Dog training class

For many of us, our dogs are part of the family, which means that any setbacks in their training can be particularly hard to take. As a dog trainer, I often work with pet owners who are near the end of their rope because of a failure to get their dogs trained. Often by the time I meet them, these pet owners have already tried numerous approaches, spent countless dollars and wept many tears over their dog’s lack of progress and the negative impact it is having on the entire family.

One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work in life, and they don’t work with dogs either. When you’re facing a dilemma with your canine’s behavior, there are a variety of resources to help your dog. Start by touching base with your veterinarian; she can rule out any medical problems and, if appropriate, refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or trainer. By addressing both the medical and behavioral components of your dog’s health, you give your pet the best opportunity to succeed.

If you are feeling discouraged by lack of training progress, I want to share with you what I tell many of my clients: Today is a new day, and you have a chance to start fresh. The key to overcoming training frustration is to be patient with your pet, to celebrate his small successes and to keep your ultimate goal in sight.

Put Things in Perspective

In clicker training, you build up to a final behavior, such as a fetch, by teaching a series of small steps. This is a good metaphor for life; it is important to step back and take note of the small gains along the way. Training is not a quick fix, and lasting change comes through dedicated perseverance. When training seems to be progressing particularly slowly — or not at all — step back and notice the small successes. Eventually, these will lead to the final desired result.

After all, no dog is perfect, and learning takes time. While it’s important to move in the right direction and push for growth and progress in training, we are all works in progress, and acceptance and love for ourselves and our pets is key at every point in the journey. Accepting our pets for who they are, flaws and all, is an important component of successful training.

See Failure As an Opportunity

As a trainer — and a dog owner — I don’t believe in punishing mistakes; this can cause an animal to shut down or be afraid to try again. When an animal misses a mark, rather than being punished, he simply isn’t clicked or treated. If your dog is not doing what you are asking him to do, wait for a clickable response, or temporarily lower the bar and ask him to do something you know he is able to do, in order to build his self-confidence.

These small failures and setbacks in training can be seen as an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work for your dog, which helps you to find a replacement behavior that does work. By allowing for failure, we give ourselves the confidence to try, because even if we don’t get it right, we don’t beat ourselves up, and we don't beat our dogs up; instead, we extend grace and use it as a learning experience to better achieve success in the future.

Recognize When the Victory Is Not Worth the Battle

Take a good look at the goal you are working to attain and ask yourself what you are willing to do to get there. I recently spoke to a dog owner who was trying to stop her dog from chasing the wildlife that frequent her property. The easy option was a shock collar, but that was not something she was willing to do. Instead, she opted to keep her dog either on a long line or in the fenced-in portion of her property when he was outside. It meant more work for her, but in the long term she felt that it was worth the effort.

In every training situation, positive reinforcement is the best method to use; even if you make a mistake or the training doesn’t work as anticipated, the long-term consequences of your actions are minimal at most. On the other hand, training that relies on punishment, pain, fear or force can have negative effects on a dog that undermine the goals of training.