Pet Training Pitfalls

Typical behavioral issues with puppies and dogs, such as barking, chewing, urination, and disobedience account for a significant percentage of veterinary visits. Frequently pet owners will look to their veterinarian for guidance regarding their pet’s behavioral problems. While we can often provide assistance, there are also things you can do at home to help train your canine to avoid undesired behaviors.

Over the holidays I visited my sister and had the dubious pleasure of meeting her new dog “Polly”. (Names have been changed to protect the guilty). My sister has had a long history of owning Golden Retrievers and generally has two dogs at the same time. So when one of her dogs passed away, the remaining Golden seemed lonely and my brother-in-law decided it was time for a companion. Cue the perfect scenario for dog-training failure. Both my sister and her husband work full time and do not have children at home. This is a difficult foundation for successful dog training because there is no one readily available and motivated to take on the responsibility of consistent training.

Successful canine training begins with understanding that dogs actually learn through a combination of antecedents and consequences. Antecedents are previous experiences associated with a certain situation. For example, think of a certain new Golden Retriever gnawing on the leg of a chair. In an attempt to stop to this behavior, my sister pulls Polly’s collar to move her away from the chair leg. The past three times this happened, Polly learned that when moved, she could no longer revel in her chair chewing adventure. So the next time my sister grabbed her collar to stop the furniture chewing, Polly’s new learned response to this antecedent experience was to put her teeth on the hand pulling her collar. The resulting consequences are what help to establish learned behaviors. In this case when Polly bites at the hand pulling her collar, she is immediately released and free to continue with her naughty leg-chewing behavior.

Not all dogs will exhibit the same behaviors and responses are based on individual personality. For example, while some puppies may react aggressively by showing their teeth, others will react submissively by running away, cowering and/or urinating. A dog’s behavior is the result of antecedents and consequences, which is why it is necessary to use both components when training to encourage desired behaviors until they become ingrained. Approximately 2,000 consistent repetitions are required for a dog to fully learn a specific behavior.

So why do some training efforts fail? One of the most common reasons is that the pet’s behavior is not bothersome enough for the owner to take consistent action. Or in cases like that of Polly, my sister lacks the motivation to undertake and maintain needed training efforts.

Some pet owners have difficulty with training simply because they think their dog cannot be trained. Well, the problem is usually not the dog at all, but rather previous experiences and personalities interfering with the training process.

Another major cause of failed pet training is lack of consistency. This occurs frequently. Lack of consistency could be that it is acceptable for the dog to be on the couch Sunday afternoon to watch the game, but he is expected to remain on the floor when Aunt Agnes comes to visit. Most dogs are intelligent and aim to please their owners, so generally these inconsistencies do not have a negative effect on their training, but they can be confusing for your pet.

Remember that training is a responsibility that comes with being a pet owner. Providing your pet with consistent rules and expectations will help to keep you both happy in the future.

Originally published February 2017 in the Lake Norman Citizen.

Dr. Donna Warren is a veterinarian with LakeCross Veterinary in Huntersville. The vets in the big yellow house have been treating pets like family for 20 years. For more information, call 704-948-6300.