Training a dog requires a lifetime commitment from pet parents. Although puppyhood is typically when most training takes place, maintaining a dog’s training program and teaching them new behaviors is something that should happen throughout their adult life, as well.
If your dog or puppy seems to be regressing in training, it’s important to step back and consider all possible causes to find the best solution for getting back on track.
“Is training a straight-line progression? Not necessarily,” says John D. Visconti, CPDT-KA, owner of Rising Star Dog Training. “Some dogs learn three steps forward, one step back. But overall, if training is performed correctly, there is always noticeable progress.”
There are several reasons why some puppies, and even adult dogs, appear to regress in their training. However, more often than not, this seemingly apparent regression is due to unrealistic expectations or can be prevented with the ideas below and patience in your training routine.
While in some cases there could be underlying medical issues causing a regression, if your vet to obtain a clean bill of health for your dog, you may want to consider some of the following causes of training regression in puppies:
Training a puppy requires a lot of time, repetition and reinforcement. Pet parents need to give their dog enough time to establish each behavior to a level of fluency, and be able to reinforce that behavior over time, not just move on to the next cue.
“Often, [people] push forward too fast before a dog has learned the foundations,” says Visconti. “Criteria for moving to the next level of difficulty should be clear and incremental, and only attempted once the dog's reliability has been proofed at the current level.”
While you can teach your dog many cues concurrently, it’s important to remember that just because a dog “gets” a cue or behavior doesn’t mean you don’t need to practice. Moving on to a new learned behavior without practicing and reinforcing others can make it seem like your dog forgot their previous learnings, which possibly could be mistaken for regression.
Consistency and routines are key, says Lina Eklöf, manager, pet services, dog training education at Petco. If pet parents become too lax in their training regimens and do not incorporate reinforcing learned behaviors into daily routines, bad habits may begin to creep in.
"Establishing routines and incorporating learned behaviors early on can make a big difference in not having a puppy come up with their own (potentially not preferred) behaviors,” says Eklöf. So, for example, if you don’t want your dog to excitedly jump on guests when they arrive, ensuring your dog sits politely before getting a pet each time you receive a visitor can help keep up their training.
Similar to lacking follow-through, it’s important that your pup not be allowed to fully rule the roost with no boundaries. While you can give your dog additional freedoms as they grow and learn, continually testing their listening and attention cues will help ensure that they remember the behaviors expected of them.
For instance, while you may eventually allow your dog unsupervised access to any room of your home once potty-trained and out of any destructive chewing behaviors, leaving them alone with a plate of food on the counter may prove too much of a temptation. By having realistic expectations and being able to reinforce cues like “leave it” in such a tempting situation, you shouldn’t have any surprises like a missing dinner.
While many reasons for feeling like there is regression in training can be cited as lapses in a training routine or unrealistic expectations on a pet parent’s part, there are development stages in a dog’s life where brain chemistry and behavior patterns change, producing new or unwanted behaviors.
“Energy levels, motivation levels and hormone levels will all change throughout a puppy’s development,” says Matt Tuzzo, CTC, CPDT-KA, owner of Jersey Shore Dogs. “This will undoubtedly lead to changes in their behavior.”
By keeping your composure and plenty of patience, you can reinforce your training habits and expectations for your pet.
If your usually happy puppy suddenly starts to exhibit signs of fear, anxiety or stress, they could be going through what trainers and behaviorists call a “fear period.” According to Visconti, this can happen in the early socialization period of a dog’s life from 12 to 14 weeks of age and then again when a puppy is older.
“Most pet parents are not aware that from the age of 6 months to 14 months, dogs can experience a second fear-imprinting stage,” he says. “This period is directly tied to hormonal and other physical changes.”
When your puppy is 12 to 14 weeks old, introducing your dog to new situations and circumstances is incredibly important. “This is the time to introduce the dog to novel stimuli, pairing the appearance of that stimuli with something very positive like high-value food,” says Visconti. “You're conditioning the dog to build a positive association to various stimuli they will encounter as an adult.”
Signs your puppy may be experiencing a fear period are generally easy to spot, says Tuzzo.
“Previously ‘courageous’ dogs will appear nervous, fearful, insecure or inhibited when faced with stimuli that they would have previously been curious, excited or neutral about,” he says.
If your dog does experience that second fear-imprinting stage later in puppyhood, Visconti explains that pet parents should continue to patiently work through socialization and introducing the dog to stimuli using positive reinforcement. Stopping socialization practices or reprimanding your dog for fear-based behavior can lead to anxiety and unwanted behaviors later in life.
“The most important thing is to be mindful of this stage, to continue patiently socializing your dog and to positively reinforce the behaviors you want,” says Visconti.
To help your puppy excel at training, Visconti and Tuzzo say that consistency and patience are key. Pet parents should not rush training or move on too quickly, because that’s when training regression happens.
In addition to taking it slow and being consistent, pet parents should do the following if they notice their puppy backsliding with training:
Puppies need motivation to learn behaviors. Usually, a high-value treat will suffice, but sometimes what motivates a dog changes over time. “Staying on top of maintaining motivators, like food and toys, and constantly being on the lookout for new motivators to use throughout the first two years of a dog’s life can keep their focus where it should be—on their people,” says Tuzzo.
Puppies do best when they have a routine and a training regimen to help them learn. Make training a part of your daily lifestyle and develop a plan that fits your dog’s age and ability. “Pet parents who don’t already have a plan may want to consider consulting with a qualified professional to help them create one,” says Tuzzo.
It’s important to closely observe your puppy’s behavior and watch for signs of discomfort or distress. Sometimes, a regression in training—specifically house training—may signal an underlying medical problem.
If you think your dog may have a medical issue causing a problem, you should speak to your vet immediately to ensure there is not a larger underlying issue, cautions Tuzzo.
If you see signs that your puppy is regressing in training, and you’re struggling with getting them back on track, consult a professional dog trainer or behaviorist for some advice or training classes.
“Seek the help of a professional to coach and teach you how to handle your particular puppy,” says Tuzzo. Your pet is unique and having one-on-one support can help greatly. “With all the different ideas and contradictory information out there these days, having someone who can directly help…apply the correct information to their situation is indispensable.”
If you’re looking for more information about dog training, ask a Petco store partner, or learn more about dog training classes and packages available.