Updated: Feb 20, 2021
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Is your dog giving you deaf ears? When this happens, avoid repeating the command over and over and imposing yourself until you get a response; instead, take a step back and consider the following scenarios which are some of the most common issues encountered when training dogs.
1) Low Value Treats: Are Your Treats Worth Working For?
It’s a romantic and hard to debunk myth that dogs work for us just to please us. In reality, as opportunistic beings, dogs are most likely thinking “what’s in it for me?” according to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). The right use of treats can really make the difference between a dog who is eager to work and one who couldn’t care less. The use of low-value treats (such as kibble) can be detrimental if your dog isn’t excited by them, especially during the initial stages of learning or when there are distractions around, so make sure your treats are worthy of attention.
Also remember to stick to treats which are soft, smelly, and in small bite-sized pieces. This allows your dog to quickly gobble up the reward and focus his attention back on you, rather than being distracted by a longer-lasting treat.
A suggestion? Try to use what respected veterinarian, trainer and writer Dr. Ian Dunbar calls the Ferrari of dog treats: Freeze-dried liver.
2) Low Rate of Reinforcement: Are You Missing Out on Rewarding?
In the initial stages of learning or when there are lots of distractions around, your dog may find sniffing the grass, looking around, marking territory and pulling on the leash more rewarding than training. Why is that? It’s probably because there are stimuli that are extra interesting and are worth paying more attention to. If your dog has received little training in the past, he may have been doing this for a good part of his life. Increasing the rate of reinforcement during this time by giving your dog more treats for his training efforts may help to motivate him, and will teach him to pay more attention to you than to the distracting environmental stimuli.
A low rate of reinforcement can also cause your dog to get frustrated and give up trying; remember, during the initial stages of learning you need a continuous rate of reinforcement (giving rewards for every success), and only once your dog shows signs of responding well can you move on to a variable schedule (only giving treats for success every now and then).
3) High Criteria: Are You Asking Too Much at Once?
This is where the saying “be a splitter and not a lumper” comes into play. It is often tempting to try to teach new behaviors all at once in a single evening. When your dog stops working for you, you start thinking: “Am I asking for too much at once?” Truth is, often when dogs fail to respond to a command it is because it is too hard for them. So try not to ramp up the difficulty too quickly; rather, break the objective down into several attainable steps to help your dog succeed. As an example, if you were trying to train your dog to touch the tip of a target stick with his nose, you could reward him for touching ANY part of the stick at first. Over time once your dog gets a hang of this, you could then move on to rewarding him only for touching the rounded tip at the top of the stick.
Try your best to prevent your dog’s progress from stalling, and do not make your training sessions too long – keep them short and sweet!
4) High Level of Distractions: Is there too Much Going on?
Dogs learn best when there are little to no distractions around, so be sure to start your training sessions in a quiet room where there is not much going on.
Once your dog is able to perform the behavior in the quiet room, build from there and gradually start asking your dog to perform the behavior in a noisier room. Then, progress to the yard, a busy street, the dog park and so forth.
If you start on a busy street or at the dog park right away, your dog may not respond because you have not yet built a foundation for the behavior.
5) Lack of Training: Has Your Dog Ever Been Trained Before?
If the handler has a history of being inconsistent and not following through with the dog, there’s a chance the dog may have learned he could get away from certain behaviors and has learned to ignore the handler. Dogs who have never been trained and have been allowed to do as they please for a good part of their lives often find the initial stages of learning difficult, since the concept is entirely new to them. It is up to the handler to become interesting and worth listening to by investing in reward-based training methods like the ones taught in Adrienne Farricelli’s Brain Training for Dogs course here.