Dog training, from a dog owner’s perspective, is a bit like dieting. If you work hard at it every single day, pay attention to the little details and set reasonable goals, when you reach a goal weight or pant size, you feel successful. The flipside is of course the cheesecake on a Friday night, the Belgian waffle on a Sunday morning, the day in front of the television set instead of at the gym, and the subsequent self loathing and guilt when your pants don’t quite zip up the next week. As any diet coach will tell you – we ALL have these setbacks and ultimately the true value of your success is measured in how you’ve overcome these setbacks. And even though it’s not measured in pounds or inches, the same is true for training your dog.
When Toby first came to me, I was staying with my Mum during a transitory period of my life. She had her Black Lab ‘Abby’ at the time, who, prior to Toby’s arrival, had been the only dog in the home. She was a tolerant dog but not terribly affectionate or playful, and so long as no one messed with her food, the biggest reaction you’d get out of her was a groan as she rolled over to go to sleep. Toby was the opposite; he was Mr. Reactive, and would lash out if Abby so much as looked at his toys, treats, me or even the stairs to the basement (where Toby and in were staying in the in-law suite). Obviously this was a problem, and we began working on it right away. However, we were only there for a few months, and once we moved it became rather difficult to work with a dog on indoor resource guarding when he was the only dog in the home and had no one to practice with. Between foster dogs coming and going over the following 18 months, my mother-in-law’s two Retrievers coming for sleep overs and the incredible amount of outdoor socialization we’ve done, Toby certainly improved. I didn’t realize how much until last week, when we had both of “the girls” (my mother in law’s dogs) staying here for 5 nights and Shawn was away working for 4 of those nights. To my surprise, delight and frankly relief, Toby was excellent. Not a single incident, growl, sideways look or tense moment for the first four and half days! I couldn’t believe it! I was so very proud of him, and a little proud of myself to see all of our hard work paying off. What a wonderful success!
And then, about five minutes past the four and a half day mark, Toby had a setback. It was minor (just a little noise and posturing, no bodily contact or retaliation), given the situation, but it did tarnish our so far perfect week. It was frustrating to say the least, but only for a moment. In light of the incredible success we’d had, this tiny slip up factored very small in the grand scheme of things. Following that, we went back to wagging tails and happy pups, and ended the week on a note of brotherly/sisterly love. I could have perceived that incident very differently, and built on that so much that it would have erased all of the progress that had been made. I reminded myself that Toby, like us, has varying emotions, good days and bad days, and that ultimately one slice of cheesecake inside a week of salads is not the thing to focus on.
It’s a common thing to hear dog trainers say that they train the owners, not the dogs. I admit this is partly true, but I think it’s such a popular saying because it’s equally as difficult to train an owner as it is a dog. Most behaviour issues arise out of habit, both the dog’s and the owner’s, and it’s just as difficult for a dog to break his reactive habit as it is for an owner to change the way they communicate with their dog. Dogs become so accustomed to responding to certain stimuli in a certain way, it can be extremely difficult for them to learn to respond an entirely different way, especially as that stimulus becomes increasingly more challenging. There is a huge amount of focus and willpower required on the part of the dog for he/she to utilize their new skills in every scenario that they should, and every once in a while, it won’t come naturally, and the old habits break through for a moment. That’s ok!!! So long as the majority of the time, dog and owner are working together to improve the way they communicate and react, and are successful in changing what they did wrong before, it doesn’t have to be perfect every single moment of every single day. The key is to roll with the punches, learn from what went wrong, and move on from your setbacks to get back on the track to success.