July 6, 2015

Why I'm a Bad Dog Trainer

cute dog on an orange quilt
What are you waiting for? Let me show you all the stuff I know!

This month for the Positive Pet Training Week Blog Hop we are talking about training failures and mistakes. I am fairly new to dog training, with most of my animal training experience relating to horses. There are more parallels than not, to be honest, especially when dealing with fearful dogs who act more like spooky prey animals than fierce predators; however, I think that I expect more from horses than from dogs, leading me to my biggest failure as a dog trainer. 

I am a fairly passive person. This translates in dog training to low expectations, permissiveness, leaning more heavily on management, and a little garden variety laziness. That's a laundry list of mistakes, but I think it all comes down to not doing as much as I could, and one thing I love about this hop is that it keeps me accountable, keeps me reflecting on the potential of positive training on a regular basis. It's easy once you've gotten the worst kinks worked out to settle into a comfortable routine - even with a reactive dog like Ruby - and especially with an easy dog like Boca or Pamela's Honey. Fear of failure and the accompanying frustration can hold us back from trying new things or tackling big challenges.

I told a friend recently that I have such a reverential view of my animals that I tend to make accommodations for them more often than not. My horse is not trained to tie because of a few scary and dangerous incidents that left us both shaken, and I ultimately decided we would work around it rather than risk serious injury to one or both of us. Is it inconvenient sometimes? Most definitely. I've made a lot of compromises for Ruby's reactivity as well. She is a brilliant, intense and sensitive dog. An experienced professional trainer could probably work wonders with her, but as my first high-energy and extremely reactive dog, we're learning together and the mistakes are always mine. What I need to remember is that even though I've chosen acceptance, I should never admit defeat. Every day is a training opportunity. Ruby is the most intelligent dog I've ever been lucky enough to know, and I don't want to limit her potential by setting the bar too low. 

Sometimes I tend to forget to actually utilize things I've taught her in practical settings. For example: we've spent a great deal of time on mat work and the Relaxation Protocol. Ruby has a pretty solid grasp of this training concept, but I've failed to extend it to real life. When we get ready to go for a walk, she and Boca get wonderfully wound up, start wrestling, stealing my shoes, and jumping up on my legs. Being part Jack Russell terrier, Ruby might as well be on springs and their antics can seriously slow down the act of getting out the door. One day I had a lightbulb moment: what happens if I direct Ruby to "go to her mat" (the mat in this case being Boca's bed in the dining room)? What happened was that she immediately settled on the dog bed, allowing me to lace up my walking shoes in peace. This is what happens when the dog does a better job of generalizing than the human. By raising my expectations (Ruby can in fact wait quietly even though she is super excited to do one of her most favorite things), I set us both up for success. 

The takeaway for this week's theme for me is to be more pro-active and make use of what my dogs already know. Ruby's trick repertoire and mat work foundation have practical application beyond entertainment. Boca's food motivation can cause her to be unruly, but it's also a guaranteed reinforcement system that I probably don't take advantage of often enough. I need to remain open to possibility and the fact that either of my dogs can surprise me with a new approach or a novel use for a behavior. I'm hoping to raise my expectations for both of my dogs in order to see what we can accomplish together, just in time for next month's theme of training successes and strengths!

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week - please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training! 


  1. Good job using the Relaxation Protocol before walks. I'm pretty passive when it comes to the dogs too. Pretty much they can do no wrong in my eyes. Bitey face and running around with my shoe as I'm getting ready for a walk? Adorable!

    I betcha I'm a worse trainer than you!

    1. Isn't it so cute? You're right about them doing no wrong...Boca had her paws up on the counter while I was making a salad yesterday and we just grinned at each other. What bad manners?

  2. I think this is a great reminder for me. I tend to do the same sort of things with Shiner and her training. Accomodate her more than trying to fix the problem. Of course, I still work on things with her but she is just such a stubborn dog who seems to be set in her ways.

  3. Great post, Lara! I really need to make more compromises in my training! I'm also working really hard on being more proactive, too. We've been doing a lot of training recently and I'm hoping that they will generalize it.

  4. This is a good reminder that my dogs' love of treats and Luke's willingness to "go to his bed" are tools that can be used in many situations. It's easy to get complacent about things, until the next bad thing happens and we realize we still have more work to do. I tend to do that a lot.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

  5. I have found a similar issue in my training. We work on skills, but then I don't apply them to real life. Work in progress!

  6. I feel like I have the opposite problem where I have high expectations and then I have to deal with feeling like a failure if it doesn't work out! I'm working on it though.

  7. I tend to be more passive too. My training style is to ignore bad behavior and reward good behavior with the goal of teaching our dogs that if they behave THIS way they'll get lots of love.

    It takes a lot of time and patience, but with our dogs, I know that screaming at them may get them to get off the counter, for example, but it just teaches them to jump up there when we're not in the room.

    Praising their choice to stay down from the counter results in them staying down.

    Our dogs aren't perfect, but neither am I. :)

  8. I love that Ruby generalized "go to her mat" so well!

    I'm a mix of too low and too high of expectations. Shyla had such huge fear issues when I first met her (almost 3 years ago) that I tend to be too permissive when we're around other people. I view almost any behavior aside from cowering as good. But, with people who she really knows well, she's started taking advantage of my permissiveness (leading to frustration in me)... so maybe it's time to raise the bar around those people.

    When it's just me and Shyla, my expectations are sky high, leading to frustration sometimes. But, because she's so sensitive, I've learned to work around my tendency toward frustration, since it never helps the situation! It just makes Shyla disengage from training.

  9. It is so easy to forget to use the training for practical reasons! Barley and I started training because of her reactivity and we're very good at applying what we've learned outside of the house, but inside she can do very little wrong. I was just telling someone else that I had that "ah ha" mat moment recently, too--Bar had been driving me batty getting into things while I tried to cook and clean and one day I was like well, maybe I should put her mat in the kitchen where she can relax and keep an eye on me. She doesn't necessarily stay on it the whole time, but she gets into far less trouble while I try to be productive!

  10. I think we all know that familiar feeling of training inadequacy. There is always more for each of us to learn/do. What matters is that we're learning and putting forth our best - you've got both covered!

  11. Whenever I go to put my shoes on before a walk, Nala licks my face and sits and wiggles on me for butt scratches. Then, she squeaks at me because I am taking too long to put on my shoes! And, of course, I just laugh at her, which reinforces her behavior. :)

    I did a lot of randomly-reinforcing-good-choices when we first got Nala (a la Kathy Sdao), and so she habitually does things like hang out on her mat when I'm in the kitchen. I like this arrangement--I hate ordering her around all the time, so I guess I'm a bad trainer, too! Honestly, she's so easy to live with that her occasional mischief just amuses me. This is probably why we have lots of tricks and behaviors that are only sort of on cue.

  12. We practice our sits at a distance from the door to keep the dogs from bolting out when it opens.
    I admit though we definitely have a list of things we need to be practicing more regularly...

  13. When I finally realized that training was more about building our relationship and less about teaching tricks (which I stink at), everything became more fun.

    Being a "bad" trainer with a great relationship is not such a bad thing to shoot for, eh?

  14. That's brilliant to use the relaxation protocol while getting ready for a walk - though because they're not my dogs I have to admit the vision of them running around with your shoes is quite comical. I don't even remember why I stopped doing the relaxation protocol, we didn't stick with it for long, it's something you've just reminded me I should be working on again.

    Having 2 dogs with pretty different personalities would probably break my brain - it would be so weird to have to balance the training out for both of them. I struggle enough with 1, I really admire your dedication.

  15. Bain's training is always a work in progress. I have my lazy days, and probably let him get away with more than he should. It's always nice to get back to those 15 minute nightly training sessions.

    I'm needing to work on how amped up he can get before leaving for walks, or when waiting for doggy friends to join us for walks.


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