Last week (maybe the week before, the weeks merge during the winter) I wrote a post on how, as dog trainers who promote non aversive methods, we need to be at the top of our game so that clients see that they are getting results quickly. Today I wanted to write a little about the flip side of that argument and that dog trainers are not miracle workers nor do we have magic wands or pixie dust.
In my experience, most problem behaviours and training issues can be turned around very quickly, very often in the space of one session, and we can see the dog’s behaviour starting to improve. This is just the start of the process and it needs to be continued, consistently until your dog is reliably behaving the way you want them to. Take recall for example. I find recall training of dogs fairly easy for the bulk of the dogs I train. This not because I have some mystical ability with dogs, I try to find what the dog likes whether it is food or toys and use it a lot during training. When I say a lot, I mean all the time. This now becomes your daily routine with your dog when you are at the park. You play with your dog rather than letting him off lead to run around with other dogs. You see, it’s not that difficult, we just need to do it, changing our behaviour a little to get the results we want. This is the case with a huge proportion of the dogs I work with in the majority of problems from recall and loose lead walking to aggression and reactivity. We just need to do the right thing, do it consistently for a few days/weeks until the dog has enough of a reinforcement history of that behaviour.
Then we get to the more difficult cases. These are dogs whose unwanted behaviour is either so ingrained or that they are so stressed that we have huge difficulty in helping them. This is not to say that it can’t be done, but that it takes a long, long time. I had a very scared and stressed dog who came to see me a few years ago, I tried everything I could think of before finally recommending that the client go to the vet to see if there was some sort of pharmacological help which could be given. I spoke to another very experienced trainer who said “I hope they have a big garden” meaning as far as he could see from what I told him, the most humane solution was to exercise the dog away from the public.
I’ll give you some more examples from my experience to illustrate.
- A client comes to me with a dog aggressive terrier. We meet at the park, go through changes in lead handling, use of long lines, good use of distance, reinforcing good behaviour, preventing unwanted behaviour from occurring or interupting it when it does, safety of her dog and others. She ways to me “this is nothing like the way I walk my dogs though”. My reply to that was, “And how is that working for you?”. We need to change our own behaviour in order to change the dog’s behaviour, we can then gradually, in many cases, shape back to the type of walk we want, but this won’t happen overnight.
- A client comes to see me for recall with his collie. We have a great session, the dog is recalling well under distraction very quickly and we reinforce with loads of play. Two days later, I see him working with another trainer on recall. It’s totally cool that he does that, it’s his choice but we got a good result in our session, I think he was just looking for a magic technique which required him to do no work. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
- A couple come to see me recently with a large dog who pulls all the time on the lead. I ask all the relevant questions during the initial phone call. The dog has been trained using an e-collar, a head collar and a choke chain. The problem isn’t that their dog pulls on the lead, it’s that they have zero relationship with their dog, and that their dog doesn’t actually want to spend time with them. Compounding the issue is the fact that the dog is so stimulated by the outside world that he has no attention span. He’s a long term project for the owners, which I explained but they didn’t come back to see me. Again, it’s their choice and right to do so.
- I see a post on a local FB dog training forum asking for help to find a trainer for their dog. The post states they have worked with several trainers in the past but to no avail. I had been to see her and knew a few of the other trainers who had seen her also. We all gave similar advice, she just didn’t follow it. We don’t have a pixie dust which can solve every problem. The client lives with the dog, we can only show you what to do.
- Lastly, I work with a very difficult dog, again, unable to concentrate on the owner outside. I give him advice about how to build some sort of connection with his dog. The week later I post on my FB page a blurb about a similar dog. This first client asks the second one if they have any advice on how to change the behaviour as he is having similar problems. I responded, yes, do what I suggested you do last week.
Living with difficult dogs is hard. Some days are better than others. When we have unrealistic expectations, it leads to frustration, anger and resentment. When we have these feelings, we are never going to be able to change our expectations and this is unfair on our dogs.
Since Watson came to live with us in April, she has made massive progress. But progress is not linear and I have to remind myself of this constantly. Her behaviour tomorrow may not be as good as it was today. So tomorrow I will do with her what she is capable of doing.
At Clicker Expo this year, Kathy Sdao said she uses this mantra
“This. Here, Now.”
I try to be mindful of this when I’m working and being with Watson. She is not today who she was yesterday, so I need to concentrate on today. It’s not always easy but each month see significant improvements and I delight in all the cool and amazing stuff she does on a daily basis. She is wonderfully friendly with visitors, is content and relaxed in the house, travels well in the car, learns loads of stuff very quickly and is great fun the majority of the time.
It’s been a massive leanring curve for us this year with her, but I’m glad she’s here.