How to Break Your Pet’s Bad Habits

Does your dog ignore you when you call its name? Does it jump on you when you walk in the door? Does it pull at its leash when you go for a walk?

Before you blame your dog, consider that the way you train and interact with your dog could be at the heart of the problem. Many widely used, seemingly sensible dog-training strategies are not very effective—some actually are counterproductive.

Here, nine dog-training mistakes…

Mistake: Calling your dog to you by yelling its name. Dog owners say their dogs’ names so often and for so many different reasons that dogs can become uncertain what to do when they hear their names. Some dogs start ignoring their names entirely.

Better: Select a word like “Here” or “Come” that you will call to your dog only when you want it to return to you. Call out this word in a friendly tone, not a stern command as many dog owners do. A stern voice could make your dog think you’re angry, discouraging it from rushing to your side. Reward the dog with a treat when it responds properly to your recall word. (You can phase out these treats once your dog responds reliably, but don’t do so too quickly. Coming when called takes time to cement.)

Do not use this recall word only to call your dog for things that it doesn’t like, such as going back inside when playtime ends. Your dog is much more likely to come when called if it often receives something nice when it does, such as praise or food.

Mistake: Pulling back when your dog pulls at its leash…or letting yourself get pulled along. This teaches the dog that straining at a taut leash is normal and acceptable.

Better: When you walk your dog, carry dog treats and a “clicker”—a small device available in pet stores that makes a clicking sound. Immediately sound this clicker whenever the dog walks next to you with a slack leash as it is supposed to, even if it’s just for a few steps, then quickly reward with a treat. The clicking sound marks the good behavior in the dog’s mind, and the treat is a powerful reward for a job well-done.

When your dog pulls at its leash, stop and don’t budge until the dog either turns around to see what’s wrong or just stops in its tracks. Continue this process until your dog is reliably walking by your side, and then slowly wean down from the frequent click and treating. Because the great outdoors is filled with distractions, you’ll probably have to use the clicker and treats for several weeks before you can begin weaning.

Mistake: Chasing a dog that grabbed something it shouldn’t have. If you chase your dog when it picks up something that it isn’t supposed to have in its mouth, you increase the odds that the dog will engage in this misbehavior again. Dogs love to play chase with their owners.

Better: Get a dog treat, squat down to the dog’s level, and call the dog to you. When the dog approaches for the treat, place it in front of your dog’s nose and say, “Drop it.” Reward the dog with the treat when it does drop it.

Similar: If your dog gets loose, don’t chase after it—your dog can probably outrun you and likely will enjoy the chase. Instead, get the dog’s attention, then run away from it. This might cause the dog to change its game from running away from you to chasing after you, making it easier to calmly take hold of your dog when it catches up to you.

Mistake: Giving a jumping dog attention. Dogs that jump up and put their front paws on people crave attention. They will continue jumping as long as their owners give them attention—even if the attention they’re receiving is just hearing their owners tell them, “Get down.”

Better: Walk away from the jumping dog without making eye contact or saying a word to it.

Later, when the dog is calm, start to teach it to sit when you cross your arms across your chest. Many dogs tune out verbal commands when they get excited, but most still notice body language.

To teach your dog to respond to a crossed-arm sit command, start by combining the verbal sit command with crossed arms. Provide treats when the dog responds. Then eliminate the verbal command and use the crossed-arm signal alone, still rewarding with treats.

Once your dog masters the crossed-arm sit command, instruct house guests to use it, too. Otherwise they might accidentally give the dog attention when it jumps up, undermining the training.

Mistake: Letting your dog use old household items as chew toys. If you let your dog chew on an old flip-flop or towel, don’t blame the dog when it chews up your new flip-flops or towels, too. Dogs generally can’t figure out the difference.

Better: Never let your dog chew on anything that could be mistaken for something you don’t want it to chew on. Limit your dog to products made for dogs, including toys and bones.

Mistake: Failing to notice that a puppy is about to go to the bathroom inside.

Better: If you can hustle the puppy outside before it relieves itself, this will help the puppy figure out that outdoors is the proper place to do its business.

What to do: When your puppy becomes distracted and wanders away from people, dog toys and/or other dogs, quickly take it outside—there’s a good chance that the puppy is about to heed nature’s call.

When the puppy must go to the bathroom inside—when you’re away all day at work, for example—provide grass-textured pet potties, not smooth-surfaced potty pads. The feeling of the artificial grass underfoot can help the puppy learn that it is supposed to use the yard to relieve itself.

Mistake: Yelling at a barking dog to get it to quiet down. Making noise is not an effective way to convince a dog to stop making noise. Your dog might think that you’re joining in on the fun.

Better: Look for the reason behind the barking and address it. Examples…

  • If your dog barks to defend its territory against animals and people that it sees nearby, block its view. You could do this with curtains, fencing, landscaping or opaque window privacy film, available in home centers, that temporarily adheres to windows. You don’t have to cover the entire window, just the lower section that is in the dog’s sight line. You can gradually lower the privacy film until you don’t need it at all.
  • If your dog barks to get your attention, ignore the dog until the barking stops, wait a few beats and only then see what it wants. Eventually the dog will figure out that barking will not get it attention, though you might have to put up with considerable barking until this message gets through. Stay strong—many dogs try barking louder just before they finally give up on barking. You also can teach your dog the “hush” command. Say, “Hush,” and when the dog stops barking, give it a treat.

Mistake: Waiting for misbehavior to become entrenched before acting to correct it. The longer you tolerate a dog’s misbehavior, the harder it will become to alter.

Better: Correct misbehavior when you notice the dog doing it a second time. Once could be a fluke…twice suggests that this is a habit.

Mistake: Using pain to train. Choke chains and other training tools that hurt dogs might suppress misbehavior, but they don’t change the way the dog thinks. If your dog lunges at other dogs, for example, a correction from a choke collar might convince it not to, but your dog still might feel antagonism toward other dogs and react when you’re not around.

Better: Provide treats when the dog behaves properly, rather than pain when it does not.

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