Most trainers and pet owners will recognize this image as one of the most accurate the internet has produced. It resonates so deeply because we’ve experienced it personally but let’s think about why that is. Why doesn’t dog training look like that first nice flat line?
Well, does any significant behavior change? Think of all the variables involved in just changing your habit from going home to flop on the couch after work to driving to the gym. There are tried and true best practices, grounded in research and expertise and experience as well as (we hope) empathy and compassion. Qualified trainers have very full and varied tool kits to help you and your dog get where you’re going. But everyone involved needs to be aware of and responsive to the many variables at play and how those evolve as your plan progresses.
How can you make that journey a little bit smoother?
1. Make sure your goals are fair to and realistic for your dog.
We need to be careful that we’re paying attention to who our dogs are, where they are behaviorally right now, how they might be impacted by a given circumstance or environment, and where exactly we’re asking them to go. Are we asking a highly fearful dog to go to bar patios on Friday night? Do we want our senior dog to tolerate wild adolescent pups at the dog park?
There’s an understandable tendency to want to know exactly when an issue will be “fixed.” Behavior modification and management can accomplish a lot but a far more fair and accurate way of thinking about end goals is helping a dog reach his/her potential within their living situation. How can we improve quality of life and safety for the dog and the family and in some cases, the community? How can we be responsive to the dog’s needs and honor his/her individual personality as we do so?
2. Make sure your goals are fair to and realistic for yourself, your family, and your lifestyle.
Just as it’s unfair to put unrealistic pressure on our dogs, so is it unfair to put it on ourselves. How do training, behavior modification, and management fit into your lifestyle and daily routine? How can we integrate them most naturally in a way that minimizes stress or a sense of obligation and creates joy and a chance to bond with your dog? Those should all be considerations when moving forward with how a training plan is implemented.
The best training goals and strategies for meeting them are also the ones you will actually implement. That may mean moderating expectations to match the commitments we can make. When you are talking about how to proceed with your trainer, be honest about what will work with your routine and ask questions if you need help determining where in the day to put something.
3. Don’t take behavior personally. Think of it as information.
This can be really hard to do with certain behaviors. Dogs whose behavior struggles can be invasive, embarrassing, destructive, or scary can be harder for us to empathize with, especially in the moment. If it helps, pretend you’re a scientist gathering data and puzzling out a response - that is in fact what we’re doing! What exactly just happened? Can we identify different variables that might have triggered this event? Is there a pattern to the behavior we’re seeing? What can we change to prevent it from happening again or to begin to deescalate the behavior?
It may feel like it sometimes but dogs are not acting out to spite or embarrass us. Often they lack the appropriate coping skill or lack it to fluency in a given context, are doing very normal dog stuff that happens to be inconvenient or unpleasant for us humans, or are struggling emotionally. There is a great post about reactive dogs that states, “Your dog is not giving you a hard time. He is having a hard time.” This is true in a larger number of situations and with a wider variety of behaviors than we often acknowledge. We also see it a lot with frustrated shelter dogs deprived of frequent enough natural outlets, enrichment, and social interaction who act out in difficult to manage ways. All behavior, even that which we find unpleasant, is information. And what’s the best part about that? We can use that information to create positive change!
4. If you have questions, need help, or want to change course, talk to your trainer.
A training plan is just a piece of paper if not put to meaningful use but ongoing collaboration turns it into a living document & guiding framework to keep things moving forward. If you’re unsure of something or it doesn’t seem to be working quite right, ask the questions you need to get clarity or an adaptation and ask them promptly. Don’t expect yourself to be able to execute a training plan or piece of the plan flawlessly in a single visit. Did something work great when the trainer was there to coach and support but now isn’t quite clicking? Schedule as many follow-ups as you need to build your own fluency (this is different for everyone just as it is for dogs!) and never be afraid of sounding silly or being judged. Most trainers have worked many years to develop our skills and ability to adapt and cue a dog in time with the real world situations we’re navigating - and we still sometimes flub it and need to take that flub as, you know, information. ;)
It is not just okay but excellent practice to ask us for help building muscle memory and knowing when and how to adapt to things you’re encountering. It’s what we’re here for and we do not expect perfection from you anymore than we expect it from your dog. There’s great work, impressive progress, heartwarming dedication…all kinds of nice stuff. But sentient beings don’t deal in perfection, only what works perfectly for us.
5. Perspective is important.
Keep a sense of humor, remember to breathe, & take breaks with your dog when you need to. Do an activity you both love and succeed at even if it’s just watching a movie together. Don’t let your dog or relationship be defined by a behavior issue. Your dog is not his/her behavior issue and it’s important we don’t let that issue take over our lives by putting so much pressure in one place we forget all the good stuff.
For some issues, that will also mean leaning on management to alleviate some of that pressure, whether that means popping up a baby gate in your house, taking the easy walking route or just playing in the backyard today, or letting Fido hang out in the bedroom with all manner of just for him enrichment goodies when guests come over. Those aren’t things that should make you feel guilty, nor is calling in an extra set of hands like a skilled dog walker or scheduling day training visits when you’re at work. Take care of yourself, stay connected to your dog and look for ways to appreciate and build on what you love and enjoy within that relationship.
(Psst…don’t forget that it’s okay to leave Fido at home with a Kong and go do your other human life stuff too!)
6. Be clear, be consistent, and give your dog (and yourself) time.
There are no quick fixes for reliable, long-term behavior shifts.
Remember that gym analogy? It’s kind of wild that we humans who have so much trouble kicking a cookie habit (okay, it’s a Tiny Pies habit over here…shhh) think our dogs should be able to change practiced, habitual behavioral and emotional responses with relative ease. We also have a habit of wanting to be really stingy with rewards and reinforcement when we’re working towards building new behaviors, skills, and emotional responses. We can’t do that to our dogs. If we are going to ask them for big changes, we have to genuinely support them in getting there and provide the circumstances, consistency, and reinforcement that allow for the quickest progress we can achieve.
It is actually remarkable how quickly many dogs are capable of making progress and the resilience they show in overcoming what life and genetics have tossed at them. But their timelines are their own, they will not always be linear, life is going to continue to throw things at all of us, and what we do to support them is a massive variable in the progress we’ll see.
Want to continue reading? Here are some of our favorite posts that relate to your messy but, with the right approach, also very rewarding training journey with your dog…
- When Expectations Hurt, By Peace, Love, and Fostering: “These high standards usually stem from the fact that dogs and humans are two entirely different species, and therefore have completely separate ways of communicating, playing, surviving, etc. What is acceptable and desired in the human world is usually quite foreign in the dog world. For example, being calm and quiet for, oh, 23 hours a day. Dogs are generally wired to be active, and yet we prefer them to sit on the couch, stay in their crate, sleep on their beds, whatever, when we are not exercising them. And vice versa. Dogs are supposed to bark and chew and pee wherever they want, and yet we ask them to curb most of those behaviors and to actually act very non-dog like inside our homes. Until an understanding is met between human and dog, the two worlds can collide in a chaotic, frustrating and sometimes dangerous way.”
- The Ultimate Dog Training Tip, By Zazie Todd, Companion Animal Psychology: “The one thing every dog owner should know about dog training is this: Use food. It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? And it’s not exactly a secret: Modern dog training uses food. Use food to reward your dog for doing things you like, such as sit or wait or drop it when you ask. I’m not saying food is the only reward you would use with your dog. There might be times when you use a game of fetch, tug on a rope, lots of lovely petting, or even life rewards like the opportunity to go chase a critter. But for most dog training situations, food is the easiest way to deliver positive reinforcement because it is so quick and efficient. And scientists have found that food is a better reward than petting or praise (Fukuzawa and Hayashi, 2013; Okamoto et al 2009).”
- Use it or Lose It, By Jessica Dolce, Notes From a Dog Walker: “A lot of people I know are surprised by this. They think that if they take their reactive dogs to a class or two and their dogs improve, then they’re set for life. But in reality, it takes regular practice. You have to keep working at it. We wouldn’t go to the gym every day for a month, never go back again, but still expect our bodies to stay in shape forever. I have tried this so, so many times and, I swear, it never works. We have to exercise consistently in order to maintain and build our muscles.”
- Hard to Train, By Suzanne Clothier: “There is also a degree of intimacy involved - you must know the dog for who he is. Not what you hope he will become, but who he is at any given moment in your journey together. What amuses him? Does he like exuberant praise or games or treats? What does he consider a reward? What worries him? Delights him? How does he learn - in intuitive leaps, or seamless progression or in small chunks that are struggles to master? Whether Siberian or Schnauzer, there is no single recipe for training success except this: intimate knowledge of the individual dog and of yourself.”
- A Dog’s Emotional Cup, Art By Lili Chin, Words By Sarah Owings: What fills your dog’s emotional cup, what drains it, and how might that impact behavior? See Also: Enrichment and Behavior, By Dog Possible
- Does Your Dog Really Love That Activity? By Debbie McMullen: “But with all of the activities that your beloved dog can potentially share with you comes the responsibility of knowing what they will and won’t enjoy. The sad reality is that far too many dogs are placed in circumstances that they truly don’t enjoy.”
- Regressions for the Win, By Malena DeMartini: “The first thing you need to know is that regressions are normal when working through any behavior modification plan. Did you hear that? Normal! We could also call regressions “expected,” “customary,” “average,” or “standard issue.” They are… wait for it… completely normal.”
- The Good Enough Club, By Jessica Dolce: “You see the problem with this way of thinking right? First, we’re tricking ourselves into thinking there will be this magical time when our to-do list is 100% done (second spoiler alert: that magical time never happens). Then we fool ourselves into thinking that as soon as that happens, we’ll have tons of free time and the ability to finally do it perfectly. Last, we set the bar super high for ourselves which almost always guarantees that we’ll fail. Then we think: why even bother?”