Are Trainers and Their Dogs Perfect?

January 19, 2016

world's longest tongue edit smallI recently posted on Facebook about my morning at the park with Sierra. I’d had her off leash in a semi-remote area we often frequent, when she suddenly stopped running and went into predatory stalk mode. She crouched low and remained stock still. I thought the German Shepherd who sometimes patrols behind a chain link fence we were coming up on might be visible, but he wasn’t. Regardless, I knew she saw something, and that her next step would be bursting into motion and running toward whatever had caught her attention. I called her to me. Guess what—she didn’t come. I then whipped out the Mom Voice, and she came running in record time. I leashed her, and gave her a piece of hot dog and praise. When I looked up again, I saw a coyote standing less than 50 feet from us, staring directly at us. He must have been there the entire time, watching us. Having my camera with me, I held Sierra tightly on leash, took a few photos, and then moved on.

I was surprised by the comments on the post thanking me for being truthful about Sierra not coming the first time. Then I thought about it. We don’t often hear professional trainers talk about how something didn’t work out perfectly, or how training failed. You might be surprised to know that many professionals, some quite well known, have dogs who every now and then do things like jump up on the dining room table with all four feet, jump on visitors, and worse. Sometimes those dogs had issues that were there when they were adopted—many trainers end up adopting the worst behaved dogs—and the issues aren’t fixed yet; and sometimes it’s a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. But I have heard some of my favorite trainers and lecturers admit to being less than perfect, and I respect them all the more for being open and honest. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many more who portray themselves as infallible. The thing is, we’re human, dogs are dogs, and s*#& happens. To everyone.

It’s like those trainers who guarantee they can fix any dog’s issues, regardless of the problem or severity. Those claims never seem to take into consideration things like genetic predisposition, how intense the behavior is or how long it’s been going on, the dog’s age, health, or a multitude of other factors. There’s even one company that guarantees to fix your dog’s behavior in one session! If that doesn’t happen, there’s a lifetime guarantee, meaning the trainer will come out as many times as necessary. But why make such an unrealistic claim in the first place, not to mention that if the trainer really doesn’t know how to address the issue, how is having him/her return endlessly going to help?

I don’t know about you, but I make mistakes. My dogs make mistakes. Of course I train them and expect them to comply. Who wants a trainer with poorly behaved dogs? But instinct is incredibly strong, particularly in dogs like Sierra who are a bit on the wild side. I would never be so pompous to claim that because I’m such an amazing trainer, my dogs never do anything they shouldn’t. (Have you read Hit by a Flying Wolf? Hah!) Or, that I have superhuman powers that allow my training to trump instinct every single time. Yes, I can call my dogs off squirrels, another dog, and, as evidenced this morning, a coyote. But I won’t say it’s easy or that it works 100% of the time. Humility, paired with caution, goes a long way toward keeping everyone safe.

We should absolutely strive to train our dogs to the highest level of compliance, practice, proof, and practice some more. But professionals do a disservice to owners and to other trainers when they represent themselves as infallible. I’ve had many people comment about how relieved they are that something I shared in a blog post, “could happen to a professional.” The truth is, it does happen. To all of us. So let’s train, train, train—but let’s be honest as well.
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R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out What it Means to Me—in Dog Training

January 7, 2016

recall part 2
A woman I know once told me, “I’d rather be feared than respected.” That was her honest opinion, whether it involved people or animals. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to share her view. Take the boss who threatens his employee that if he doesn’t have a report in by the end of the day he’s fired. Or the parent who threatens that if his son doesn’t clean his room he’ll slap him into next week. Sure, the report is likely to get done, and the room cleaned. But what kind of feelings do you think those acts create?

Of course there needs to be consequences for actions. In dog training, we talk about antecedent, behavior, and consequence. But there are way too many people who still subscribe to that old, timeworn philosophy that to get a dog to listen, you need to “show him who’s boss.” Look, it’s a no-brainer that you should ultimately be the one in charge. But training by intimidation is pointless. Yes, you can threaten, strong-arm, and punish a dog ‘till the cows come home, and yes, he’ll comply because you’re bigger and stronger. But is that the kind of relationship you want? In working with wolves over many years, I often thought about how I’d love to see some of those might-is-right trainers try those techniques with the wolves. In dog training we have a name for what would result—one trial learning; that is, for the human.

I was once in a big box pet supply store when I noticed a man with his Akita. The man was trying to look at something on the shelf, and wanted his dog to lie down. He issued the command in a gruff voice. The dog looked nervous, but did not lie down. The man said, “Down!” again, this time a bit louder. The dog cringed and shrank away as much as possible while on leash but remained standing. Finally, the man all but shouted a very threatening-sounding, “Down!” in the dog’s face. The dog hit the floor—facing completely away from the man. Was the Akita blowing him off? Trying to make a statement by pointing his furry derriere in the man’s direction? Nope. The dog was completely upset by the tone of voice, and turning away physically is a very common stress signal. The point here is not that a stern voice should never be used with dogs, or that it’s fine for dogs to not respond until the third request. It’s difficult to judge by one incident, but it certainly appeared by the body language of both species and the man’s voice and demeanor that this was not exactly a relationship built on mutual respect.

People often comment that in photos where my dogs are running towards me, they always look happy. Those frozen moments in time come right after I’ve called my dogs to come, and they comply because we’ve practiced the recall many, many times, with them being rewarded for their good behavior. If they choose not to come, there’s a consequence. Because my dogs are so attached to me, I will hide behind a bush or tree and keep very still. The dog who chose not to come, after finishing sniffing where a bunny had been or whatever the distraction, suddenly realizes I’m not there and all but panics. I let the freak-out go on for a moment or two, and then reappear. This time, the recall is lightning fast. And then we work on getting it right the first time with progressively more difficult distractions.

Yes, you can absolutely get people and animals to do your bidding because they fear you. People do it all the time, and there’s no doubt that it works. But it also damages the relationship, creating feelings of mistrust and even dislike. Besides, why do that when cooperation, patience, and consistency in training get solid results while building respect. Personally, I would much rather have my dogs comply out of respect than fear any day.
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