Common Training Errors Made by Owner-Trainers of Service Dogs

Here are some common errors we see with owner-trainers. How many of these do you do?

Spending more time focussing on training behaviours and tasks than doing gradual exposure and acclimation to new stimuli, environments, people and animals especially with puppies up to 16 weeks and dogs in a fear period. In this early period, it is more important to spent time creating positive social experiences and environmental exposures for your pup to build from. 

Asking a dog to figure out too many steps in training.
This is called "lumping". Breaking down behaviours into smaller parts actually speeds the dogs understanding and how fast he learns the behaviour. This is called splitting. Often the dog needs us to split the behaviors into much smaller pieces than we ever dreamed. Also it helps if our dog has been taught the foundation behaviors needed for harder behaviors (that are often a combination of several skills).

Expecting the dog to perform a behaviour in distraction level that is much too high for what he has been trained to do (jumping from elementary school to university level distractions). Break down the distractions and take time to specifically to controlled set ups to desensitize your dog to the ones that are the hardest for him (often people, other dogs, animals etc).

Expecting a dog to do a newly learned behaviour in a new location without taking the time to reteach him from the start that he can do it.  This is a concept called  "generalizing". A dog needs to be taught how to generalize as they don't do it naturally. It's a step by step process of training each behavior in each new location until your dog really understands what you are asking and can do it on the first try in each new location.

Training their dog do tasks at too young of an age and expecting them to carry them out as needed. This puts too much pressure on the pup and may lead to early burnout. You can teach the foundations and have some fun with it, but let your pup be a pup until he's mature enough to handle the responsibility and cognitively figure out what help is needed under what circumstances. For many tasks (mobility, psychiatric, diabetic and seizure response) that is 18 months or more. 12 months of age is reasonable for other tasks as long as the dog isn't required to do them on a regular basis.

Focusing training mostly movement behaviours when away from home.
Settle/relax is a key behaviour pup need to learn to do everywhere. Spend about half your time away from home practicing settle/relax.  It allows your dog time to acclimate as well. 

Teaching the dog a cued "watch me" behaviour and insisting the dog look at them in the presence of scary things and distractions.
It's actually better to have a default attention (the environment becomes the cue for the dog to look at you) as it gives the dog a chance to check out his environment and let you know he is ready and able to focus on you. If he's not, he's not ready for that level of distraction or situation.

Taking dog out to public places and events to train but not paying attention to him.
They expect him to behave with little or no training. Pay 100% attention to your dog when out with him at first. Outings are training sessions, not socializing sessions for the handler.

Attending to only unwanted "bad" behaviour and ignoring good behaviour.
Reinforce desired behaviours like loose leash walking, settle/relax and ignoring distractions! You get more of what what you reinforce!

Using training collars before having properly taught the dog to do a behavior. Also using those training collars as a crutch for the life of the dog. Dogs need to be taught what to do in many different situations. A training collar just masks the issue and may cause new ones (if the wrong tool is chosen or its used incorrectly).

Using only one type of reinforcer.
There are so many things that can be used to reinforce a dog and variety within each type. Food, low key toys, gentle massage, greeting people and other dogs on cue, sniffing, watching etc. 

Training sessions are too long, especially at first.
Start with short sessions and increase as your dog is able to handle it. 

Training the dog where they think the dog should be able to do, rather than what he's actually able to do in that moment. Go back to the step your dog can do. That might be as basic as capturing behaviors. Nothing wrong with that as you are rebuilding a positive association.

Handlers doing too much coaxing rather than training to get behaviours.
They often use too many words, loud voices, or move their bodies too much. This can cause sensitive dogs to shut down (move slowly) and boisterous dogs to amp up (bark, bite, jump up). Try using calmer language and quieter voices. Your dog will notice and will become more attuned to your subtle communication.

Handlers not being able to read their dog's body language and stress levels. Dogs communicate all the time. If they move slowly or refuse to do a behavior, the dog is usually trying to communicate that he either doesn't understand what you are asking or is feeling pressured. A jumping, mouthy dog might be frustrated with your lack of ability to communicate effectively with him. 

If you are interested in learning more detail about any of these, book a web cam session. They are only CA$65 or ~ US$50.