Previously I wrote about the importance of taking a slow approach when deciding on training methods for our dogs and finding professional help. I also suggested that dog training can, and should, be more than just another task to tick off the to-do list. There are some parallels that we can draw with the process of raising children, with the significant difference that the kids (usually) move out at some stage. By contrast, our dogs’ dependency on us is complete and for life. It follows that our decisions are of vital importance to the quality of their life and indeed their survival. Clearly something that requires a fair bit of thought and smart choices!
Let’s look at some of the aspects of dog training that can make all the difference in the world we share.
Training for all (TFA1)
Sometimes we don’t know what our dogs’ lives were like before they come into ours. Sometimes we don’t know anything about their breeder or even their breed. Sometimes we choose a dog that doesn’t fit our lifestyle. Sometimes we just end up with a dog.
While ideally the process of getting a dog in the first place should be just as thoughtful as training and living with a dog, the reality is often quite different. But choosing a dog is not the topic of this article. Once the dog is in our home, it doesn’t matter anymore how they got there. It is now up to us to give them the best possible training and a happy life. It also doesn’t matter if the dog is young or old, large or small, a Shepherd or a Retriever, a carefully designed Groodle, Schnoodle or Cavoodle or the product of an unscheduled romance. It doesn’t matter if the dog has only one leg or is deaf or blind. Training benefits every dog and vastly increases their chances in life.
We all know that prevention is better than cure. But of course we also frequently ignore this wisdom as my dentist was fortunate enough to find out recently. Like my dentist I’m in a profession which is largely involved in remedial action. Dog trainers are too often called when problems already exist rather than being engaged early on. Without training most dogs cannot fully take part in their people’s lives or be a valued member of their family. Their unrefined behaviours may condemn them to spend too much time alone or subject them to impatient or even harsh treatment from their people. But neglecting our dogs’ mental and emotional health can be just as costly as neglecting their physical health. It not only affects our hip pocket but is likely to cause our dogs – and potentially us – considerable grief. Rather than waiting for things to go wrong, training our dogs should be as much standard as educating our children, and ourselves. So here it is again. Repeat after me: Prevention is better than cure.
Are you talking to me?
In a recent review of a new book on parenting2, the author was quoted as follows: “You can tell your kids until you’re blue in the face,’Don’t take drugs, don’t drink, don’t have sex with the wrong people’ but you actually have to tell them why, and how they can have a more meaningful life.” With some modification this statement could easily appear in a modern dog training manual. We can tell our dogs to stop jumping up, pulling on leash or barking until we’re blue in the face. But we actually have to change their motivation and teach them alternative behaviours to get what they want.
Communicating efficiently with our dogs is not possible unless we learn how they communicate first. We are a species of many words. Dogs use body language. We rely heavily on eyesight. Dogs are guided by their noses. We have foresight, hindsight and insight. Dogs are impulsive and opportunistic. An appreciation of how our dogs experience and negotiate their environment is not just essential for a successful partnership, it’s also incredibly fascinating.
Simply knowing about canine senses and behaviours isn’t quite enough though. I won’t suggest you get down on all fours and sniff around your house with your eyes closed (not such a bad idea actually) but what we really need is to build compassion out of academic knowledge. Truly understanding our dogs’ world requires imagination (“how would I feel if that air freshener smelled a hundred thousand times more intense?”), observation (“did that dog just freeze when the child hugged him?”) and practice, i.e. awareness of how our dogs may experience various situations needs to become second nature.
We will never know what our dogs feel or think, but we can use our mental capabilities to develop awareness and change our point of view. We can evaluate the effects our behaviours have on our dogs and we can change those behaviours to be non-threatening, less confusing and more informative for canine minds.
Training fast and slow
Once we have obtained the necessary knowledge and gained an insight into our dogs’ lives we are ready to dive into the nuts and bolts of dog training. What exactly are we going to teach our dogs and how do we go about it?
The number one goal should be to equip our dogs for life in human society. What generally turns dogs from cuddly puppies into adult pariahs is lack of impulse control. Teaching our dogs not to jump on, run at or grab anything they fancy is usually essential for a harmonious relationship and could be considered basic education. Beyond that, we can teach our dogs all sorts of things. Any training, as long as it is safe and enjoyable for the dog, is good for them, just like learning new skills is good for us.
Ideally we want the essential behaviours to be installed without much delay, as soon as the dog joins our household. With proper planning we can often quickly teach new skills at home – the time investment can be as little as a few minutes per day – and then practise and refine those skills in more challenging contexts. Every dog has a vested interest in the consequences of their actions, so they are just as eager to cut to the chase as we are. They want to figure out how to turn good things (food, play, companionship) on just as much as we want to turn bad behaviour off. However, if the speed of learning is our prime parameter, we risk being sloppy and may switch focus back from teaching skills to merely suppressing behaviours. And with it comes a whole cascade of messed up emotions and undesirable behaviours. This is how we end up on the potentially very slow road to modify behaviour problems.
Keeping a cool head is essential if we want our dogs to succeed in our homes. If we get angry or feel exhausted because our dogs are behaving “badly” (for example the dog barks a lot in the yard) we need to put measures in place to give us a reprieve. By not giving the dog the opportunity to engage in the troublesome behaviour (for example, by keeping the dog in the house at times when there is too much stimulation outside), we keep our sanity and don’t take our frustration out on our dogs. I need to stress that taking measures for managing problematic behaviour does not include putting citronella collars on a pair of Border Collies who bark all day in the yard out of boredom while their people are at work or anything of that category. At best it’s thoughtless, at worst it’s heartless. Punishing dogs for our failure to keep up their required mental and physical exercise cannot possibly be an option, ever. Once we have control of a situation with good management, we can then start thinking about a long term solution that works for both us and our dogs.
Unless we are eager enough and can afford the time to learn everything about dog training ourselves, getting competent help is usually the way to go. However, hiring a dog trainer or sending our dogs off to a “board & train” does not absolve us from the task of integrating our dogs into our lives. The expertise on how to train a dog and some of the actual training may well be delivered by a qualified professional, but it is our continued behaviour and lifestyle that ultimately determines our dogs’ success or failure in the long run. If we do not get involved in our dogs’ training, we may not just lose out on the thrill of seeing our dogs win, we may lose our dogs altogether. So, let’s get serious about training our dogs for life and have some fun.
1 I borrowed this from an important initiative to improve human quality of life: “Education for All” (EFA) is a global movement by UNESCO to provide quality basic education for all children. Let’s have a movement to provide basic training to all domestic dogs!
2 Stark, J 2014, Taming teen troubles, The Sunday Age, 31 August, p. 6. (Book review: Fuller, A 2014, Tricky Teens: How to create a great relationship with your teenager without going crazy!, Finch Publishing, Sydney).