforcement, you want to give your dog the treat as soon as they do the behaviour you want. (If you’re using a clicker, click as soon as they do the behaviour, and then give the treat). But don’t be so quick that you’re reaching for the treat even before they’ve done the behaviour, because they need to learn that doing the thing you asked results in a treat.

Being ready to treat on time means planning ahead on your part. Where are you going to keep the treats? In your pocket, a bait bag, a cookie jar on the counter, or..? It also means paying close attention so that you can give your dog the reward right away, as soon as they do the behaviour. Research shows that it’s important to be quick in dog training. For more on this and the previous points, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.

Repeating cues

This is a very common mistake: saying the cue more than once. “Sit… sit…. Sit!” Instead, just say the cue once, and wait to see what the dog does. If they sit (even if they are a bit slow), give them the reward. If they don’t sit, they don’t get it. 

If they don’t do it several times in a row, go back to an easier stage in your training plan. 

Sometimes people make the mistake of repeating cues because they’re out in public and feel that it’s embarrassing to say the cue and have the dog not do it. Try not to worry what other people think. If you’re trying to get your dog to come when called, you can make excited noises, crouch down and encourage the dog to come to you, or even runn away from them to make it into a game. Then make a plan to do more training practice (ideally in a less distracting environment) so that next time you call them, they will come for sure.

If you see someone repeating cues in public, don’t look down on them. If they’re using positive reinforcement to train their dog, that’s great. Learning how to train takes time and practice, so just give them a smile (if appropriate) and move on. 

Punishing instead of rewarding

The classic time this happens is when you call your dog and they come running – but then you make something bad happen from the dog’s perspective. For example, you call them to you, then put their leash on and take them home, ending the fun of the outing.

Coming when called is such an important behaviour that you should reward it every time. As well, you shouldn’t only ask the dog to come when you want to put them back on leash. Make sure that, at least some of the time when they come running, you give them their treat, and then you let them go off and play or explore again. That will help you to keep their recall strong.

Sometimes you also see this happen when people try to use petting as a reward in dog training. If the dog doesn't like to be petted, then instead it's going to be punishing. Signs to look for that show the dog is a bit stressed include lip licking (when there's no treat involved), looking away, and leaning or moving away from you.

Expecting results too soon

It takes time to train a dog. It’s understandable that people get impatient, or think that because the dog did the thing they were asked once, that’s it, they know the behaviour. But it actually takes a lot of practice.

It’s important to follow a gradual training plan that moves in increments. Often, you’ll start with a lure and then a hand signal before moving on to a verbal cue. Other times you might shape or capture the behaviour. 

It’s also completely normal to have days when the training seems to go back a bit. Maybe you have to move back to an earlier stage in your plan. This is normal too. Just keep training and over time, the new behaviour will come.

See any setbacks as a learning opportunity. Be patient, and keep working on the behaviours you want your dog to learn. Keep a training diary or video if you like, so you can see your progress. 

Not taking account of distractions

When you teach your dog to come when called in your house, it’s nice and easy. Asking your dog to come when called in a park where there are other people, other dogs, and super exciting creatures like rabbits or squirrels is a completely different kettle of fish. 

Or ballgame, if you prefer. Getting your dog to run away from a ballgame or from a kettle full of fish is like super Olympic level recall. 

Dog trainers talk about the three Ds: distance, distraction, and duration.

These are all things that you need to take into account when training your dog. The smaller the number, the easier it is for your dog. For example, when teaching recall, you can first call your dog in the house (few distractions) and when you are close to them (very little distance). Ditto when you ask them to sit. Then you only gradually make things harder.

Your dog will need plenty of practice in different environments before you can really say they know something. This is perfectly normal. 

Not training your puppy or young dog

According to the 2020 PDSA Paw Report, 12% of dog guardians don’t train their dog. At all. (A further 11% said their pet was already trained).  

The thing is, without training your puppy or dog does not know how to behave. And if you don’t socialize your puppy (which means lots of positive experiences), they won’t be so friendly and confident when they grow up.

It is actually a common problem that people don’t train their puppy, let them be jumpy and mouthy because it’s fine when they are small – then run into problems as their puppy grows up and gets bigger. That jumping and mouthing is no longer cute; now it’s annoying, and potentially dangerous.

Unfortunately, behaviour problems are the most common cause of death in dogs under the age of three. Many of these euthanasia decisions could be avoided if the puppy was socialized and trained.

Sign up for a good puppy class or dog training class if you need help getting started (see how to choose a good trainer to find or what to look for in puppy class). 

Wag is "a clear and compassionate guide to bringing out the best in your dog"
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Not training your adult or senior dog

Everyone knows that you need to train a puppy, but older dogs can benefit from training too. If there’s a behaviour issue that you want to work on, the good news is that dogs of any age can learn. One of the things that older dogs might need a bit of training on includes practising their coming when called (such an important behaviour it’s worth tuning it up at any time of life). As well, the kinds of things that people often forget to train – like how to be handled as if at the vet, in preparation for vet visits – are a great place to start. And you can train dogs to have their teeth cleaned which is good for their health and will likely save you money at the vet.  

If your older dog needs a bit of extra enrichment in their life, training can help. If they already know the things they need to know to be a good companion (like sit and how to walk on leash), you can try tricks training, just for fun. 

If you recently adopted a dog who is new-to-you, check out my post on how to prioritize training for a new rescue dog.  

Not realizing when the dog is afraid

Sometimes, the reason for the way a dog is behaving in a particular way is that they are afraid. In those cases, it’s important to help them learn not to be afraid, and often this will involve desensitization and counter-conditioning rather than positive reinforcement training.  

Unfortunately, many people miss signs of fear in their dog, even when it’s something they know many dogs are afraid of (like fireworks or the vet). For some tips, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid which also has a quiz so you can test your skills. 

You will also find lots of tips to help with a fearful or reactive dog in my new book, Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog which is available for pre-order now. Karen Fine DVM, author of the NYT-bestseller The Other Family Doctor, says “Bark! should be required reading for every veterinarian and anyone who loves an anxious, fearful, or reactive dog.”

Not getting help when you need it

If you’re finding training your dog a struggle, you’re not alone. 

Help may come in the form of hiring a dog trainer. Unfortunately, dog training is not regulated and many dog trainers still rely on outdated methods, so you need to choose a dog trainer carefully. See my post on how to choose a dog trainer.  

There are also times when you need to make a trip to the vet. In particular, if a previously house-trained dog has started to soil in the house, or if there’s a sudden change in behaviour, you need to see your vet in case there is a medical cause. As well, for a very fearful and anxious dog, or a dog with separation anxiety, a vet visit can also help. In some cases your vet may recommend psychoactive medication and/or that you consult with a veterinary behaviourist (someone who is a qualified veterinarian and who has taken extensive additional certification in behaviour). 

What do you think is the most important mistake to avoid in dog training?

The cover of Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog
Pre-order Bark! The Science of Helping Your Anxious, Fearful, or Reactive Dog

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