It’s true! Whether in dog training or in life, as stated so eloquently by the late, oh-so-great Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part. I’ve seen it time after time with my clients and their dogs, and have experienced it first-hand with my own dogs.
Nowhere is the human tendency toward impatience more obvious than when we teach our dogs to stay. Dogs are normally active little beings, and sitting still can be as difficult for some as it is for a 3-year-old child. Then here we come, asking them to either sit or lay down, and then to do nothing. Huh? Imagine that from the dog’s point of view. Not only is the dog expected to not move—a difficult feat in and of itself—but there is no alternate physical activity to replace it. We’re not asking the dog to sit instead of jumping up on us, or to target our hand instead of lunging at another dog. We’re asking him, in effect, to do nothing until told otherwise. And so, our amazing dogs, who often demonstrate more patience than we do, learn and comply. But once the dog gets the idea, the next step is literally that—taking steps away. Or, perhaps building the time we expect the dog to remain in the stay. Trainers have their preferences. But either way, the theory is the same. The skill must be built up in small increments so the dog succeeds. And here is where we often fail our dogs. We practically expect them to go from a five-second stay to a minute-long stay to staying while we go out for coffee! If the dog fails, some owners are apt use punishment, while in reality the fault was their own for pushing the dog too far too fast.
Behavior modification is another area where our patience often becomes worn thin. If a dog has what I would consider nuisance behaviors, such as chewing on the wrong things, jumping on visitors, or grabbing things off countertops, owners often resort to punishment rather than taking the time to teach the dog that those things are not acceptable. And I can see why it would be tempting, because punishment does often stop the behavior immediately. The problem with punishment in general is that while it does put the kibosh on what’s currently happening, it really doesn’t address the underlying issue, and it can cause more stress, potentially making problems worse. Take the case of dogs who are fighting in the home. I had a client once whose previous trainer had told him that those ridiculous behavior programs the owner had heard about were a waste of time, and had the man put shock collars on both of his dogs instead. When the one dog hard stared the other, the man was to press the remote and deliver a shock. One day the dog looked at the other one, the man pressed the button, the dog yelped and simultaneously looked at the man…and began attacking the man. We then had a bigger problem to solve.
Whether sticking with a behavior modification program, waiting for behavioral meds to reach full efficacy, or taking gradual, incremental steps to set our dogs up to succeed, patience is a key ingredient for success. Yes, the waiting is often the hardest part; but when we’re making an effort and hanging in there because we love and care about our dogs, patience pays off.