I’ve gotten to the point where a few words, in the context of dog training, can send me into a gibbering rage. There are the usual suspects–alpha, for instance. It’s cousin “leader” is starting to bug me, too, because it’s so often a handy disguise for “alpha,” leading in to a prettied up version of the same old garbage.
My real enemies, though are “Always” and “Never.”
Consistency is a wonderful thing in dog training. If you want your dog to learn the rules, the rules need to be applied in the same way all the time. If you want Rusty to sit for his dinner dish, you need to ask him for it every time you feed him.
Routine is also a wonderful thing. Dogs, especially dogs like Silas, benefit from knowing what to expect. We wake up, we go downstairs, we go outside, we have breakfast, we sit on the couch together, we play some ball, we go back to sleep. (That last one isn’t technically a “we.” Not most days, anyway.)
But there’s a fine line between having a “consistent routine” that comforts your dog and having a “rigid schedule” that doesn’t allow for spontaneity. There is no room in a rigid schedule for joy. No time for your dog to do happy things, like race downstairs to find his ball before he even uses the bathroom.
“Always” and “Never” also crush down the differences between dogs, and don’t give owners options to do things the way that suits their dog the best. While surely some owners do things that are indisputably “wrong,” not every dog needs to be trained to do a particular thing. Not every dog can benefit from the same tactics, even. I was beside myself with tiny Silas because, to give a silly example, all the experts demanded that I feed him from a food toy, not a dish. Silas hated to eat. If I’d made it hard for him, he would never have done it. Letting him go hungry just sent him into the yard to eat rocks.
What really gets to me, though, is that dogs are capable of making incredibly fine distinctions between situations. Incredibly. If you’ve ever had a fearful or reactive dog, you’ve probably spent some time scratching your head, wondering how on earth this trip to the park or that person could possibly have been different from last time. Your dog knows the difference, though. Acting exactly the same in every situation can be useful to a degree. Again, consistency is important. But don’t make your fearful dog miserable because you believe that flexibility is wrong.
This morning’s rant is brought to you by a training book I’m reading and Judgy Lady With Perfect Border Collie at the park yesterday. (She didn’t say anything, but boy did she look it.) Silas and I have a deal–when we leave the park, he gets to run like a crazy dog across the parking lot back to the car. Silas adores running like a crazy dog. So, I figure I have three benefits: we’re actually getting back to the car (I’ve had to carry him out of many a park), Silas is not getting the world’s highest value reinforcement (away from the scary things) for pulling on his leash while we walk, and we’re associating an awesome thing with a really scary place. But to the casual observer, I am letting my dog run amok. He is doing easily half a dozen things he isn’t “supposed” to do. This is not a polite, trotting by my side run. This is a “thank goodness he isn’t big enough to pull me over” mad dash. But for my crazy, anxious dog, inventing our own no-rules rule works. “Never” let your dog pull and “Always” be in control of your dog on walks doesn’t.
Think about what your dog really needs. Make your own rules. Then be prepared to break those, too.