The Biggest Problem with Dog Training
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk.” – Keep Talking/Pink Floyd
Dog training: it’s what everyone thinks they need when Fido is being a twerp. Perhaps he’s pulling you on the leash. Perhaps he’s destroying things when you’re gone. Maybe he’s not so friendly to strangers, or maybe he’s just a terror in the house.
Everyone immediately Googles “Dog Training” and searches all the dog training videos they can find on YouTube. Obviously he’s acting that way because he needs to be trained.
And that’s why you’re doomed to fail.
Your dog doesn’t need to be trained. Let me explain.
I recently had a training session with a lovely couple we’ll call Laura and John. They had an adorable Floofadoodle (a Floofadoodle is any Poodle mix) puppy we’ll call Lucky. Laura and John were extremely intelligent, and asked very good questions during our session. They obviously wanted to make sure they started out right, and were wiling to put for a great amount of effort to be successful with Lucky.
Upon meeting them, I noticed that John would frequently repeat what I’d said to Laura. They both smiled at me and informed me that English wasn’t their first language. “That’s okay”, I told them. “It’s not Lucky’s first language, either.”
Working with Lucky, Laura and John was a success. We went over everything from housebreaking to leash walking (first successful walk since they had him!) to how to keep him from being bored. Did I train Lucky? No. Did I train Laura and John? Absolutely not. We communicated.
Training involves a specific scenario. For example, if I teach a dog how to sit when I say “sit”, we’ve communicated together to help him understand what I was training him to do: sit. We would not be successful without that communication. End result is that when I say “sit”, he sits. So think of training as doing tricks. I can tell a dog to roll over, or to go to their crate; those are both tricks they were trained to do. They were specific to a certain word, or a certain set of stimuli (for instance, Sparta has been trained to wait in her mudroom when our doorbell rings). But there is no additional communication that is typically involved once the dog is trained to that specific behavior. Which is where failure comes in. For example:
*Doorbell rings* Sparta goes to her room, as she was trained to do. But as she’s heading off to her room, the person starts to knock on the door as well. I didn’t train Sparta what to do if someone knocks (which is a new set of stimuli), only what to do if someone rings the doorbell. So now Sparta has a question, “Do I need to investigate the knock?”. That question requires communication. Piloting, as I refer to it. I communicate to her that, no, she doesn’t need to investigate, and to go to her mudroom. After one or two, “Are you sures” from Sparta, she complies. This scenario would not be possible if it weren’t for communication.
Learning to communicate with your dog, and viewing them as a fully-functioning, intelligent being rather than “just a dog” is integral to success with your dog. Training is helpful. For instance, when my kids, Eric and River, were first being “trained” to wash dishes after dinner, it went pretty quickly. They understood they had to wash everything. But communication was key when they asked me if they should wash my grandmother’s 100 year old cast iron skillet, affectionately named “Lilith”. Lilith is temperamental, and the kids know she is special to me, (and pretty damn heavy!) and therefore weren’t sure how to proceed. Therefore we communicated (“No, I’ll wash her.”) We deviated from our original training (“wash everything”). Communication was integral to make that deviation from normal.
Now, many years later, the kids are still doing dishes, and there aren’t many questions, but I had more information to give them one day after dinner. I wanted them to learn how to take care of Lilith. So I communicated with them how to wash and care for my beloved cast iron. They have now been trained to care for her, and have updated their previous training, through communication, to include washing Lilith after she comes out to play.
So essentially, training is for specific circumstances. Communication is how you handle anything outside the norm, or outside your dog’s pay grade. It’s also very important for when your dog has a case of the “are you sures”?, such as in this scenario:
*Sparta sees clown across the street holding a balloon*
Sparta: Mom, is that a threat? Me (faking it): No Sparta: Are you sure it’s not a threat? Me: It is not a threat.
So we took an abnormal situation (fucking Pennywise!!!!!) and turned it into a normal situation through communication. There is no training that ever could have taken place prior to this situation, as it is completely novel. Communication is what you use when an entirely new set of stimuli has presented itself. In this case, Pennywise the clown. It’s also what you use when you’re still on the path to emptying your dog’s Piloting Piggy Bank, and perhaps haven’t been trained yet to go to their mudroom when the doorbell rings.
I didn’t need to electrocute Sparta with a shock collar: that’s not communication. Neither is a prong collar. Each are designed to give pain, but not answer questions. Lets throw the situation in a different way. What if you and your best friend were talking, having a pleasant conversation, and you asked them a question: “Any plans for the weekend?”
So they punch you in the face.
Well that totally didn’t answer your question, but are definitely not asking them anymore questions. But remember, questions are the important part of any relationship. We want our dogs to ask us questions. Because what is the definition of anxiety?
anx·i·e·ty /aNGˈzīədē/ noun a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
How can you alleviate anxiety? By answer your dog’s questions, and communicating with them! A client the other day told me that another dog trainer had informed them how best to work with separation anxiety: Put a shock collar on the dog, and when he starts to whine in his crate, give him a shock.
Your dog is anxious and scared and your response was to cause him physical pain and discomfort? Obviously your goal isn’t to help with his anxiety, it’s just to make him be quiet. In which case, you can get the same result by duct taping his mouth shut. In this case, it was never about the comfort and best interest of the dog, it was about you not having to tolerate hearing his distress, rather than trying to alleviate it.
Rather than communicating with your dog to help them past their separation anxiety, you’ve taken to abusing an already terrified dog. Communication is the only thing that will get your dog past their fears. Your dog is a sentient creature, not a machine, and definitely not a battery to be jump-started with electricity. Stop it.
I know the phrase “dog training” is commonly bantered about when most people realize they need to communicate with their dogs. I’m fine with that. There is one phrase I hate, though: obedience training.
If you want something obedient, get a robot, not a dog.
Obedience is what is expected by those who don’t have answers to tough questions. Obedience means you don’t know how to communicate, or you don’t know the answers yourself. Obedience implies stupidity from those expected to obey. I don’t ever want my kids “obeying” me, nor do I want my dogs to obey. I want them to trust the answers I give them, not because they’re afraid of what I might do, or because I have silenced them through force or coercion, but rather I’ve silenced their anxieties through communicating answers to conquer their fears. Their questions are important, and I will respect their questions with an answer.
That quote at the beginning of this post?
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk.”
Most of us know it from Pink Floyd. It’s actually taken from a Stephen Hawking quote: