Toxic Training (When “Helping” Hurts)


Training your dog doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact it can be fun and satisfying, and I hope it is.

The best dog owner / trainers seek out support from other dog enthusiasts, maybe even a professional dog trainer. We humans are great for helping each other out. And, sometimes we are terrible at it, no matter our best intentions. We can trip each other up and derail the learning process. If you’re part of a training team, with a spouse or other family member for example,  remember to be patient, supportive, and encouraging. Avoid these three toxic training traps:


The Training Foul

Dog training is about learning timing and mechanical skills. So much of what we do when training is a precise sequence of events (Giving a cue –> Noticing the dog’s response –> clicking the clicker –>reaching in the treat bag –> delivering a treat). It sounds and looks easy until you try to do it yourself.

When we  interrupt someone else’s training efforts and take over without our permission, that’s called a “training foul.”  We’ve interrupted their training sequence and gummed up their learning in the process. Let’s not jump in with cues to help or click for them when their timing is off. At best, that’s unhelpful. At worst, it’s rude. Don’t do it. Let your partner come to a natural stopping point in training and then ask. “May I have a turn?” or “Can I share my observations?”

Holding Back

The opposite of The Training Foul can be just as bad – withholding valuable reinforcement. We humans thrive on reinforcement. “Let me know when I’m doing it right.” Our dogs are great at reinforcement. When we are training well, they respond. That taste of success is so very important when it comes to keeping the process going. Thank you, dogs. Equally important is the feedback and affirmation we give each other. Let your training partner know what you see that they are doing well. “Great timing on that click,” or “Good work keeping your hands at home position.”

Most of the time that’s my job as a trainer, coaching and supporting my clients. But, it’s not only my job. You can do it too. And, you should.


This is the most toxic of the toxic training traps. I’m sorry to say, a lot of us trainers are guilty of it. When we shame our training parters, or when trainers shame their clients, they are stopping the teaching and learning process dead in its tracks. Shame is worse than criticism. Criticism can give us pause. It can even sting a bit. But, shame? Shame is crippliing. Shame suggests our training partner is simply not good enough.

“You need to be a stronger leader for your dog.” Shame

“You need to make your dog respect you.” Shame

“Your dog listens to me. Why doesn’t he listen to you?” Shame

“Here let me show you.” Training foul + Shame

Silence when the person training succeeds anyway. Holding back + Shame.

This can be tricky stuff. That’s why I call them traps. I don’t think people set out to be mean – to foul – to withhold – to shame. We can intend the best and still deliver the worst. It happens. So, my plea here is: be careful.

Dog training can be hard sometimes. Life can be hard. Take great care with each other. Take great care of each other. Tread lightly. Give thought. Take the time. Here’s my short list of how we can support each other well when we are working with our dogs (and it is a short list).

  • Take turns. This helps us avoid the training fouls. Ask to take a turn. When you are done ask your partner (or professional trainer) what did I do well?
  • Reinforce excellent training. Let your training partner know what you observed and what you think they did really well. If you are on a break or between reps training, give some constructive instructions for next round. (e.g. “This time I’m going to pay close attention to your hand movement. Do you remember the sequence?”).
  • Assume the best. One of my friends and mentors says “I choose to believe that at any given moment this person is doing the best they can with the information they have now.” That steers us away from shaming.

None of us set out on the journey of training our dogs to muck it up. We’re doing the best we can at the moment. And quite often the best we can do is to call in some help. And before long we might be the ones to get the call, to answer, and to step up and help.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He’s also mentored other trainers at lectured at the IAABC conference on coaching humans. Sometimes he mucks it up – resets – and tries to do better next time.