by Wendy Thomson and Debbie Cerda

“Most training ‘faults’ are caused by the handler, not the dog!”

The more you are involved in training dogs for any type of activity, the more this quote is proven to be correct.  If you accept the validity of this statement, you are well on the way to resolving the problem.  If you do not accept it, you will probably not address the actual root cause of the problem, and are unlikely to successfully resolve it.

The Building Blocks

It is always easier (and more productive) to avoid creating problems, than it is to resolve them.  There are a few important points that will help you to bypass some of the pitfalls.

Use understanding and teamwork as the basis of your training program, not fear of punishment.  Never train your dog when you are (or have become) angry.  Make sure you are doing your part of the deal (neat hand signals, footwork, etc).  It’s not just the dog that needs training!

Always practice at a level the dog is comfortable with, and increase the degree of difficulty slowly.  Always train when the dog is bright and active, a sluggish dog will train sluggishly at best.

When problems DO occur

Do not ‘lose your cool’.  If you get frustrated and angry, end the lesson immediately.  You will not be thinking clearly under these circumstances, and the dog is likely to pick up your mood and be fearful.  Fear will further reduce the dog’s ability and willingness to perform a new task.

Do not keep repeating a task that the dog continually ‘fails’ at.  All you do is instil the attitude that the dog can’t succeed, and the dog learns to expect to fail.  You also dampen the dog’s enthusiasm for the project.

If the dog is unsuccessful at a task it has previously performed well, consider whether there may be some physical reason for the refusal.  If that is ruled out, STOP repeating the exercise. Take it back to an easier level and see if the dog performs correctly.  If he does, consolidate at this level for a while before pushing on again – it was probably just a confidence issue.  If the dog is not performing at an easier level than was previously successful, find a way to attain an objective assessment of the problem.  There are two reasonably easy ways to do this:  one is to get a friend (preferably one with training experience) to watch you and the dog perform, the other is to arrange to videotape the action.  Hopefully an objective friend or an unbiased look at videotape will highlight the reason.  Remember that it’s most likely to be the handler that’s causing the problem!

If the dog is unsuccessful at a new task, it is clearly a lack of understanding or physical ability.  Lack of physical ability should be fairly obvious and can be tackled by improving the ability (training as any human athlete would) or by accepting that the dog is not able to perform the action and retiring him from the activity with dignity (not with an injured dog that was pushed too far).  Presuming that the problem is caused by a lack of understanding we need to look WHY the dog doesn’t understand.  Basically (you guessed it) the handler has not gone to enough effort to ensure that the dog is put in a position where he can’t fail.  New exercises should be introduced in small increments, each one should be made as simple as possible so that the dog is always building on success, not beset by failure.  Maybe you need to try an entirely different approach.  Speak with other trainers and see if they have any ideas that you could try.  Always ask questions but apply only those techniques that you think are suitable with your dog.

Problem Resolution

Once the reason for the problem has been identified, you need to look at resolution.  Look first at the groundwork you have done for the exercise.  If the basics are not firmly in place, then no amount of refining at a higher level will cure the problem.  You can’t build a multi-story building on inadequate foundations.  If necessary go right back to the beginning and re-do those foundations until they are rock solid.  Then restart your building project, nice and slowly.

Don’t look for “quick fixes”.  More often than not, they are just attempts at a cosmetic cover up job.  If you are going to do the job, do it properly.  Take the time and effort to really understand the cause of the problem and work on the foundations.  In the long run your training will pay off with greater dividends than the quick fix.

Look at ways to improve your own performance to make the task easier for the dog.  Often something as simple as a clearly visible hand signal (as opposed to a sloppy one) can make all the difference.  Maybe your dog did not respond as you expected because he was not sure what he was supposed to do.  Did he see a signal at all?  Was it too fast?  Did it look similar to another signal used for a different exercise?  Was your clothing similar to the background, and the dog could not pick the difference?  The list goes on.  This is where a friend, or an objective look at a video of yourself, can be of great benefit.  Look only at the handler for a session and try to find ways to improve.


Finally, many dogs do not pay attention to their handlers when training.  Again, this is not the dog’s fault!  Dogs must be taught to be attentive, as they must be taught to be housetrained and to sit and not jump.  Often a dog will ‘fail” at an exercise because he was not paying attention and missed a signal.  Naturally he had no idea that he was supposed to do anything.  There are a number of ways to increase your dog’s attentiveness.  For now, be aware of it.  Do not expect that your dog will perform flawlessly if the focus of his attention is somewhere other than you.  Do whatever you can to retain his attention, games, squeaky toys, food, enthusiasm on your behalf, encouragement, praise, silly talk…. the list goes on.  Do whatever you must to get your dog looking at you, this is when you begin to become a team…not just a handler with a dog on the other end of the lead.

Teamwork involves communication, mutual respect, understanding and empathy.  A successful dog/handler team will avoid most of the pitfalls when training, and will quickly resolve those they do encounter.  Assess your working relationship with the dog, don’t get obsessed about particular behaviours but look more at understanding the whole training process.

Further Information?

There are many books on problem dog training available.  Most dog obedience clubs will also be able to provide assistance.

An excellent book called “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor suggests not only a number of approaches to particular problems, but general advice on behaviour modification.  This book covers the basics of what has become the “clicker training” positive reinforcement movement.