My eyes have recently been opened about many people’s take on dog training. I always thought that most people these days get some level of training when they get a dog but not all. For a small few it doesn’t even cross their mind unless they run into problem behaviours. However, I recently showed a photo of a very tiny puppy I was training (fits into one hand kind of tiny) to some family and friends. More than one of them laughed and asked “how can she possibly need training? What could she possibly be doing wrong at this young age and at that size - she’s hardly some vicious brute!” This was a bit of an eye opener to me because most dogs and owners I am exposed to are in training….with me! These comments made me realise that my view might be a little skewed in terms of the ratio of people who automatically get their dogs trained versus those who wait and see if problems crop up.
Here’s my take on the ‘whys’ of whether you should automatically (before you have issues or complaints) train your dog….however, given that I am a dog trainer…. expect it to be a very biased opinion!
We are so familiar with dogs, they are so commonplace, that you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that they, being an entirely different species, have an extremely different communication system, which a lot of people over estimate their own understanding of. They also have different requirements which need to be met in order to lead a fulfilling life and they have different species-specific behaviours which do require an outlet but don’t always work well for us around the home.
Is training an extravagant luxury or a necessity?
Gone are the days (I’m looking at you, 1980s) when dogs were almost semi-feral and roamed the streets on their own all day only returning home to eat and sleep. These days dogs live in the home and share their lives with their family. However, it’s wrong to assume that they automatically know how to live in the home without guidance, to assume that they know the rules or understand concepts like monetary or sentimental value of belongings…. as they are chewing them up or peeing on them.
In my opinion, training your dog to live harmoniously in your household is an absolute necessity and not a luxury. The time and money you spend on training is far outweighed by what you reap from it, which can include:
approx. 14 years of harmonious co habitation without the stress, anger and frustration which can go hand-in-hand with living with a dog who simply doesn’t know the rules and does lots of things you don’t want him to do.
14 years of not dreading every single walk with your dog due to pulling or leash aggression
money saved from ruined household items, possible vet bills and even possible legal fees
a bond from the time spent training and the positive way it was carried out (assuming you engage a qualified trainer)
an understanding of what motivates and drives your dog’s behaviour and what does not. This knowledge will give you the tools to overcome some minor issues which might crop up somewhere down the line
The dog’s perspective
A good trainer is always thinking about the dog’s perspective and will help you to see things from a dog’s perspective also.
They will be able to tell you when the dog is not being naughty to ‘get you back for leaving the house’ when the reality is that he has done *insert unwanted behaviour* because of another reason. Perhaps fear, perhaps pent up energy, perhaps because he simply doesn’t understand a house rule that you accidently (it happens to the best) assumed he was born knowing!
Your dog trainer, as well as guiding you through the problem with management and a good training plan, will also try to help you to understand and empathise with your dog rather than get angry with him or be hurt by what you might perceive as ungrateful or spiteful behaviour.
That’s your sit, down, stay, off, come when called, go to bed, etc, as opposed to behaviour modification. Obedience training is the cornerstone of happily sharing your living space with your canine companion. A competent trainer will guide you through these exercises with ease (so long as you’re doing your part in terms of practice and consistency, of course).
Furthermore, obedience training is also necessary when working on behaviour modification – for example, if you want to work on a behaviour modification plan to stop your dog rushing to the door and barking every time the bell rings that training plan will begin with a good solid ‘stay’ and will be built upon from there.
I have often had people attend my Group Obedience Classes only to say that they really didn’t care about those obedience exercises we were covering, they just wanted to work on *insert unwanted behaviour*. What those people didn’t realise at the time was that having certain good, strong obedience commands under their belt would be an essential foundation to build upon in any behavioural modification plan.
Coming back to you when called. I always encourage my clients to build a good strong recall whether they intend to let their dog off leash or not. The reason for this is safety. You might not intend on ever letting your dog off leash in public but accidents can happen. Dogs can slip out of collars, leashes can slip out of hands, dogs can charge through doors which were accidentally left open. I would encourage everyone reading this to teach their dog a good, strong recall. It can be a lifesaver.
For those who do intend to let their dog off leash in public places it’s a must! Aside from the safety concern I feel that it is your obligation to the general public. I’m sure we have all seen a dog off leash harassing people and other dogs and ignoring their owner’s calls. I have been approached by off leash dogs while I have been handling very dog-aggressive dogs. I ask the owner to call their dog away but often their dog does not respond. (Side note: telling someone, who asks you to call your dog away, that your 'dog is harmless' isn't good enough! Certainly not if that person is trying to contol a dog who is afraid of other dogs or if the person themselves has a fear of dogs).
Once, in a park, I had a big Labrador put his two muddy paws (it was a very wet and dirty day) on my shoulders and lick my face! I laughed but can you imagine the fear you would feel if you were afraid of dogs or were old or infirm?
It is your responsibility to be a good citizen and have control over your dog, big or small, when you allow them to go off leash in a public place.
Training saves lives!
That’s a bold statement but I believe it to be a true one. It’s a fact that unruly dogs go to their death in vet surgeries, shelters and pounds across the country. Every. Single. Day. For no other reason than they are too hyper and were born into a world which they don't understand the rules of.
It’s not a big leap to assume that some of those lives could have been saved if training was engaged. It’s also not a big leap to assume that the number of deaths could be much higher still if it weren’t for all the owners who have done what it takes to make sure their dog is taught the rules.
When to start training
The best age to begin training is in young puppyhood, however, the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is entirely untrue. Training can take longer with older dogs and this is somewhat attributed to the fact that they often have to change lifelong habits. Therefore, it is highly advantageous to begin before they build unwanted habits and behaviours.
It has been my experience in teaching adult dog classes that people don’t bring their two year old or their six year old dog to training classes because they have a renewed interest in the dog. Rather, they skipped training the dog in puppyhood and now they have run into difficulties with their dog’s behaviour. That’s not to say that early training guarantees plane sailing later on – but it certainly increases the likelihood.
If you teach your dog how to live in your household in a manner that compliments what you expect from a canine family member you will lead a more fulfilling life with him. People who fail to give their dogs the training they need, do themselves and the dog a disservice, risk diminishing the quality of life for everyone in their home and are potentially setting themselves up for problems and heartache further down the road.