Limitations

Bodhi park recall field closer edit small

Yesterday morning I took Bodhi to the park. Frost covered the ground, and we only encountered two other diehard walkers the entire hour we were there. I took the opportunity to practice off-leash work in various locations, and Bodhi did wonderfully well. In fact, it was difficult at times to get him to leave my side. “Okay!” I’d give the release word, along with the gesture that lets him know he’s free to go and romp. He’d just look at me. “Frolic!” I demanded. Nothing. Oh well. If that’s the worst problem, it’s fine with me!

This morning, on the other hand, I took Sierra with me. There were two differences: no frost on the ground (although it was still damned cold), and she was on a long line. Why? Because whatever she’s got going genetically predisposes her to have a super high prey drive, and when that’s in full-on mode, she’s also got selective hearing. Sure, we’ve practiced off-leash recalls in safe, enclosed areas, and we’ve done them with her on the long-line as well. We’ve practiced when there are distractions around, and for the most part she does incredibly well in all of those situations. So why not go the next step and allow her off-leash freedom? Because I know who she is. And I don’t have such a massive ego that I feel I can change a dog’s genetics, bend any dog’s temperament to my will, or solve every problem out there.

Unfortunately, there are trainers who promise to fix any problem, guaranteed. That crossed my mind the other day when I received a call from a woman in a very difficult situation. The family has four dogs, and two are fighting. The fighting dogs are each seven years old and had grown up together. One was a doxie and the other, a German Shepherd. The fights began a few months ago and became progressively worse. A few days ago, the woman came home to find the doxie covered in blood from a badly torn ear. There had never been issues between the two before, there was no valuable resource being guarded as far as she could tell (including them), and nothing had changed in the home. I suggested she get the dogs to a vet for a full blood workup, including a full thyroid panel, before beginning training. If a thyroid imbalance, liver problem, or other medical issue is causing the sudden aggression, there’s no reason to spend money on a trainer. If it isn’t physiologically-based, then yes, I told her, we would certainly be happy to come out and assess the situation.

I’m glad the woman found us instead of a trainer who would promise to “fix” the situation no matter what, because the fact is, there are some situations that are not fixable to the point that everyone can remain safe (especially if there are children in a home). Can you imagine a psychologist promising to make you like anyone, even someone you’ve taken a serious dislike to? Why do we think we can do that for dogs? Would any trainer make Sierra 100% reliable off-leash, ever? I think not, regardless of what tools and training methods were used. As a trainer, I can get her to a high degree of reliability, but as a dog-mom, I’m sure as hell not taking any chances; why would I?

It’s nice to believe that each and every dog-related situation can be solved, and that every behavior can be modified in every case. But this is the real world. Trainers can be an incredible amount of help in most cases, but there are some limitations. Being able to recognize and accept those limitations and advise owners on a realistic, appropriate course of action is part of the difference between a good trainer and an excellent one.

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11 Responses to Limitations

  1. Thank you for sharing this post. I’m glad to hear a trainer say this – that not all problems can 100% be resolved. SlimDoggy Jack is like your Sierra. He’s good – as long as the distractions aren’t more interesting than me! I’ve been feeling guilty that I just haven’t spent enough time training and working with him. But like you, I’m not sure I could ever work with him enough to feel 100% confident that he would always recall. Working with a trainer has helped reshape many of his behaviors…but this one, not sure any amount of training would get it there. But, who wants a perfect dog anyways!

  2. Ariana Kincaid says:

    OMG! Was just talking to another dog trainer about this very topic the other day. Behavior modification is not a personality transplant. Realistic goals for every dog are different!

  3. Sue says:

    There are a group of trainers in the UK the offer a life time guarantee on behavioural work. I find this amazing and wonder if they have any limitations, or even recognise that there may be some.

    • wildewmn says:

      Sue, we have trainers and training companies here in the U.S. that offer a lifetime guarantee as well. I’ve gotten calls from clients who have used them, and say the person is willing to keep coming back–but what’s the point if they can’t solve the problem?

  4. I think this is such a wise perspective. Thanks so much for sharing it and for your humility and willingness to see problems for what they are.

  5. Pat Engel says:

    I once heard another well-known trainer compare a dog’s behavior modification potential to a room- there is a certain amount of movement possible in that room, but there are limits- walls, floor, ceiling. And, of course, as behavior consultants, sometimes part of the limits of the situaton we are working with have to do with the owner’s limitations- limitations of time, commitment, and skill.

  6. CJ says:

    Great column as always! I am going to steal your wonderful comparison about psychologists not promising to make you like anyone, and why wise trainers won’t make 100% guarantees of behavior change.

  7. So nice to see a realistic, honest column like this for a change. If we humans can learn to embrace the beauty of what we have and lose the ideology of what we should have we’d all be happier. And so would our dogs. Thanks for a great article!

  8. I always find it comforting to hear a Very accomplished trainer say that there are things that we just have to learn to live with in our dogs. My rescued Australian Shepherd, Blue Lu (who isn’t blue) spent the first months of our life together not letting me out of her sight. We practiced off-leash recalls in the abandoned golf course in City Park without a hitch. My previous dog was a Labrador who had such incredible recall that if a tennis ball truck had collided with a meat truck she would have come away from it with a single “Molly!” So I took it on faith & what I’d seen over the first months of our companionship that Lu was similar in skills. That is, until she almost got herself killed.

    We were playing frisbee with her bff, another Aussie with epic recall in a small park in out neighborhood. Lu was in pursuit of Stella! who was in pursuit of the frisbee when a big, loud dobie came to his fence and started barking. Lu made a hard right in mid-gallop and bolted across two lanes of traffic and a neutral ground (a median to you non-New Orleanians) to get over to bark furiously at him. She didn’t hesitate or slow for an instant when I yelled, “LU! COME!!! LU!!!”

    Luckily there was sparse traffic that afternoon and we dodged the Dead or Injured Dog bullet. From then on, whatever rubicon she had crossed that day, her super-high prey drive kicked in and she started lunging at passing motorcycles, bicycles, noisy cars etc. This is pretty much under control now. She will sit and “Leave it!” as long as I see the provocation before she does. But she’s no Molly, and will never be. And though she comes first time every time @ the dog park (and during our vacation in the woods of North Carolina last summer) I can’t imagine a day that she’ll be off-leash in any situation where she is not safely contained.

    I’m a pretty darn good trainer, but not good enough to change who Lu is.

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