Are Your Priorities in Line with Your Expectations?

Last week, the classroom motto was, "If training your dog is not important to you, why would behaving for you be important to your dog?"...

Last week, the classroom motto was, “If training your dog is not important to you, why would behaving for you be important to your dog?”

At orientation, I ask clients what their goals are for their dog in our training classes. Our basic package is 6 classes in four weeks, as part of our membership program. Often, I have difficulty stifling my laughter when they respond, “I want to be able to call my dog back to me when she is chasing a deer.” I am not laughing at this training goal – for many dog/handler teams this goal is actually quite attainable. What I do want to laugh at is the fact that anyone believes this behavior can be achieved permanently and reliably in six hour-long classes or that they actually suspect I have a volunteer corps of deer waiting in my small classroom to volunteer for the task of being the “bait.” Recalling your dog off a deer chase is PhD level behavior. Manners class is like doggy kindergarten. Expecting a deer chase recall from a doggy kindergarten class is much like expecting a human child to write a PhD level dissertation before he enters first grade. A lofty goal, and one perhaps attainable for certain prodigies. The rest of us that might want a PhD have to do it the hard way – through commitment, dedication, consistency, and gradual improvement of skill level and understanding.

Expecting perfect behavior from your dog without putting any time or effort into building and then maintaining those behaviors is much like walking into a bank and asking the teller if they can provide you with a new bank account that has a $12,000,000 balance. The bank teller will likely laugh at you or call the police. The dog will just look at you like you’re ridiculous and return to his normally scheduled programming of doing whatever he wants, despite whatever you want.

Some trainers may say that great behavior doesn’t “just happen.” This is only partially true – great behavior does “just happen” often and frequently. Usually, it happens nearly all day, every day. Equally often and frequently, great behavior gets ignored or goes unreinforced when it does happen, so dogs adopt new (and often fairly creative) ways of getting their parents’ attention. Often, bad behavior gets much more attention than good behavior (lying quietly gets ignored but man, if you jump on the counter and steal dinner, everyone comes running from all corners of the house to pay LOTS of attention to you), and thus, replaces good behavior. One of my recent clients with a young female Boxer found this out the hard way – this dog learned that the best way to get mom’s attention was to open the freezer and spread the contents throughout the house.

Training your dog doesn’t have to be a full time job. Five 2 or 3-minute sessions daily is enough training for many family dogs. Leaving your dog wanting more makes the training process much more exciting for your dog and is preferable to working with your dog until they are bored or frustrated with an exercise and choose to disengage.

Additionally, training cannot happen only in the context of an actual training session. Never miss a chance to acknowledge your dog when she makes a good decision and does the right thing. If you don’t have a clicker and a treat available, provide a “good girl” and a belly scratch, a game of tug or fetch, or a nice relaxing massage. Make sure that lying down quietly, sitting politely, or keeping “four on the floor” when you carry your groceries inside are more reliable predictors of your attention than freezer-raiding, underwear-chewing, and counter-surfing.

Many of my clients have said, “he does this so well at class, but when I go home the behavior falls apart.” More often than not, this is because the classroom is the only place the training is happening. I can usually tell within about fifteen seconds of class beginning who is doing the work at home and who is not.

It’s interesting that the dogs will listen very well in the high distraction environment of the classroom and ignore their owners completely in the low-distraction of the environment at home. This is generally because the dogs have learned that reinforcement is available for good behaviors at the classroom, but not at home and therefore, the owner is relevant at the classroom but seeking self-gratification is best at home because there are no rewarding consequences provided by the owner for good behavior in that environment.

Dogs will listen in the environments in which they were trained. If you only train at the classroom, your dog will likely only listen at the classroom. If you only train in your living room, your dog may not listen in your kitchen.

Ask not what your dog can do for you until you ask yourself, what am I doing for my dog? Well-behaved owners invest time into training their dogs. Well-behaved owners also, not coincidentally, tend to have well-behaved dogs.

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