The Key to a Well-Behaved Dog
Believe it or not, although I am a dog trainer, my dogs are not perfect. Each one has a behavioral issue that I address on a regular basis. They have good days and bad days and as their handler I have good days and bad. It's a balance that I spend considerable time on daily. My dogs may not be perfect, but, they are well-behaved. Many don't know the difference between the two, nor, how to get their own dog to that level. For those of you looking for the magical pill and quick fix for turning your naughty dog into prince charming then keep scrolling because you won't find it here. Good manners takes time, patience, and lots of hard work. It's definitively worth it in the end though!
A perfect dog is a space-alien robot covered in fluffy fur, and programmed with a computer chip so that it understands all languages, fetches your coffee and slippers in the morning, does all your housework and never ever causes a problem. Naw, just kidding! That would be ridiculous and unrealistic. I have met many dog owners, however, whose expectations for their canine friends is pretty darn close to what I just described. At some point, society forgot that dogs are a different species of animal that is having to adapt to our world; much of the time that means that behaviors that are natural to the dog are seen as "taboo" to their human counterparts. Dogs do not think like us, process information like us, or see the world in the same way that we do. Yet, time and time again, we expect dogs to be exactly the same as us humans! But, wait, I'm getting off topic....
So what is difference between a perfect dog and a well-behaved one? In my opinion, a perfect dog doesn't exist. A well-behaved dog, however, has a general understanding of basic manners/obedience cues, responds well most of the time to it's handler, and feels comfortable expressing it's feelings and emotions to it's handler, no matter what those happen to be. It is impossible to achieve this goal without the handler investing a goodly amount of time on training. So often, people comment on how well behaved my dogs are, and ask what my secret is; because of this I spent some time thinking long and hard about my daily training practices with my dogs that led me here.
1.) I know what situations my dogs can and cannot handle.
I have reactive dogs. I have dogs with insecurity issues. I have dogs that get excited on the leash and pull. I have dogs that don't like being approached by kids. I have dogs that bark at things they aren't familiar with.....the list goes on and on. The bottom line is, I don't put my dog in a situation where I know they will not be able to handle fairly gracefully. When I do take my dog out in public, I am focused 100% on them; I check in frequently to see how they're feeling and gauge what their body language is telling me. If they aren't comfortable with a situation, I am prepared to leave, no matter how much of a good time I'm having. That takes a lot of dedication and work. If I want to relax and not focus on my dog's training, I leave them at home where they are happy and comfortable.
2.) I plan ahead and am ALWAYS prepared.
This one goes hand in hand with number one; I think ahead and prepare for the situation so that I set myself as well as my dogs up to succeed. My littles bark and get overly excited when people come over to visit. I will put my dogs in another room before guests arrive and only let them out once everyone is inside, comfortable, and the atmosphere is calm and chill. My little doxie/corgi/something mix, Chex, is not overly food motivated, so I know to limit his breakfast ration so that he's hungry and motivated to learn new things when I want to do training. If he gets his full breakfast ration first thing in the morning, he isn't interested in food and then I have nothing to reward him with for a job well done. My shepherd mix, Harley, will counter surf if I leave food on the counter, therefore, I either don't leave food out OR he doesn't get unsupervised access to the kitchen (baby gates that secure into the wall and have a swinging gate are amazing! I spend a good amount of each day planning ahead, making sure I am ready for the situation, and set myself, as well as my dogs, up to succeed so experiences are as positive as possible.
3.) I make mistakes and learn from them.
It's difficult to swallow this one sometimes. As a professional trainer there is always pressure to be perfect. Even though I have dedicated the last 10 years to becoming the best and most knowledgeable trainer that I can be, it's impossible to handle every situation impeccably. There are times where I am too slow with a reward and I lose a dog's focus, or reward the wrong behavior. I misjudge a dog's reaction and make the wrong split-second decision. Many times I underestimate what type of situation a dog can handle, guess wrong how they are going to react and make a mess of a training session. The important thing is, I learn from the mistakes that I make, and know not to do that particular action again in the future. Every dog is an individual and each dog needs a different training plan to reach a particular goal. So much of my job is figuring out exactly what that dog needs in order to succeed and sometimes the only way to get there is trial and error with different techniques to see which are particularly meaningful to the dog.
4.) I only reward behaviors that I like.
It takes a bit of time, and it requires that you always be consistent, however, its amazing how quickly a dog learns that only polite behaviors results in them getting what they want. All four of my dogs have learned that I do not reward them when they are being pushy, rude, annoying, or demanding. I'm not only talking about food rewards; a reward to a dog is anything that they like which includes access to areas they enjoy spending time in (i.e. the couch or the yard), items that they enjoy getting (such as dinner or toys) and attention from people they love (like me!) All have learned that whining gets them nothing, and things only get exciting and fun when they offer me behaviors that I like. If they are trying to bully me into giving them a reward, things get pretty boring for them. What it boils down too is that, I as the handler, control everything that my dogs want and they understand that they have to earn it by being well behaved. The fancy term us trainers call it is the "nothing is free" policy and basically what it boils down too is that I control their space, time, resources and rewards. My dogs understand that when they offer me behaviors (such as sitting and waiting to cross a threshold until released) they are rewarded with something in return (being allowed to go out into the backyard for some playtime.) It definitely took some time, and in the beginning I had to implement more rules until my dogs understood how the game was played. Now we have a very simpatico type atmosphere going on and all of us know what is needed in order to have a smooth day.
5.) I am constantly re-assessing my dog's skills and improving them.
This one is pretty important! On a regular basis I am assessing where my dogs are at with their known skills, and doing "brush-up" training if it is needed. The important commands that are needed on a daily basis such as sit, down, stay, wait, and coming when called (recall) I am investing time daily to ensure they are up to par. A good example would be how us humans maintain a certain weight - you have good days and bad. There are days where you cheat a bit (such as having an extra bowl of ice cream, napping instead of exercising or just plain stuffed your face on holidays) and realize you need to work just a bit harder in the following days to get back to where you were before. It's exactly the same way with the dog's training in my household. There are times when I am not feeling well, I am extra stressed with client dogs/work, or I just plain don't feel like it and training doesn't happen as much as it should. I try not to trip up about these type of things; I just keep a good eye on it and realize that if I want better behavior from my dog, then I need to work with them on it.
So often, people make comments such as "your dogs are so well-behaved, I wish mine were," or, "You're so lucky that you found a well behaved dog to adopt." Sometimes it makes me want to tear my hair out because I know that the manners my dogs exude is a direct result of the time and effort I have put into training them. My dogs good manners didn't magically happen, I spend time on a regular basis making sure I reinforce those manners that I want. Having a well-mannered dog is certainly within your grasp, and I highly recommend doing your research, finding a force-free trainer in your area, and get to work right away. If you work hard, you will see the benefits and it'll make for a much smoother day!