Does your dog really need all that training?
Sometimes I get a call or an email from a prospective client and they say “I want my dog trained.” When I ask what sort of training they want, there’s momentary silence. Then they say something like, “well, you know, the basics.”
Actually, I don’t REALLY know. Everyone’s idea of “a trained dog” is a little different. Some envision a dog heeling closely while walking on leash as an essential behavior. Others just want their dog to come back when called, to sit, maybe to shake hands. And, of course, there are those who want their dog to do competitive obedience or bring home blue ribbons doing agility. While all those things are fine, the owner of the dog gets to decide how much training is right.
I’m a dog trainer. So that means I really enjoy training. As a result, I try to add about 10 new “tricks” each year. Juno’s about six years old and she does 65 things on request. Joker’s only two, so he does 24 right now. But I’d never suggest that a dog needs to know 65 behaviors on cue to be considered a well-trained dog.
So, how do I guide people when they call for training but don’t really know what they want?
I ask them. Many times, they have ideas in their mind. And if they don’t, I make some suggestions based on everyone’s welfare. See, my goal in training is really all about making sure the dog is safe and happy and that my clients are happy with their dog. If both of those things are true, I’ll feel I’ve done my job even if the dog only knows a very few basics.
My mentor warns about trainers who say that “I ALWAYS teach x, y, and z to dogs.” So, with that in mind, let me toss out a few possible suggestions to help dogs be happy and safe and to ensure owners are happy with their dog.
Remember, one of my two biggies is safety for your dog. So, these behaviors can help.
Come (also known as Recall). Being able to call your dog away from a busy street can literally save their life. With sufficient practice, our dogs can learn to come to us away from really enticing distractions including wildlife (it’s a joyous thing to successfully call your dog away from a squirrel or, as I once did, a flock of birds which were flying off the edge of the cliff we were on).
Stay. If your dog is on the OTHER side of a busy street, you don’t want to call them back to you. Asking them to stay in a situation like that can keep them in a safe spot until you can get to them. It’s also terribly convenient. I know my dogs will wait patiently inside the open door* as I bring in things from the car instead of dashing out to say hi to the neighbors walking by (which would put them very near our busy street).
Leave It. You’re walking down the street with your dog and you happen upon some discarded food. Or a dead animal. Or who knows what? Your dog might be tempted to grab that smelly thing and gobble it up. With training, they can learn to refrain from the temptation that might lead to an upset stomach (or worse) or to happily give up something they already have in their mouth.
Remember, I want dogs to be safe AND happy.
Tug. A good game of tug can be great fun for the dog and their human companion. I like to teach “the rules” of tug to dogs including: Tug only begins with my permission (grabbing things out of my hand isn’t okay). The dog needs to release the item when requested. Teeth go on the toy - not on hands.
Nose Work. While there are dogs who really excel at this (and it’s something I’m interested in doing more of for my own dogs), most dogs can learn some simple games using their sense of smell. I ask my dogs to wait patiently in their crates or on their beds while I hide treats around the house. Then I shout, “Find it!” and off they go on the treasure hunt. Based on the speed with which they fly through the house and their body language, they sure seem to be having fun.
Food toys. Dogs seem to enjoy working for their food. So, rather than putting their food in a bowl, they can learn to work on puzzles to access their food. We don’t always think of it as “training” but dogs often need to learn to use these puzzles (otherwise they risk just giving up out of frustration).
Trick training. I do believe that dogs can learn to love the process of training. My dogs race into the living room when I get ready to train them. They don’t really care what silly trick I teach them. They just enjoy the process of training. It’s a big game to them.
Fears. This one is obvious, right? If a dog is afraid of something, they aren’t happy. So, I try to help dogs learn that those scary things aren’t really scary after all.
One of the other things that’s important to me is helping owners to be happy with their dogs. Some behaviors that help with that include these.
Loose leash walking. Sure, dogs pull simply because we’re too slow and they are in a hurry to get to all the things they’d like to investigate. But that can make for a grueling walk. So, teaching dogs to walking nicely on a leash can make us happier with our pets.
Polite greetings. While I personally love it when a dog jumps on me to lick my face at the door, I get that many people don’t like that. (Why do I like it? Because it means the dog is very likely pro-social - getting closer to your face to lick you means they are happy to see you and I’ll take that over a dog who’s afraid of my arrival any day.) So, we can teach dogs a preferred behavior - keeping four feet on the floor or even sitting to get some attention.
ANY training. Many people find that training their dog is fun no matter what they are training. Who knows? You might get hooked like I did.
Your dog doesn’t need to learn to jump through a Hula Hoop. Or to wave their paw at you when you wave at them. Or to spin in circles when asked. Or to play dead, roll over, or shake hands. Only you get to decide how much - or how little - training they really need. But I do encourage you to consider giving this some thought. The right training and the right amount of training can help keep your dog safe and happy and help you stay happy with your dog.
* Note: Behavior is never 100%. So, even though I trust my dogs to stay inside, I do keep an eye on them and look for distractions which might be SO enticing that they’ll bolt. Because of the training I’ve done, that would be rare - but anything is possible and I don’t want you (or me) to ever become complacent and put our dogs at risk.