Today, I got an email from Sarah, one of my clients in Agawam. She said she was feeling a little defeated because her reactive dog, Guinness, was still growling at people on walks. A few months back we did a basic lesson package – which is five lessons over a course of two months. Assuming she practiced (which she did), we’re talking 5 hours of professional coaching and maybe 10 hours of self-practice. That’s a total of 15 hours. For a dog that is quite fearful and reactive to strangers, I can’t imagine only 15 hours being enough to turn that around. Have you ever changed a habit in such a short time?
Which brings me to today’s blog subject about the top pitfalls pet owners fall into.
- Unrealistic expectations. We are all animals so you should be able to relate to your dog in regards to breaking a habit or building up an alternate coping strategy. Have you ever switched from regular soda to diet? Given up dairy or sugar? Made a commitment to exercise daily? Decided to learn to love spiders even though you’re deathly afraid? It’s hard, right? It’s just as hard for your dog, folks. When you are asking him to like kids when he thinks they’re the horrifying or be around other dogs when he’s convinced they all want to kill him – you’re asking a lot! You need to be realistic about how much your dog can change and how fast he can change.
- Novice trainers training novice dogs. Only in the world of pet dog ownership exists this bizarre dynamic where it’s considered normal for a brand new trainer (dog owner) to train an untrained dog. If you had never ridden a horse, you wouldn’t start with a wild stallion. Nope, instead, you’d be started off on a mellow, well-trained horse. It makes sense that only experienced horse riders would work with an untrained horse, right? Yet, dog owners are tackling difficult, complex training problems with little to no support from a professional. And then, like Sarah, you’re feeling defeated and hopeless. Make life a little easier for yourself and invest in a good trainer. Have the trainer work directly with the dog as much as possible – they will get the job done much faster and (honestly) probably much better. Then, the trainer can teach you how to work with the [now] well-trained dog. It will feel so good for both of you!
- Trying to train the behavior in the moment. You cannot – I repeat – CANNOT train a new behavior while the dog is literally doing the old, familiar one. Dog owners are always trying to fix the problem right when it’s happening. That would be like saying you are going to train for a marathon… by running a marathon. So, Sarah is trying to fix her dog’s growling behavior on a walk and it’s not working. She needs to train a new behavior long before trying to have Guinness give up the old behavior (growling) for a new behavior. There is definitely a time and place to ask your dog to difficult things like stay focused on you when what he really desperately wants is to lunge and bark at another dog. But, that time is after you have given him a skill set he can use instead of lunging. When he is trained, then you can ask for him to offer the behavior you’d like to see in place of spazzing out. Does that make sense? You can’t ask a dog to do a behavior he doesn’t even know – especially when he’s not exactly thinking straight because he’s exploding over a trigger.
These pitfalls are common for a reason. It’s natural to respond to your dog’s behavior in the moment and to do what you can to change it. Dogs are usually pretty good about doing what you want for relatively little effort. So, I know it’s overwhelming and frustrating when suddenly there is a behavior you can’t seem to change. I hope I’ve shed some light on what’s happening and how to get out of where you’re stuck. Truly good dog training is a skill and an art like any trade. If your pipes burst, you might grab a DIY manual and tackle the project…or you might call a professional plumber. But, one thing is for sure, you wouldn’t feel defeated because you couldn’t fix the problem right away. You wouldn’t expect yourself to inherently know how to fix your pipes – seems almost absurd, right? Well, problem dog behavior is no different.
Time to stop writing and go do some training. Hope everyone is enjoying the spring weather! Get out there and have some fun with your dog today.