Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Frustrated Dog Trainer Speaks Out

I’m at a party, enjoying the hors d’oervres, the wine and polite conversation when, suddenly I hear, “Oh, you’re a dog trainer?!” Uh-oh, here we go again – that dreaded interrogative. There are only two others that I think are worse. From behind me I hear, “How do I get my dog to stop (insert behavior of choice here)?” Clunk – the other shoe. Suddenly the cheese puff sticks in my throat and the wine becomes bitter. All other conversation around me stops as they turn to listen to what will, surely, be some sage advice.

Of course I can answer the question, and I do, every time, to every person, ad nauseum. It’s not that I mind people picking my brains for free advice, I really don’t. In fact, I love talking about dogs – my dogs, your dogs, shelter dogs, ANY dogs – and I love talking about training dogs. What really presses my buttons are the people who don’t want to hear the answer. You must work with your dog regularly and consistently. That includes exercise, socialization, exercise, positive training, exercise, positive reinforcement of spontaneous desirable behaviors and, oh yes, exercise. What is regularly? EVERY day, including weekends and holidays, better yet, 2 or 3 times a day. What is consistently? Don’t change the rules on your dog! What’s good today can’t be bad tomorrow or vice versa.

So, I answer the question and, as I begin to qualify it with my usual spiel about daily exercise, positive training and consistency, I watch the person’s eyes glaze over. I get the perfunctory “of course”, “yes, yes” and “I’ll do that”. I want to scream, “No, you won’t do it! I know you won’t! You can’t even pay attention long enough to hear what I’m telling you!” But, of course, I don’t say that. I just go back to sipping my wine and am thankful the party wasn’t at my house. Then I would have heard the worst request ever. “Oh, your dogs are SO good and SO smart! Can you come fix my dog(s)? PUH-LEEZE!?” Yeah, sure, how about I “fix” your kids while I’m at it? Better, yet, let me “fix” you. No, I don’t say that – but I think it.

Occasionally I get the question from a responsible dog owner who just needs some guidance in a problem area. Oh, do I LOVE that! I talk to them so much, they try to hide from me! Recently I gave a friend some tips and techniques for building a strong recall. She had trained her dog to do so many things but had some trouble with a reliable recall. I spent 2 hours on the phone with her and would gladly have spent 2 more. She didn’t just try them on her dog; she worked with her dog every day. Two weeks later she emailed me to tell me she was having great success with the tips and techniques I gave her. I threw my shoulder out patting my contented little self on the back. Unfortunately, she is the exception.

So many people adopt or purchase dogs when they have no business doing so. I know that sounds harsh but the fact is more dogs die every year because of “behavioral problems” than from any other cause. Most of these behavioral problems are avoidable and/or correctable, if owners would just put in the time. But, sadly, they don’t. So the dogs are abandoned, surrendered, put down or accidentally killed. People don’t seem to realize that this is a life with feelings and, yes, a brain. That little dog brain is being trained by the owner, whether he realizes it or not, the very moment he brings that dog home. Too often the dog has actually learned the “bad” behavior straight from the owner. Imagine if we taught our kids to do something, only to punish or abandon them when they actually did what we taught them? How crazy would we all be? Its no wonder so many dogs have “behavior problems”.

I see these abandoned and surrendered dogs every week at the local shelter where I volunteer. It breaks my heart. So many of them are really cool dogs that just need some work. I wish I could take them home but I can’t. I already have 3 dogs, a cat and a husband to worry about. So, I go weekly and mostly walk the dogs and give them affection. I usually don’t bother with training because it is pointless to try to train a dog once a week (there’s that regularly and consistently thing again). Yet, every week I go, armed with my clicker and bag of treats because “hope springs eternal”. I try to at least reinforce the dogs’ known behaviors. Many of the dogs in the shelter know “sit” and “down”. I also reward any spontaneous good behavior I see. No harm in that.

I often assist potential adopters in finding the right dog. I get all warm and fuzzy when I can match someone up with one of the dogs that has been there a while. It’s a great feeling. Alas, not a week goes by that I don’t hear from at least one potential adopter, “I’m looking for a dog that is good with people and kids and other dogs and cats. He MUST be housebroken and he can’t have any issues like jumping or barking. Oh, and my back is bad so he can’t be pulling me around when I walk him, he must know how to walk on a leash. Oh, and, of course, he just can’t shed. We have allergies, you know.” Wow! Is that all? Are you sure you didn’t leave anything out? Of course I can help you, right this way. Go across the street into the building on the left. They have a wide assortment of stuffed toy dogs for you to choose from. Guess you missed the sign outside that reads “Shelter” not “Perfect Puppies R Us”. Nah, I don’t say that. I think it – oh how I think it. I just nod my head and politely tell them they are not likely to find exactly all that in one dog, but why not look around and see if you find a dog that appeals to you.

Ah, well, what can I expect? They are just dogs, after all. In a society where so many parents won’t even raise their own children, what hope is there for a dog? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against working moms – my mom was one and I like to think I turned out just fine. Even though she and my dad both worked, they somehow managed to find the time to raise me, nurture me, teach me, discipline me and encourage me. We even had a dog and he was very well behaved because the whole family was consistent and worked with him. But in today’s society, everyone seems to want more for less and something for nothing. We seek instant gratification. One-hour face-lifts, glasses in an hour, microwave dinners, the Internet – they all feed this mindset. Then of course there are the televised dog trainers that miraculously fix dogs in one episode – imagine that! What makes them so much better than me? EDITTING!

Let’s face it folks, good dogs don’t fall from trees. Some things just can’t be fixed in an hour. If you want a well-behaved dog, you have to make a well-behaved dog with time, effort, consistency, positive reinforcement and patience. Ah, but if you make that journey with your pup, you will reap the rewards for many years.

Helen DelBove, ABCDT
Dog Lover, Owner and Trainer