A Trained Dog: Not What You Think

I know a superb dog trainer in my area who has a giant breed dog. That wouldn’t be so notable, except she’s an extremely petite woman. The dog outweighs her by quite a bit. But you know what everyone comments on when they see the two of them together? How well the big dog walks on leash. And she does. She really really does. And it’s fantastic to see.

But what nobody ever talks about is the trainer’s attention on the dog. She is always working with her. She’s either using a clicker to reinforce attention and good choices, or by talking to her softly and giving her direction and support (and the occasional treat). The dog thrives on this feedback. You can see her responding and relaxing as she listens to her human. The dog is happy and engaged and her human is too.

I am mentioning this because it is a beautiful demonstration of a relationship based in clear  communication. And it is ONGOING. This dog trainer didn’t teach her dog to walk politely for a little while and then stop. Her relationship is constantly developing, adjusting; the trainer responds to her dog in the moment.

Good trainers understand that training isn’t a static, one-time event. It is a continuum, a relationship that will continue as long as your dog lives. Training is a means, not an end. Yes, you can get good solid behaviors, manners, and obedience that are long-lasting, but if you do not continue to reinforce those behaviors, and engage with your dog in a clear, consistent way, the manners and good behavior will fade.

My dog Izzy was a reactive dog. That means that she reacted to seemingly benign things in an over-the-top way. For example, if she walked by a dog who happened to turn his head in her direction, she’d bark and lunge. She was little, but she could make a pretty big scene and it wasn’t pretty.

So every time we went outside together I made sure I could help her handle  the things that stressed her out in a way that kept her calm. If I couldn’t, we changed direction or we walked into the street so that the situation would be less difficult for her to handle.

izzy10We did this her whole life. Yes, she got better. We were able to compete in dog sports together (the picture at left is of
us at a Rally-O trial) and go places where other dogs were out and about, but she was never “cured.” Behavior is not the same thing as an infection. There is no antibiotic for reactivity or aggression. It is up to us–the humans–to give our dogs clear communication and support so they  can remain calm enough to understand what they should do in tricky situations. And then it is up to us to let them know when they have done the right thing. Rewards, praise, contact–all those things are motivators for dogs.

Maybe part of the problem here are the words trainer and training. When we say “my dog is trained” or “I have a trained dog,” it implies the dog was trained in the past but now she behaves, a before-and-after kind of thing.  But according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of training is “the act, process, or method of one who trains.”

The key word here is process. Body builders get ripped  for competition, but if they stop training, the muscles go away. If you want to have a six-pack, you need to train regularly and consistently. The same applies to making sure your dog behaves in a way in which you would like. Training for a little while and then stopping will not reap the benefits you want. Your dog isn’t being lazy or stubborn. Your dog simply is not getting the communication she needs to continue to deal with stressful situations.

So next time your dog does something you aren’t pleased with think about whether you are holding up your end of the conversation. Are you paying attention to your dog, communicating to her, letting her know when she’s being good, and helping her to make the right choices?  If you aren’t, don’t worry.  Go ahead and start the conversation; it’s never too late. I promise, people will start noticing how well behaved your dog is.


Required New Year’s Post

Just like going to the gym, eating healthier and smarter, and cleaning the apartment more regularly are the go-to resolutions for a new year (at least for me)—I am adding a new one to the list: writing blog posts more regularly. And writing more regularly. So there. I wrote it out loud, so hopefully that will help me get some skin in the game and do it. You are all witnesses.

You know what else I’m going to do? Train my dog. Regularly. And my only expectation is that she have fun. Trix knows basic manners (well, kinda sorta—because not all the “basic manners” are important to me and I’m perfectly happy with how we coexist at home as is. Thanks Sara Reushe for the perfectly articulate post you wrote about that: What’s Important to You)

But from this day out I am going to train in a way that ensures she has fun and that we stop working BEFORE I start second guessing myself, or worrying about us not working as a team as well as Beth Blue Ribbon Hog or Sammy Show off, or that noisy Brianne Bragger. As a good friend told me a few months ago, I can’t compare my journey to anyone else’s.

My focus will remain on our relationship and training smart. I want to  be present and focus on what works. When something doesn’t work, instead of focusing on the perceived failure, I am going to re-think the challenge at hand instead of telling myself that someone else could have trained the behavior faster or better—oh, and get this—make a training plan! Revolutionary.

I am not going to compare my dog to other dogs and I am not going to compare myself to others in a way that makes me feel like garbage. That may mean I stay off Facebook a bit more than I have in the past or set a timer so it doesn’t become a gigantic time suck or downward spiral into “everyone else is doing whatever-it-is-I’m-worried-about better.” (See Kathy Keats’ perceptive blog Social Media can Undermine Confidence). What I plan to do when I catch myself falling into bad habits is to actually pick up a phone and talk (not text, not email) to a friend I trust. More Revolutionary.

And I’m going to remind Trix that she’s the best dog in the world. Because she is.

What are you all thinking about this New Year’s Day?