Editor’s note: The new year is a good time to revisit what we do and how we do things as dog owners, and that certainly includes obedience training. Accordingly, January is National Train Your Dog Month. This is the first in a series of posts from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, which created the annual month of observance in 2010.
Did you know that only 4 percent of dogs receive obedience training, and that only 2 percent of dog-owning households visit trained professionals for their dogs’ behavior problems?
According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association, there are 46.3 million dog-owning households in the U.S., which means approximately 44.5 million dogs never go to classes. Even more incredible, a recent study found that approximately 5 percent of puppies attend socialization classes. Socialization is critical for puppies in order to help them cope with the world as they grow into adults, and increased socialization of puppies means more behaviorally healthy dogs and fewer dogs potentially brought to shelters.
For these reasons, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers created National Train Your Dog Month — January — in 2010. We wanted to call attention to the need for training and socialization of dogs and puppies in a fun, relationship-based format.
As a former trainer, I can tell you that often I had people attend my classes who were put off by the idea of training because they thought it was too harsh or would “break the dog’s spirit.” Modern training, however, has come a long way — and we want dog owners to realize that not only can training help you and your dog live a better life, but it can be a whole lot of fun as well.
My group classes revolve around the idea of fun and games, and they involved children’s games like tic-tac-toe and musical chairs to help owners teach skills to their dogs while having a good time. Many trainers today use similar formats. Even one-on-one training between you and your dog can be fun with such techniques as clicker training.
It’s important to recognize that training is more than just teaching your do to sit or get down or stay in place. It’s about communication between two very different species, and how each learns to navigate the other’s world around them. I’ve seen time and again that look of astonished joy when an owner’s dog learns a behavior that person never thought possible, and I see it again now in the classes I’m taking my new puppy to. Even I, as a trainer and certified behavior counselor, get a thrill when she finally was able to sit when asked, stay for more than 10 seconds, and to leave food and toys alone on cue. Developing a positive relationship with your dog can be greatly enhanced by training and engaging in activities such as agility and other dog sports.
Socialization is another of the core promotions of National Train Your Dog Month. Having come into the training world from volunteering and working in animal shelters, I saw all too often the fallout from puppies who didn’t receive adequate socialization. They grow into adults dogs who cannot handle the “real” world and become shy, anxious, or even aggressive.
When I got my new puppy about a year ago, she was generally friendly but somewhat shy, and I embarked on an immediate socialization plan. She went to multiple classes to meet new people and puppies, she went any places with me such as errands in the car. Our destinations includes home improvement stores, pet supply stores, and many of the dog friendly outdoor restaurants in the area. My dog who had passed away at Christmas 2011 was a fearful dog who never truly was able to cope with her fears, and I was determined to not let this happen with the new puppy. Luckily, today she’s 14 months old and has blossomed into the friendliest dog I’ve ever known. But it would not have happened without a lot of time and attention. But the effort is so worth it, and if there’s one message we want to really get out to the public, it’s how much socialization can improve your dog’s life, and how the lack of it can cripple your dog behaviorally for his or her adult life.
For more information on training and socialization, you can visit the APDT National Train Your Dog Month website, which has lots of handouts and free webinars for the public.
Mychelle Blake, MSW, CDBC, is the president and CEO of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.