"My dog is not allowed on the furniture...well, just the one time."
"No table scraps! ... Oh, but you are so cute!"
"When we walk on-leash, you need to walk at my side...except when you first walk out the front door. I mean, you're excited. So if you pull like a bull, that is okay, just this once."
Our dogs crave clarity and consistency. There is a good reason for this: our dogs are sharing their lives with an alien species. Every second of every day, they have to weave in and around potential landmines, each of which could potentially result in a serious conflict with the very person they share their lives with and rely upon. What is completely appropriate for a dog to do in a dog world is inexplicably a huge no-no in the human world. How terribly confusing. Therefore, can you imagine their frustration when a certain expectation suddenly changes, only to change back again at a later point? A constantly moving goal post that your dog can never reach. "Oh, so you are the almighty and perfect trainer, right? Here to pass judgement down on the rest of us!"
Um, no. I am here to outline how I have confused the daylights out of my own dog, and why that is a huge problem.
All those above quotes...those are not from clients or colleagues or anyone else. These are MY quotes.
Yeah. A trainer admitting that she is far from perfect! Who would have thunk it! I love my dog. I care about him deeply. I can also be swayed with those big brown eyes. Furthermore, I can convince myself that I can better showcase my love for him by bending a rule here or there.
The fact is, I am actually making things exponentially harder for my dog. Sure, he loves it when I share some bits of my dinner or snacks. But then he doesn't understand why it is that he shouldn't be able to stand in front of me as I am eating to better facilitate said sharing. After all, that is epitome of being a dog: being efficient and effective. We then go into the cycle of me changing the rules yet AGAIN to, "Target your bed and chew a bully as I am eating". Great, giving him something else to do! ... Yeah, but then when the meal is over and there are some fatty bits of the steak left, they magically end up in his bowl. Then the next meal, he jumps up as I am walking to the kitchen to put my plate away and is met with a, "No, not for you!" Can you see how incredibly confusing this is?
This is a lesson I thought I had learned in my prior career: horses. Horses are large and powerful creatures. If you are not careful and clear, you can get hurt. The example I would share time and time again when I was training new stablehand staff was this: you are leading a horse to paddock or pasture for turn-out. They are excited to be able to run around. You are in a hurry. So, you simply un-clip the lead and let them run through the open gate. You do this consistently over a period of time, and their anticipation to be able to run and kick up their heels gets to the point where they are dragging you to pasture. Worst yet, they are quite literally bucking in your face when you un-clip the lead. Is any of this the horse's fault? Absolutely not. You have essentially trained them to do all of this!
"Okay, I'll bite...what are you supposed to do instead?"
Walk the horse calmly to the paddock, offering soothing verbal praise and even treats such as carrots or apples. Walk them into the paddock, turn them to face you and then un-clip the lead and/or remove the halter. You may even simultaneously give more treats and then safely back away so that they can indeed run off. This approach builds an expectation for the horse, and allows you to be safe while preventing conflict between the two of you.
Does this take a few more seconds? Sure.
Does it mean you have to be more thoughtful and deliberate? Yup.
Is it completely doable and in YOUR best interest? Absolutely.
The same applies to our dogs. We need to think through what it is we want our dog to do today, tomorrow, next week, a year from now and with ourselves, our spouse, our children, strangers and the public. We need to be consistent. We need to be thoughtful. We need to be supportive of our dogs, and understand that every interaction is training.
And, we need to be forgiving of ourselves when we slip up. Recognize these slip ups as soon as possible, and then try to correct course. Realize our dogs DO indeed love us. The rules and guidelines we may have put in place are likely there to help set our dogs up to be successful. Our dogs are actually completely OKAY with following these rules and guidelines! They would prefer to know how it is they can keep the peace with us, then to have the picture constantly change. I will start by forgiving my own shortcomings in this regard, and work to be clearer and more consistent with my pup. He will thank me for it in the end.
How do you maintain consistency with your dog? How to avoid the temptation to make things murky and unclear? We would love to hear from you!
Dianna L. Santos has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Family Dog University, Dog Sport University, and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined FDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of all these platforms and the increased learning opportunities they can provide.