By Nick Honor and reproduced with kind permission of Dog World
As a trainer and behaviour consultant, I love the process of training. I enjoy watching dogs learn and experiment, I love that my dogs feel safe enough to explore their world and try out new behaviours to see how it benefits them, or not, as the case may be. I love learning about dogs, I love reading about dogs and I love watching dogs. As you may have guessed by now, dogs are a huge part of my world!
As trainers though, we have to recognise that most of the dog owning public are not like us, they do not wake up in the morning thinking ‘brilliant, what can I train my dog to do next?’ They want to get up, take the dog out for a nice walk, enjoy a cuddle and then go about their daily business. When things do not go as they want, they come to trainers for help and they generally ask for the finished product; I want my dog to come back when called, I want my dog to stop jumping up on people in the street, I want him to stop growling at people etc, they very rarely ask what’s involved in getting there and the reality is, that to train a dog to respond reliably when requested or to change an underlying emotion, can take a significant amount of time and labour and the majority of this work often falls to the dog’s guardian.
As trainers, we can be guilty of compounding the situation – take for example predatory chasing, this can be a very difficult and time consuming behaviour to modify. Many trainers would love this challenge and would happily spend hours training. However, I see trainers also asking their clients to do the same and then struggle to understand when they do not do as they have been instructed.
I wonder if these trainers have had an open and frank discussion with their clients beforehand to describe what’s involved and explain to them fully what they have signed up to with regard to the work involved, or are they expecting the client to be like them and want to spend hours training?
It is important that we recognise this difference and understand that owners do not have an infinite amount of time or the inclination to train their dogs even if they should, but who are we, as trainers, to say what people should and should not do? As somebody said recently, I should floss my teeth every day, but I don’t.
Sometimes the simple solution is all the client needs and is all they have time for. In the words of Dr Seuss, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
In the case of predatory chasing, I very rarely hear trainers say ‘keep your dog on a lead and exercise him off-lead when safe to do so’. Which in reality, may be perfectly appropriate for their lifestyle and training needs.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I would love it if dog owners had the time, financial resources, patience, skill and inclination to train their dogs to do everything they wanted, but many do not.
So, taking aside public safety considerations, we really must take into account what the owner is realistically able to achieve and would be happy with and not what we, the trainers, think they should do. This was brought home to me again very recently when I was asked to come and help with a large breed dog that was boisterous, mouthy and pulled like a train when on the lead.
As the consult unfolded, we started talking about ways we could manage the dog’s behaviour and prevent him from rehearsing the problem behaviour further and then if she had time, she could do some training, which we would build into the daily exercise period. At this point, I suggested either a head collar or anti-pull harness to manage the pulling and explained all the benefits.
My client then said, “I have a head collar and he’s so much better when wearing it.” I was not expecting this comment! Normally, I have to encourage clients to see the benefits of using anti-pull equipment and so her saying to me that she had one and the dog was much easier to manage when it was being used, but she was not using it and instead choosing to struggle, was a tad unusual!
As you can imagine, my next question was, “So why are you not using it?” Her answer is what prompted me to write this article.
At this point, we had a minor confession – she started to tell me she had been advised by a local trainer/dog walker that using the head collar was not training the dog and that she should instead train the dog to walk nicely alongside her and not rely on the tool. Up to this point, my client had not disclosed that she had been taking advice from another trainer, albeit the trainer was contracted as a dog walker.
In one foul swoop, I managed to completely confuse my client, from one person saying don’t use anti-pull equipment, to me saying do.
Trying now to navigate the complicated waters created by the inconsistency of advice, I set about explaining why it would be really helpful if we started to use the anti-pull equipment again, even then, she asked me again if it would be alright and of course I was happy to provide the assurance that it would be fine.
It was like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders and I thought for a moment we may even have a few tears.
So, in short, we reinstated the head collar for management of the pulling and added in some training for when she had time. Of course, I could have given her a lot more to do, but instead of overwhelming her with training and possibly setting her up to fail, using management and training when she had time was good enough. On a recent follow-up, she informed me that the walks were much more pleasant, she confessed she had done very little training, but most important of all, she was enjoying her dog again.
Management is the foundation of all the plans that I build, as we need to stop the dog from messing up and rehearsing unwanted behaviour and good management can be all that is needed – it provides relief from problem behaviours, preventing them occurring in the first place. Management can be as simple as using stair gates to prevent access, keeping the dog on-lead to prevent running off, wearing muzzles to prevent biting and the list goes on and on.
So in summary, for some, management may be the whole solution and for others, just part of a bigger plan, but we need management, then from this foundation, dog guardians can decide on how much they want or are able to train, given their life pressures, it may not be gold standard, it may not be how we would like, but a big part of our job is to make the relationship work and so just good enough, may be good enough!
Social media – love it or hate it, it looks like it’s here to stay. I personally try to keep to a minimum the amount of time I spend in dog-related groups because of the way some individuals behave. The groups I have chosen to remain with is due to their professional and mature members.
However, after last month’s article on recall and recently visiting a client with a barking dog and hearing the information they had been given, I was prompted to go and have a look again at some local owner and breed specific groups and what I found should come with a massive health warning!
Some of the advice being offered out for free was actually scientifically sound and current good practice, but there was a lot that was, at best, ineffective and at worst, downright dangerous. The problem is that if you know no better, there is no way to tell what’s good advice and what’s not and so you will end up guessing based on what feels right for you.
What struck me most about these posts was that even though the groups had large memberships, it tended to be a fairly small number of individuals who were actively and regularly taking part.
There was also a few of what I will call ‘hot button topics’ – it appeared that if you mention any of these subjects, then lines are well and truly drawn in the sand and woe betide anybody to have an opinion that was different from some.
I also noticed that there were a lot of ‘please help’ type posts, which ranged from medical issues, to training and behaviour problems.
Now don’t get me wrong, if one of my dogs has a health issue, I take them to the vet and get professional help, but it appears the drop-in clinic of social media is where quite a few go for diagnosis and treatment. I wonder if they would go to the social media clinic if it was their child who was ill. Who knows, maybe they would.
What did sadden me is that some people were openly criticising vets and accusing them of only being interested in making money. Now, my experience of vets is that they are caring, professional individuals who have spent years studying for their chosen career and take an oath to do their very best for the animals in their care.
But not only were people happily looking for answers to medical conditions, it was the same for behavioural and training issues – people were asking for help and a number of people were merrily chipping in with their answers. In one such question, a person in reply suggested sensibly that the person should seek professional help, almost immediately somebody else replied complaining about how much they charge, but no account was taken of the fact that they may have studied for years, have got themselves professionally accredited and are running a business to pay a mortgage.
Now, I understand dog training and behaviour counselling is a little more hit and miss because it is an unregulated industry and this was pointed out by the poster who then went on to criticise a dog trainer that they had engaged to help their reactive dog, they complained it had not worked, they had charged a fortune and who had, in their words, told them to use treats and toys, when clearly he did not understand the emotional needs of their dog and that he had not even gone for a walk with them to see the problem.
I did smile ironically when the same individual then started to offer training and behaviour advice to someone in another discussion later on.
So, back to where I started, I have been working with a lovely little dog who had been rehomed with new owners and they had a problem with him barking in the car. Apart from this issue he was a perfect little dog – both people and dog friendly. The owners had sought help from a variety of sources including social media, other dog owning friends and anybody who would offer advice. They had tried several strategies to silence the dog as his barking was very loud in the car but none, so far, had worked.
As an example, they had been told by some people, (that I feel should know better), that when he barks in the car, to bang loudly on his crate and shout at him.
They had also been told by somebody else, that he was obviously anxious and stressed and this fitted with what they thought and so they decided to try products designed for anxiety.
Eventually they got so desperate that they contacted a vet who referred them on to me for help.
Now, in short, they had a lovely little social and friendly dog and as we started to go through the consult and they were telling me about everything they had been told to do and how nothing had worked. I asked if anything had changed at all. They told me that he used to be really excited about getting into the car, but now he backs away, but is okay when inside. They then asked if I would go for a ride in the car with them so I could see it for myself. Based on their description, it did not sound like he was fearful and anxious, so I was happy to agree. As we approached the car, his body language changed completely and he looked worried. This had only just recently started happening since the banging on the crate advice, when I pointed out that he was scared and the crate banging and shouting could well have contributed to this.
As soon as he was lifted into his crate in the car, he brightened up again and everything I witnessed from that moment on, was of a very excitable dog, who clearly is very, very excited about arriving at places – he had learnt to predict that deceleration and turning was predicative of good times ahead and would start to whine and bark when he noticed these predictors.
Excited car whining and barking can be a really tough issue to solve for many reasons that I will not have time to go into here, but on this occasion he would happily take treats as we drove around and this was the first time they had been able to reduce his barking to almost zero, in fact he only started again when we stopped intervening.
With this in mind, we have worked out a plan to change how he feels about getting into the car and reduce his barking to a minimum and provide some strategies for making car journeys less noisy for all.
Having now dipped back into the world of social media groups, all I can say is, choose your groups carefully, treat what you read with caution. It may seem expensive, but please seek out a professional to help you and avoid techniques which use pain, fear or startle to change behaviour, as the fallout from these may not be what you expected.
Thanks to Dog World for permission to reproduce my original article.