As a professional dog trainer, we can very quickly see where training might be going wrong. One common reason that dogs are unable to learn what we are trying to teach, is that we might not be very clear about what we want the dog to do. Now this sounds obvious, but it’s a very easy mistake to make. The biggest problem I see is “changing criteria mid trial”. What this means in English, is that although the dog has achieved what we initially wanted them to do, we delay the treat and decide to see if the dog can achieve an even higher standard. I see this most often with STAY and LEAVE.
For example, a handler has held a treat in an open hand 12 inches away from the dog and the dog left it. What should happen is that the dog is rewarded for leaving this and a second trail is undertaken. What often happens is the handler thinks “this is going well, let’s see if he can leave it if I move it closer to his nose”. Now this is confusing for the dog. The dog has left the treat for five seconds, and now the handler is moving the treat towards him. “Oh good, here is my reward,” and then he goes to take the treat. The owner then takes the treat away and the dog wonders what he did wrong. Each time the dog is unsuccessful, the behaviour becomes weaker. Each time the dog is successful, the behaviour becomes stronger. If the dog has shown he can consistently leave the treat from 12 inches away and has done this at least four times in a row, you can change the criteria on the next learning trial. Next time, hold the treat 11 inches away. Break it down into discrete learning trials.
The same with STAY. Very often handlers will decide to ask the dog to stay for ten seconds. When ten seconds has passed, they re-evaluate. “This is going well, let’s see if he can stay for twenty seconds.” Uh oh! Now, your dog knows you were considering rewarding him at ten seconds because he is an expert at reading your body language and he will be ready for the reward. If the reward does not come, the dog is likely to feel he made a mistake and believe stay was not what was required. He might then do something different. Or he could become disappointed and give up, depending on his personality and resilience. If you decided at the beginning you wanted your dog to stay for ten seconds, reward him at ten seconds. If he has stayed for ten seconds at least four times in a row, then the next learning trial, you can ask for more.
Remember, if you are not clear what you want your dog to do, your dog won’t be clear either. Make sure your training is tidy and only ask for one thing at a time.
Working with an accredited dog trainer is very useful as we can help you see what you are doing and very quickly get you on the right track again. It's almost impossible for the handler to realise what they are doing wrong without a professional to support. Indeed, many dog trainers are not aware of this either, so it really makes a difference if you choose a dog trainer accredited with the Animal Behaviourists and Trainers Council (ABTC).
Denise Nuttall B.Sc (Hons) Applied Animal Behaviour, M.Res (dist).
Dog Behaviour Expert, BBC Radio Solent
Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC)
Full Member The Canine Training and Behaviour Society (TCBTS)
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Animal Training Instructor
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist