A good dog trainer can help you train your dog to do anything that he is mentally and physically capable of doing – from basic obedience to tricks, from competition performance to skills useful for the farm, from therapy work to service dog tasks. (Although it is important to keep in mind that each dog training professional may specialize – some trainers focus on family dog training, others on a particular sport or few select sports, others on service dog training, and some will specialize in behavior modification.)
Frequently, the results of good training are only slightly short of miraculous – the dog that pulls like a freight train on the leash can be taught to walk politely next to his owner’s side. Dogs that have a history of reactivity toward people or other dogs are often rehabilitated to the point where they can thrive in performance environments, earning titles, and learning to be comfortable around people or dogs which may once have been fodder for a meltdown. Dogs which were destined for euthanasia in the back room of a shelter are sometimes rescued and trained to be someone’s service dog, or to perform tasks for law enforcement. Dogs that have previously killed cats can, in many instances, be taught alternative skills so that they are able to live safely with resident felines.
There are some things, however, that I can’t teach, and it’s not because I’m a poor trainer but because these things cannot be taught to dogs:
- Even the best dog trainer cannot teach a drivey, year old Belgian Malinois adolescent to have the energy level of an elderly Basset Hound. I cannot train a dog to stop needing adequate exercise, mental stimulation, and appropriate nutrition. A dog’s energy level is determined by a number of factors, including breed, age, and diet. Lifestyle conflict between owner and dog activity level is a huge contributing factor to behavior problems and eventually, dogs ending up in shelters or rescues or on craigslist in a “free to good home” ad. Be honest with yourself when you add a new dog to the family – what do you want to do with your dog? What will your dog’s exercise schedule be like? Mismatched energy levels is a situation where opposites definitely DO NOT attract – save yourself a lot of frustration by keeping that in mind when selecting the right dog for your home.
- I cannot teach your 8 week old puppy to be perfectly potty trained or to never explore the world with her teeth. Puppies are babies, potty training takes time. How much time? That too depends on a number of factors – how well is the owner able to manage the environment to protect accidents in the house? How long each day will the puppy be expected to “hold it?” (Puppies that are left alone for 9+ hours a day while the family is away at work and school tend to take longer to train than those who are able to get out during the day.) What type of dog are you raising? Toy breeds, which their peanut-sized bladders, often take longer to house train than their larger counterparts. Where did this puppy come from? Puppy mill dogs take much longer to train than puppies who were bred by responsible breeders who have already began diligent and appropriate potty training protocols.
- I cannot teach a puppy or adolescent dog to act like an adult. Good Lord, if this one isn’t all too evident to me right now in my Cuba-raising adventures! I cannot train dogs not to go through normal, natural periods of doggy development. There are times when I wish I could, but I haven’t figured that magic trick out yet.
- I cannot teach a bored dog to enjoy being bored. Because being bored is extremely, well, boring, people and dogs generally try to avoid boredom. I can teach you ways to alleviate your dog’s boredom, but if the handler will not take steps toward alleviating the boredom, the dog will find ways to alleviate his own boredom. More often than not, what dogs choose to do in lieu of being bored is rarely what humans would deem to be acceptable dog behavior – the dog’s plan will usually involve destruction to property, barking, digging holes in the yard, jumping over the fence, chewing through a tie out, etc.
- I cannot change who your dog is. Every dog is an individual, possessing unique talents, strengths, weaknesses, insecurities, preferences, feelings, motivators, favorite games, etc. If a dog has both a genetic tendency toward being fearful and an impoverished socialization history, chances are good she might always be somewhat fearful. We can teach her to be braveR, but she may never be a bold, socially gregarious, “bomb proof” dog, may never enjoy therapy work. I can’t train your dog to be best friends with the dog who has attacked him numerous times – we can probably train them to co-exist with reduced stress, but that may be it. I may not be able train your feisty young terrier bitch to happily share a crate with your four guinea pigs.
- I can’t train medical problems away. Many times, dog bites are caused because a dog is in pain and animals which are in pain (humans included! Don’t believe me? Have you ever heard how lovingly a woman in the throes of childbirth speaks to her husband?!) are more likely to aggress. Hormonal imbalances, a tumor, or even arthritis are other medical factors which may increase bite risk. A dog with a urinary tract infection may present a potty-training challenge. Your trainer or behavior professional may well want to work closely with your veterinarian as a team to ensure your dog’s behavioral AND physical wellness.
One of the first things you should do, before meeting with a trainer, is to make a list of at least three short term goals and at least three long term goals for your dog’s training. Your trainer should be able to give you honest feedback on the prognosis for each of these goals, and sometimes, we’re unfortunately forced to say, “this may not be realistic for your dog.” While your trainer may not be able to train your fearful puppy mill rescue to be a service dog, she can likely help you train her to be an amazing companion.