Several months ago, I had a conversation with a client during a behavior consultation that stuck with me. I wanted to address it here today, because I think it’s a secret worry for lots of dog owners – and it really shouldn’t be!
The client in question had recently adopted an 8-year-old Lab mix I’ll call “Joey.” He was a sweet, friendly dog in most situations, but she had some concerns about his behavior around her grandkids – he was not accustomed to young children, and sometimes growled at them if they tried to pet him while he was resting.
This is a common issue, and one that can often be resolved fairly easily with some minor management changes. We talked about safe ways for the dog and kids to interact, and discussed some simple training exercises to help Joey learn to be more comfortable around them over time.
In the short-term, we also talked about using a baby gate or other barrier to keep Joey separated from the kids whenever they couldn’t be closely supervised.
At this, his owner hesitated.
When I asked what her concerns were, she shook her head – obviously embarrassed.
“I know it’s silly of me,” she said. “Really, I do! It’s just… I’m afraid he’ll be unhappy the whole time, if he can’t be with us. He’s such a social dog.”
“But of course,” she went on resolutely, “I know that isn’t important. I’ve always been too soft with him. I know that what he wants doesn’t matter.”
How many of us have felt this way, at some point in the course of our life with dogs?
I know that when I first became involved in competitive dog sports, almost 20 years ago, this was very much the prevailing culture. Dogs were supposed to do as they were told, and it didn’t particularly matter how they felt about it. Heeling was taught with leash corrections on a choke collar, ears were pinched to train a “force fetch” for competition, and any perceived act of disobedience – which may have also been confusion, or fear, or a simple lack of understanding – was swiftly punished.
I can recall a lesson with my dog Duncan, many years ago, at a seminar with a well-respected trainer who was visiting from out of state. She was demonstrating to me how to proof his stay, since he sometimes left early from the start line in agility.
The trainer told Duncan to sit and stay, and pulled lightly on the leash. (This is a common technique for proofing a dog’s understanding of the “stay” command, the theory being that the dog should plant himself and refuse to move forward. This can be a helpful exercise for many dogs – but nowadays, we start with very gentle leash pressure and simply reset if the dog moves, with lots of rewards for getting it right!)
Duncan, who had no experience with this technique, stood up happily to go with her.
She said nothing, but stepped forward smartly and snapped him backward on the leash so hard that he yelped. He refused to sit again for her and hid behind my legs, panting anxiously. I was horrified.
She laughed, and said that he needed to toughen up. “Apparently he’s not used to that,” she said teasingly. “Something to work on!”
And this was dog training, in a nutshell.
It was about control, first and foremost – the dog’s feelings weren’t important.
Today, I’m happy to say that things have changed a lot. More positive, motivational training methods have largely replaced the heavy-handed “yank and crank” techniques that used to be so prevalent, for both pet dogs and canine sports competitors. We now teach precision heeling for competition with a clicker and tug toy – and get a flashy, joyful performance in the ring. Our pet dogs learn to sit, lie down, and come when called for a bite of cheese or chicken.
I have truly enjoyed watching and being part of this evolution in behavior science over the years, both with my own dogs and “in the trenches” with my clients. Finding more effective ways to train is a win for everyone, and I’m excited to see how things continue to evolve in our field.
With these changes has come something else, which is every bit as important – an increased understanding and appreciation for the dog’s emotional state.
This is more important than you might think, when it comes to effective training! Animals who are stressed and anxious take longer to learn new skills, and the behaviors they learn are more likely to fall apart under pressure… which is definitely NOT what we want, regardless of whether we’re training a family pet, an agility champion, or a working dog.
So from a purely practical standpoint, it’s in your best interest to make sure your dog is happy when you train.
More than that, though, I would hope we can all agree that we have an ethical responsibility to our dogs. We do need them to fit into our lives and follow our rules… but we shouldn’t forget that they have needs as well. Regardless of what you’re training your pup to do, or what sort of behavior issue you’re trying to solve, remember this:
Your dog deserves to feel safe. He deserves to understand clearly what you want, and to be taught with kindness and patience. He should never be deliberately hurt or frightened in the name of training, and he should not be made to feel stressed or afraid in order to meet our goals.
These things do matter. Don’t ever feel guilty for believing that they do.
In Joey’s case, I was glad to reassure his owner that her concerns were very reasonable. It’s true that many dogs can be distressed or anxious at first if they’re put in a separate room, away from the family – which we definitely don’t want to happen! Fortunately, there are lots of ways that we can help a dog like Joey to enjoy his “alone time” when he needs to be separated from the kids.
We discussed whether he might be happier in the adjoining kitchen behind a baby gate, or in a spare bedroom with the door closed to provide some peace and quiet. We also talked about providing him with a special treat or chew toy to keep him busy – his owner was delighted with this idea, since Joey loved bully sticks and peanut butter Kongs. Calming music and pheromone diffusers were also added into the mix, to help him feel more comfortable.
Together, we came up with a plan that met everyone’s needs – the owner, the grandkids, and Joey himself.
In life or in training, this should always be our goal.