Challenges in Dog Training: Fear, Force, and Quitting While You’re Ahead

Addressing Wyatt’s fear of the stairs: Session 1

My dog, Wyatt, has a fear of the spiral staircase in our new home.

The stairs are the floating kind, and for a creature with four legs, it requires different coordination than typical stairs. Move up or down too quickly, and you’re likely to find one of your legs slipping out from under you. The other day, I carried him up the stairs so he could hang out in my office. I didn’t realize this would be a big deal to him, but evidently, it was. Today, as we begin to work on this fear of the spiral staircase, I can see that he doesn’t quite trust me. “Last time I came over here, you picked me up and carried me up there, and it was too much,” he seems to be saying.

To address his fear, we start with a simple hand target.

In order to touch my hand with his nose, he has to step onto the stairs. We launch into it, and he does a good job at first, even though he has some anxiety. But as I encourage him to go higher, his foot slips slightly, and he gets spooked. He goes into the hallway and sits down, staring at me. “Mom, I can’t,” he seems to say. I encourage him to try again, and he does- but he’s still worried I might carry him up there, it seems. He goes back out into the hallway. 

Now, one could push this if one wanted to.

If the stairs had carpeting, making him unlikely to slip, perhaps one could. Or perhaps if he wasn’t showing this much anxiety. But I know how Wyatt is, and I know what will happen if I push too hard. It’s likely that he’ll leap off of the stairs in a panic, and slip, and then the stairs will become even more dangerous in his eyes. He might even start avoiding that area of the house entirely when I’m around, thinking that I’ll force him to do something that scares him. 

In the end, over-pressuring a fearful dog often creates more work for the trainer.

Some trainers don’t realize this, and create new problems while trying to get rid of the original one. I watched two videos recently of two different trainers teaching a dog to use a treadmill. The first put a little pressure on the dog, holding the leash close to the treadmill so that the dog had to put one foot on the treadmill.

As soon as the dog did this, it was allowed to move away from the machine- a compromise, of sorts.

Because he listened to the dog, the trainer was able to teach the dog to use the treadmill in a matter of minutes. There was give and take in his approach, and at no point was the dog in a state of panic. The dog could think.

The other trainer, by contrast, was much more forceful, and ignored the dog’s fear.

He immediately pulled the dog onto the treadmill completely, forcing it to remain up there as the dog stood nearly frozen. The dog had to move its legs because the treadmill was moving, but you could see that it was in a state of complete fear. This poor dog was likely beyond the ability to really learn effectively- it was simply in survival mode. And you know what? Trainer #2 took considerably longer to teach the dog to walk on the treadmill. The dog experienced way more stress than it needed to, and may always regard the treadmill as a terrible device. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

When I’m training, I don’t want a dog who freezes in fear, panting, heart beating like crazy, unable to function.

It’s no fun, and it creates a lot of extra work that will then have to be undone later. That’s not the state in which learning happens best. I want a dog who can think about what’s happening, who might want to try for me again the next time. When it comes to conquering fears, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. To get a fearful dog to want to try again the next time, it’s important to end the session on a positive note.

Dog training without fear

But I also want to end the training session on my terms, whenever possible.

Otherwise, the dog might think, “I’ll just opt out of a session whenever I feel like it.” How can I do this while still respecting the dog? After all, I want a dog who knows I’m listening to him, too. The answer: I’m usually going to try and time the ending of a session according to what the dog wants- I’ll just let him think it was my idea. 

So when Wyatt goes into the hallway a second time, I pause and adjust my plan.

Instead of asking him to get back on the stairs right away, I give him an easy command. Coming when called is one he knows very well, and he trots over. He gets his reward, and this success inspires him with a little confidence, so I ask him to step onto the stairs again. This time, though, I lower my criteria- he doesn’t have to go as high. And there it is- the end of our session. 

Even though I’d had a longer session in mind, he finished strong.

He let me know that going higher on the stairs was too much for him today, and that he really was not into it. I listened, and as with any good relationship, we compromised. Because he trusts me, he was willing to do one more repetition, and I kept that trust strong by ending things there. What this gets me is a Wyatt who will be willing to try again next time. 

pug listens and trains without fear
Photo by Steshka Willems on Pexels.com

“Quit while you’re ahead,” or “No more ‘one more times,’” as my mentor John Imler likes to say, are important concepts to remember.

During a training session, there’s always that tendency to think, “Wow, things are going really well. Let’s just see if the dog will do it one more time.” At this point, there are often some warning signs that it’s time to quit. Maybe the dog seems a little tired, and is executing the command a bit unenthusiastically. Perhaps you’re working on her anxiety around crowds of people, and she has given you some signs that he’s about to be over threshold. Push that dog a little more, and she’s suddenly past the point of being able to realistically succeed. You may even have taught her to fear crowds even more. 

Why is there that temptation to keep going, anyway?

Perhaps it is our egos driving it. If we’ve had success in a session, it feels good. Maybe someone saw us, and it made us feel proud of ourselves. We feel competent, or excited, and then we get greedy. In these moments, it’s best to remember that is isn’t all about us. It’s about us and the dog. 

The idea of quitting while we’re ahead is something we often have to learn the hard way.

Over time, though, we can get better at reading our dogs. We can start to listen to the voice that says, “Now. Now is the time to stop.” And when we do, our training will go that much better- for human and for canine alike.

happy dog without fear
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


Rules in Dog Training, and Their Surprising Power to Affect Your Dog’s Happiness

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People often bring a dog to a trainer because the dog does certain behaviors they don’t like. 

Their dog isn’t following the rules, they say. Perhaps their dog doesn’t listen to them, and they want the dog to do what they say and stop doing the “bad” behaviors. A good dog trainer, however, recognizes the importance of looking at the dog as a whole.

When dogs do things we don’t like, it is often the case that the dog’s mental health is suffering in some way.

And I’m not talking about obvious cases of abuse or neglect, here. I’m talking about the difficulties inherent in living with a totally different species, with a different language and needs. 

There are a lot of things that can cause a dog’s mental health to suffer. As with humans, one factor that tends to create unhealthy stress for dogs is inconsistency in rules.

Imagine if you had a boss who sometimes had one set of expectations for your work, but at other times, became upset with you for the exact same quality of work. Wouldn’t that stress you out?  Not knowing how to please someone can be very upsetting. Imagine always living with the feeling that someone might, at any moment, become angry with you for no reason. And yet, all too often, this is the sort of behavior we exhibit with our dogs. 

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Recently, my Australian cattle dog/lab mix Wyatt underwent a minor surgery for a toe he’d injured while playing fetch.

That night, when I got home, he was being a bit needy (well…more so than usual). He stood up on his hind legs and laid his chest across my lap, whining a bit with a tone I’d almost never heard from him. He’d had a rough day…taken to the vet, handed over to people he doesn’t know, and all that. Or perhaps the pain meds had worn off and his toe was hurting. 

Whatever the reason, Wyatt seemed to be feeling a little distressed, and I don’t like seeing him like that.

When it was time for bed, he wanted to come sleep in the bed with me. He sat next to the bed and looked up at me, eyes big, ears pricked out to the sides like a bat. I knew that this expression was his unmistakable, “I want something. Can I please have it?” face.

This behavior is actually a bit unusual for him, too, as he always sleeps in his own bed at night.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with allowing a dog to sleep in your bed (depending on the dog), I happen to enjoy a night of sleep uninterrupted by little bed hogs. So in our house, the rule is that Wyatt may ask permission to jump onto the bed while we are awake. When it is time for lights out, I ask him to go to his own bed, and he does. There is no negotiation around this rule. 

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Even though I felt bad for the little guy, I knew I could not bend the rules that night.

In this situation, I needed to think about Wyatt’s long-term wellbeing, instead of simply responding emotionally to the situation. If I had allowed Wyatt to sleep in the bed that night, he would have wanted to sleep in the bed the next night, and I would have had to tell him “no.”

Rather than being a special treat for him that made him feel good, allowing him to sleep in the bed one night but not the next would have set him up for disappointment.

We can’t explain to our dogs why we might make an exception to a rule one day, but not the next. All the dog knows is that he expected to get something, and was then told he could not have it. It’s unfair, and it’s upsetting for a dog. 

When we create rules that we only follow some of the time, we create unnecessary stress for our dogs. 

If a dog is allowed to jump up on her owner when that person is wearing exercise clothes, but not when the person is dressed for work- well, that’s beyond a dog’s cognitive capacity to understand. All the dog knows is that they did something they thought was ok, and their person is now upset about it for no reason. 

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Inconsistencies aren’t good for the human-dog relationship, either. 

They create dogs who feel anxious and insecure, because they never know how we will respond to them. Even though it might not seem like a big deal to us, a multitude of inconsistencies with rules can create an environment in which a dog feels stressed and confused. Such rule-bending will also slow down training, and will create a dog who always seems to do things we don’t like. 

Being consistent with rules helps dogs to feel at ease in their environments, in part because it makes their worlds more predictable. 

When your world is predictable, you feel in control, and you tend to be happier. Imagine a time in your life when a lot of things were in flux, and you had no idea what was going to happen next. If you are a happy-go-lucky person, maybe you adapted well to this circumstance, and found yourself minimally affected. For the rest of us, though, not knowing what is going to happen next can be stressful. So it is with dogs. 

The next time you are tempted to bend the rules for your dog, remember that you aren’t truly doing your dog a kindness. 

Clarity and consistency are the kinder route, and your dog will thank you for them. Training will also progress much more quickly this way, and you will build a stronger relationship with your dog. So remember, the next time you find yourself in this position, just think long-term, and be kind but firm.

How Dog Training Works: 7 Popular Misconceptions

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1. The trainer will do all the work of dog training.

Ah, if only. For a board and train or day training situation, the trainer may indeed do most of the heavy lifting. However, once your pup is home, the training isn’t finished. You will need to continue training your dog if you want those behaviors to be maintained.

For private lessons or group classes, the trainer will largely be training you to train your dog. It will be your responsibility to do all the homework exercises with your dog.

2. Once the training is over, the dog stays trained.

Sorry, but this is unfortunately not the case. A person who learns a foreign language will get rusty over time if they don’t use that language. Likewise, dog training will degrade over time if it isn’t used.

Many people spend thousands of dollars on training only to discover later on that their dog has reverted to old behaviors. For training to really stick, a dog needs to regularly practice those learned behaviors.

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problem behaviors

3. Once problem behaviors have gone away, they won’t come back.

Problem behaviors may or may not resurface over time. However, it is important to recognize that these issues are often the product of a dog’s environment.

A dog may not exhibit certain behaviors while staying with a trainer because the dog’s needs are being met. A dog’s needs for companionship, physical exercise, instinctual fulfillment, and mental stimulation must also be met in the home.

A high degree of structure is good for canine mental health (and human mental health, for that matter). This is particularly true if a dog is anxious. When a dog returns to a chaotic home in which his or her basic needs aren’t being met, it is only natural that behavior issues might return.

4. Only dogs with severe behavior problems need dog training.

That’s similar to how I felt when I first took a dog to training. But how wrong I was! Think about it: you have invited an animal of a totally different species to live in your home with you.

You speak two completely different languages, and have vastly different needs and desires from one another. You want to be happy, but you also want this other creature to be happy. Sometimes, those two things seem to be mutually exclusive.

Do you really understand why your dog does what it does? How well are you able to read your dog’s nonverbal cues? A good dog trainer will help you understand how to live a better life with your dog.

When a dog is well-trained, it is easier for both of you to have your needs met. It is also more likely that neither one of you will drive the other crazy.

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5. If my dog has behavior problems, I have failed my dog.

Actually, the saying “It’s all in how you raise them” simply isn’t true. Certainly, the way you raise a dog has a huge influence on how your dog turns out. But there are a lot of ways dogs can end up with issues.

For starters, one can’t ignore the influence of genetics. Just as a shy human parent can end up with a shy child, your dog’s behavior is influenced by the genes of his or her ancestors. In fact, genes often account for a surprising proportion of the behaviors your dog exhibits.

Have you ever noticed how police K9s tend to be a few breeds in particular? That’s genetics at work. Those dogs have been carefully bred over many years, and they have certain traits that make them ideal for their jobs.

Thus, although no one does everything right when raising a dog, certain problems are more heavily influenced by genetics than others.

6. I shouldn’t put my dog through that.

In days gone by, this sentiment would certainly have been understandable. Old school training was all about results for the human, with little attention paid to the internal state of the dog.

There are still plenty of trainers like that out there, who produce emotionally “flat,” calm-seeming dogs. These dogs will do whatever is asked of them in order to avoid being harshly punished.

However, there are also lots of good dog trainers these days- people who know that training should be as enjoyable and fair to a dog as possible. These trainers care about how a dog feels during and after training. They also understand that the most effective training methods are those that build up a dog’s confidence.

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7. I should just train my own dog.

Yes, you could, but dog training is a lot more complicated than you might think, and there are many ways to do it wrong. There’s a whole science to it.

A good dog trainer understands operant and classical conditioning, dog motivation, dog body language and behavior, how dogs learn, and genetic contributions to behaviors within breeds.

How much time do you have to devote to learning a whole new subject? Many people bring their dogs to dog trainers only after a bit of outdated internet advice has left their poor pup even worse off than before. Don’t let that be you. Reach out to someone who has made dog training their life’s work.

A good dog trainer can help you transform your relationship with your dog, and will make your life with your pup so much richer than you could have imagined. So what are you waiting for? Begin the journey, and give us a call today!

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