I often find myself getting frustrated with dog owners who think it is ok to let their dogs run over and "say hello" to other dogs without permission or people who come over expecting me to let them stoke my dog, but then I have to remind myself that we all start somewhere and I was probably "that" person once. One of my favourite sayings in dog training is "do your best until you know better". Most of us have the best intentions when it comes to our dogs, and we all do the best we can with the knowledge we have. The real problem arises when you know better but you chose a problem but you choose not to take any action to deal with it (and that probably isn't the case if you're here reading this!).
I am pretty open about the mistakes that I have made with my dogs. I don't think there is any shame in admitting that you have done something wrong because it makes us human. Equally, some things that I regret doing with my dogs are not necessarily mistakes. There is no universal standard of training and what is desirable for one person might not be for another.
1. Letting my dog off the lead when his recall wasn't 100%
If you can't call your dog back to you immediately, then it should not be off lead- sounds simple right? But this is a huge mistake that the majority of dog owners have made, myself included. I will readily admit that I let my first dog, Oliver, off lead when his recall was not 100% in all environments, and I learnt pretty quickly that it could lead to some serious problems if things did not change. Whenever I let him off lead and could not guarantee that he would come back straight away when called I was taking a risk with his safety and the safety of others. We all want our dogs to have the freedom to run around off lead and just be dogs, and for most people this means allowing their dog off lead without having a reliable recall. However, without a reliable recall anything can happen, from not knowing where your dog has gone, to running up to the wrong dog and getting hurt. There is absolutely no shame in acknowledging that your dog is not ready to be off lead, and I will never make this mistake again!
2. Using Oliver's meals as food for training
A lot of trainers recommend using your dog's daily food allowance for training and say that you should hand feed your dog to build engagement. I thought that this made perfect sense, and because I fed Oliver wet food I would don a lovely rubber glove and take his food out for our walks?! Suffice to say that I looked very odd and probably smelt of dog food the whole time but I thought that this was what I had to do to get a well-trained dog! Using your dog's meals for training is not necessarily bad advice, and it can be really beneficial in certain applications, for example if you are training for high level obedience. However, for the average pet owner this is not practical, nor is it particularly desirable. You do not want to be carrying their food round all day, or relying on food for your dog to listen to you, plus this would be an absolute nightmare with more than one dog. This is not to say that you should never use food to reward your dog, but don't go to the extremes that I did! As we always say, if your dog does something really well then reward them!
3. Not teaching an off switch
Because Oliver is an intelligent dog and eager to please I taught him quite a lot of commands and was always doing something with him. In doing so, I unknowingly created a dog that struggled to switch off and just be. He was always waiting for his next command or trying to anticipate his next task by offering behaviours I hadn't asked for, and this meant that he could often struggle to settle and was always looking for guidance. This has taken a long time to work on, but he still struggles to switch off if he is not on place or in his crate. This was definitely the biggest mistake I made, and the main thing I focussed on with my next dog was teaching him to chill before all else.
4. Using reward markers
Lots of training methodologies use marker words such as "yes" to mark every good behaviour, similar to clicker training. Whenever Oliver did something I asked I would mark it with a "yes" and give him a treat. Little did I know that, as a bit of an anxious, try hard dog, I was making him dependent on that marker, so if I did not say it he thought he had not completed the behaviour I had asked of him. This meant that he could get frustrated, which was not helpful for either of us! In addition, timing is really important when doing this and although I would like to think my timing was good, in reality it was probably not, which meant that I was not rewarding Oliver at the right time and therefore not using the marker word properly. Since I stopped doing this, Oliver has become much less reliant on me for guidance, and in turn he has become a lot less dependent on me for reassurance. Again, using a clicker or a reward marker is not necessarily a bad thing, and I still use a clicker when I am doing scent work with him, but for a pet dog doing pet dog training, this is not something that I found very beneficial.
5. Meeting unknown dogs
Like most people, I was more than happy to let Oliver meet other dogs when we were out on walks, and to my untrained eye he seemed pretty confident with them. However, the reason I sought the help of a trainer was because Oliver was showing reactivity to other dogs, mostly when he was inside. It sounds obvious now, but clearly he could not have been confident with other dogs if he was reacting to them inside the house. Fortunately we never had any awful experiences with other dogs, but I know now that only a tiny fraction (if any) of his interactions with other dogs actually benefited him. It is hard to say whether any of his interactions with other dogs made him more reactive, but I realise that I took this risk every time I let him interact with an unknown dog. This may sound controversial but dogs don't need friends, and if you do want them to be around other dogs it is very important to make sure that you select those dogs carefully. A well-balanced dog can teach your dog a lot, but the majority of dogs that you meet in day to day life are unlikely to be like this, and one bad experience with another dog can have long-lasting consequences for your dog's confidence. Equally, if you do want your dog to be around another dog it is so important to introduce them properly instead of just letting them figure it out themselves.
I guarantee that I have made plenty more mistakes and there are many more things that I have done differently since getting another dog, and even then I have identified more ways to improve when I (eventually!) get my next dog. This doesn't make me a bad dog owner, and we are all continuously learning how to improve our relationship and level of training with our dogs.