For nine months or so, I’ve been assisting a local trainer with a dog agility class in New York City every week. It’s been an amazing experience, and it’s also been a fantastic inspiration to spend time training my own dogs, both in terms of consistently working to desensitize Charlotte to other dogs and work on her reactivity, but also trick training and other skills that build confidence for both Mercury and Charlotte.
A couple of weeks ago, the trainer I’m working with came over to my house to meet Charlotte for the first time. Having a big-ish dog when you live in the city and rely on subways or expensive cabs to get around means she’d never come from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where the training facility was.
The plan for the visit was that she would give us some pointers and an outside opinion on new skills for working on Charlotte’s dog/dog reactivity. When we were outside working with Charlotte she asked me, “What would happen if I took the Gentle Leader off?” My response was, “She will pull.”
I love dog gadgets and equipment that improve communication between people and their dogs or in some way improve the dog’s quality of life. I also believe in training, and in the last two and a half years we’ve shared our lives with Charlotte I haven’t been lazy about training in general, but I realized that I had become lazy in some areas. I had become reliant upon equipment to, for example, prevent her from pulling, as opposed to actually training her not to pull. In my own defense the reasoning was that with her rough start on the streets and inadequate and poor socialization, my focus has primarily been on other areas of her training and development.
That said, I realized it was time to get to work. In the past three weeks I put the time in to teach Charlotte how to walk on a loose leash just on her buckle collar (with the exception of when we see a strange dog, which, given her other issues, and in this short period, feels very reasonable).
I still believe that equipment is very useful. I love the control the Gentle Leader gives us when walking Charlotte, especially since we live in the inner city, and an EZ Walk Harness when hiking on vacation in less-populated areas. The takeaway for me from this simple moment with our trainer buddy was not that I shouldn’t use equipment, but that it’s easy to become reliant upon tools to be a band-aid on a behavior, and there isn’t anything necessary wrong with that approach (I certainly have used it). But when my goal is an increased connection with my dog with a focus on both human and canine learning, I also want to do the training to work through behaviors that are undesirable. Ultimately, the training never comes off, unlike a collar/harness/head halter.
I love training dogs because of the relationship that forms when dogs and people are working together. I love watching my own dogs work through a new trick or behavior, and that look that washes over their faces when they master it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you walk into a pet store and are bombarded with equipment and gadgets, all saying they are necessary to having a well-trained dog. Sure, dogs are expensive, but spending time with your dog and teaching her something new doesn’t have to be a major expense.
My must-have training equipment that won’t break the bank:
- Collar — selecting the right collar is really important. I’m a fan of nylon buckle/snap collars; many other folks swear by martingale-style collars.
- High-value treats — most equipment is optional, but having high-value treats are vital to help with teaching your dog anything from the basics to advanced tricks.
- Leash — setting your dog up to succeed is important. I’m a fan of short nylon leashes because they give you a lot of control of where your dog is.
- Good attitude — your dog doesn’t automatically understand what you want when you are on a walk or start a training session. It’s up to you to be cheerful and encouraging.
- Patience — as much as we love them, sometimes dogs can be frustrating. Getting upset doesn’t help your dog learn, it’s more likely to leave you both shut down. A large dose of patience is mandatory to have a good training relationship.
My favorite helpful but not necessary training equipment:
- Treat pouch — doesn’t have to be expensive; mine is an ugly fanny pack I got on clearance at Kmart. It’s easy to have all my pup’s favorite high-value treats right at my fingertips without getting my pockets dirty. This is especially helpful for me because 99 percent of the time I’m wearing dresses that don’t even have pockets.
- Clicker — I especially love using clickers when I’m doing trick work. You can “mark” the behavior/action you’re looking for quite easily with a happy “yes” or other word with a treat, but I personally find there is something very convenient about utilizing a clicker to mark precise trick behavior.
- Gentle Leader/EZ Walk Harness — although I don’t love becoming reliant upon equipment to prevent behavior like pulling, which is entirely trainable, I do think that both (and similar products) are important tools to use in tandem with training to help your dog be successful.
- Toys — for me this is an optional but not necessary piece of equipment. Depending on your dog, this could easily trade with treats in my list of must-needed equipment, depending on how toy- and treat-driven your dog is.
- Drugstore clearance aisle — this is a sorta funny sounding one, but I consistently search the clearance sections of drugstores for fun toys that I can repurpose into dog trick props. Some of my favorite finds have been a mini basketball hoop, plastic bowling pins and bowling ball, and foam baseball bases, which I use for target training where my dogs are taught to go to and “touch” the base with their foot.
How about you? What are your favorite must-have training items? Do you find yourself relying on training equipment? Let us know in the comments!
About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.
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