Good Enough Maybe Isn’t

boy rewarding a cocker spaniel standing on a bucketDogs are remarkable. They are so adept at figuring out what we want that we are often led to believe that we know what we’re going. Enough dogs figured out how to change their behavior when faced with Cesar Millan’s alpha rolling, tssking, and neck pokes that people came to believe that they knew how to be leaders and how dogs need to be handled. As with any product or service being marketed, only the success stories are highlighted and aired, or pasted into magazine ads and stories. But don’t be fooled. For every success story there are failures. There are the people who did not lose 20 pounds in two weeks, stop smoking forever, speak a different language fluently in a month or get 45 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately when we apply the term “failures” to dogs it means either dead or subjected to a life of misery in a cage or on a chain somewhere.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in dog training. On one hand there are the people who are so invested in the method they are using that they can’t see that any lack of success with it is likely due to flaws in the method in general. Dogs don’t live in packs, they don’t have pack leaders so why should employing a method based on being a pack leader be expected to work? But it often does work, and for this reason, in the cloud of misinformation, people put the blame on the dog or their own ability to fully manifest the energy of a true pack leader.

On the other hand we can have methods which have shown that when correctly applied change behavior in almost all the dogs they are used with. But when these methods are used improperly, usually unwittingly and innocently enough, and they don’t work, the method itself is tossed into the trash and new ones are invented. It’s a lucrative market this dog training industry with its endless supply of equipment and magic methods for changing behavior. It often goes something like this- we are able to train 8 out of 10 dogs using the subpar application of a training method, the two dogs who for one reason or another require a more perfect execution of the method become examples of why the method doesn’t always work, instead of being canaries in the coal mine indicating that there may be problems afoot with the way the training is being performed.

One of the milestones for me in my journey to help a very scared dog was when I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to train a dog with the level of fearfulness my dog was displaying. The margin for error was smaller than it was with other dogs who were willing to continue to remain engaged with me long enough for the light bulb to finally go off in their head, “Oh so this is what she wants!”

I have gotten to the point where I’m confident that I know what I’m doing based on the research I’ve done and education I’ve received in animal behavior and learning. But I also know that I can keep getting better at doing it. No doubt that one day there’s going to be a dog who will point out the flaws in my technique and I will remind myself to point the finger where it needs to be, at me, not at the dog or the method.

9 comments so far

  1. lexy3587 on

    Great points in this post. My dog and I do agility. We’re getting pretty good at it. When our trainer takes over and runs Gwynn on a course, he is FANTASTIC. The difference is that she has the experience and knowledge to give him the exact right body language to say ‘that tunnel instead of this ramp’, and ‘go further away from me and take that jump’, and I’m still learning it. when he doesn’t do what I want him to do, it’s usually because I’m giving him the wrong instructions.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      And thankfully most of the time they are quite willing to stick with us as we learn and improve.

    • Dobermom on

      I’ve seen that happen before! I’ve always wondered if it’s not JUST that the other handler is better/more experienced, but if it’s also that because the dog is unfamiliar with that handler they are more focused on them and paying closer attention in order to pick up the cues & clues of what they’re supposed to do next.
      With you – they’ve become very familiar with your body language and cues, so at the first hint of a direction, off they go! Their attention is no longer on you because they think they already have their marching orders. In the meantime, you’re correcting your body language, trying to point them to the correct obstacle!
      Still means we have to improve our handling skills, but it may at least somewhat explains why sometimes it seems other people handle our dogs better than we do!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Yes, always good to take things into consideration which may be affecting a dog’s behavior. They are part of what can set a dog up for success, which is what it’s all about.

  2. Kim on

    Each dog teaches us something new. And that is a good thing. It means we keep learning and growing.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      So right!

  3. Janie on

    I love that you commented on Cesar Milan’s techniques. I used to be a special education teacher, but now I am a dog groomer and a beginner blogger. Cesar Milan is not flexible with his techniques and as children learn through different syles, It is only obvious to me that dogs have different learning styles as well. Cesar’s strategies might work when a dog is being handled by a “leader” figure. What happens when someone who doesn’t exude that role steps in? Hmmm. I would love to tell you about my website. If you are interested, please let me know. I love your views and it would be great to connect.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting and good luck in your new business. There is a growing number of groomers who are using desensitization and counterconditioning techniques to make the grooming process less stressful and scary to dogs. In truth dogs all learn the same way and that is through either reinforcement or punishment, or the cessation of reinforcement. This is how all animals learn. Some choose to focus on using positive reinforcement. While others seem to spend time perfecting the use of force, coercion and creating avoidance behavior to get what they want from dogs.

      • EngineerChic on

        I think also, some dogs learn differently and some just learn slower. It’s not that they are stupid, because the same dog that takes a lot longer to learn that nail trimming isn’t evil may be the dog that learned to bring the ball back and drop it much faster. It’s like people – some of us are better at math and some are better at languages or biology.

        I think the challenge is that someone who uses force to train would say, “when YOUR method doesn’t work, you blame the trainer but when MY method doesn’t work you blame the method.” I use a different rationale to help people consider a less forceful training idea – “when I make training fun or make it feel good, my dog wants to learn MORE. And there are so many goofy things I want him to learn, so this works for me. If he doesn’t like training then he doesn’t want to do it and it makes it harder to motivate him to learn.”

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