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What your dog trainer will not tell you

Posted on 25 August, 2011 at 7:10
I know a man who took his leash-aggressive dog to a "really good bird dog trainer" who told him the dog could be made less leash reactive (i.e. dog aggressive when on a leash) if it was trained with an e-collar.

Did that work? Nope. In fact, that's probably never going to happen.

I explained to my friend what he needed to do, but I could see his interest in finding a solution fading with every word I uttered. You see, it was very clear to him I was talking about a process and he wanted an event -- a common disconnect in the world of dogs and dog training.

I explained the process of making a dog less leash reactive. To begin with he should not feed his dog for a full 24-hours or more in order to increase the dog's food motivation.  Then he should take his  dog to a large park and, because he was having a hard time controlling his large powerful dog, he should firmly tie the dog's much-shortened leash to a bench. Then, every time a person or another dog approached from the far end of the park, and the dog took notice, he should click his tongue and direct the dog's attention to his face, and then treat when the dog looked at him and not the other person or the dog. Once the dog got the idea that it should look to the owner for a treat and that when it was calm it would get a treat, he should then move to a new position in the park.  Now, with the dog tied to another bench where people and dogs might happen to approach a little more closely, he should repeat the exercise making sure that the dog is always well motivated by hunger and is only treated when it looks to the owner and remains calm.

When the dog seems to have that routine in hand, the owner should walk the dog around the edge of the park but still keep it pretty far from people and other dogs (at least initially), making sure the dog looks to him and sits every time a dog rotates into view within a certain distance. Again, click, praise, and treat every time the dog look to the owner, remains calm, and sits.  If the dog does not sit, walk away from the foreign dog in question, and do not treat and do not praise.  Ignore the dog and remain totally calm.

I stressed this routine had to be done every time, and this was how all the dog's food and other rewards had to be delivered for the next month. It was not going to be an overnight miracle, but if he was consistent and the dog remained hungry (feed a little less!) the dog would learn that the way it got food was when it saw a dog or a person, if it looked at the owner and sat, it would get a food reward (which would later be reduced to a pat and praise sometimes, and a "jackpot" food reward at other times).

Of course my friend was not really looking for this kind of instruction. He was not looking for a process that involved this much work and time. He was looking for a "trick" -- a five-second miracle that did not actually involve spending time and energy on the dog.

And isn't that the problem so often?

People want a dog that's totally calm and obedient right out of the box.

But dog's don't work like that, do they?

People want an animal that will not bark, will not dig up the garden, will not bite the neighbor, and which they can leave at home for 20 hours a day without too much thought.

People say they want a dog, but they need a cat, and they deserve a goldfish.

The simple truth is that dogs are a tyranny, and they are not really suited to the modern world of long hours at the office, and a run to the gym before a quick dash to the Whole Foods for aged balsamic vinegar.

If you live that kind of life, what time does that leave for the dog? It leaves the dog with maybe 10 minutes between the start of Law and Order and the shower. But that's not enough time! That's not enough exercise! That's not enough instruction of any kind.

And so people go to dog trainers, and trainers are put in a frustrating position because what every trainer agrees on is that the dog in front of them deserves time, exercise, consistency, and opportunities to achieve awards for success.

But do people with problem dogsreally want to give their dogs time and exercise?

Too often, the answer is NO.

Whatever they say when asked the question is irrelevant; in their day-to-day actions they provide the only answer that counts.

And so the dog "trainer" is left unable to say what he or she really needs to say: "You are lazy and undisciplined, and that's one of the reasons your dog is crazy and undisciplined."

A dog trainer cannot say this, of course, or they will lose their clients and never get another. 

Instead they have to suggest they have "secret knowledge" or a special or "new" system or "philosophy" of dog training.  But the secrets are not really very secret, are they?  And is any part of dog training really new?

The real core secret is that the owner has to be willing to exercise his or her dog, and to put in the timevery consistent and well-timed communication. The vast majority of this communication should be earned rewards with perhaps a few mild aversives to bust off self-reinforcing unwanted behavior. 

But can a trainer make the physically lazy and undisciplined physically industrious and disciplined?

Can a trainer change a person's priorities or increased the number of hours in a day?

Not generally.

And so most trainers show their clients how to do a few basic obedience tricks, and perhaps they show a few rudiments of operant conditioning. That's all well and good, but you can learn the basics of that from a book and a video, and you will only get good with practice and focus -- the very things most folks are so very bad at to begin with.

Categories: Current Issues

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