DOG TRAINER OR FAO SCHWARZ?
I am confident enough in my skills as a trainer that I do honestly believe I’m capable of training a dog to do anything that she is mentally and physically capable of doing.
Oddly and frustratingly, the one expectation I see most frequently from dog owners is one I am unable to meet. I cannot train a dog not to be a dog; an extension of this is that I cannot train a dog to be a plush toy, a “stuffed animal.”
Excessive barking, digging, jumping, pulling on the leash, chewing, whining, etc. are all extremely common concerns amongst any dog trainer’s clientele. What do these behaviors have in common?
Nine times out of ten, they are symptoms of larger, underlying problems. All the training in the world will not solve these problems if they are a result of one or more of the following common “lifestyle diseases.”
1. Inadequate/inappropriate nutrition
2. Inadequate physical exercise
3. Inadequate mental stimulation
Let’s address these lifestyle diseases individually.
Look at your dog’s teeth. What do you think those teeth are designed to eat? If you guessed meat, you get a gold star! Dogs have the teeth and digestive tracts of carnivores. To many of us, this is common knowledge.
Apparently, this is not common knowledge amongst grocery store pet food manufacturers and suppliers. Virtually all of the commercial dog (and cat) food ingredient labels you’ll find in your local grocery store indicate that pet food manufacturers are not aware of this fact. You will frequently see corn, wheat, and soy as the primary ingredients in grocery store kibbles and canned foods.
What are corn, wheat, and soy? Species-inappropriate foods that break down into sugars. Often, dogs that are fed these foods have hyperactivity problems; like a toddler raised on a diet of Snickers and ice cream (TOO MUCH SUGAR!). Feeding foods with a high grain content can contribute to behavior problems in dogs. (Much like I’d imagine feeding a diet high in beef, pork, and chicken would contribute to behavior problems in rabbits, horses, or other herbivores.)
I admit it, I cannot train a carnivorous animal to be an herbivore. I can’t train away tens of thousands of years of evolution. I can encourage owners to seek diets which are high meat content and low grain content (or even better, grain free!). Because it is usually impossible to find this type of food in a grocery store, you may have to look into purchasing your food through a pet boutique or pet store.
If you are currently feeding a diet high in grains, check out www.dogfoodanalysis.com a great free online resource which evaluates hundreds of kibbles and canned foods for quality.
I also encourage my clients to consider subscribing to the Whole Dog Journal a wonderful resource which will deliver great positive training advice and information on holistic health care right to your mailbox every month! Whole Dog Journal also offers comprehensive canned and dry dog food reviews annually which are a phenomenal resource for any dog owner. Purchase a subscription, your dog will thank you for it!
OK, so we’ve established that I cannot train a dog to be a rabbit. What else can I not train?
INADEQUATE PHYSICAL EXERCISE
I can’t train dogs to be plush toys.
I can’t train a dog to never need a walk or romp through the woods. I can’t train an 8 week old Giant Schnauzer puppy to have the energy level of a 15 year old Basset Hound. I can train a dog to “go to mat” and settle, but I can’t train her to do that 24/7/365. Modern, busy lifestyles often make it difficult for owners to give their dogs adequate physical exercise, and this frequently results in unwanted behavior.
Believe it or not, Cesar Millan is not “revolutionary” in declaring that dogs need exercise. Every trainer in the world will tell you this. DOGS NEED EXERCISE. Some dogs need more exercise than others, but every dog, regardless of age, needs exercise.
On my applications for training, I always ask students why they chose to get a dog. More often than not, the answer is companionship. Many dog owners want someone to curl up on the couch with to watch movies in front of the fireplace.
That’s all well and good, and is part of the reason I myself love my dogs. I love snuggling in front of the couch for a movie in front of the fireplace.
This is a human need and not a dog need. We can’t expect dogs to meet our expectations if we aren’t meeting their basic needs. Dogs don’t have the gift of verbal language. They can’t shout their frustration at their owners, can’t scream “take me out for a walk, damn it!”
What they can do to communicate their needs aren’t being met is bark incessantly, eat the walls, sofa, and expensive boutique lingerie, jump on your guests, stare at you for hours while whining, drop tennis balls or tug toys at your feet constantly, pull whenever they’re on the leash, nip, chew, and try to dig out of the yard. This is how they communicate they aren’t getting enough exercise.
Dogs need exercise when it’s raining, snowing, when you’re working two jobs, when you’re having a bad day, when the kids have a soccer game or ballet practice, on holidays, when you have a blister on your foot or a headache, and on nights you are hosting a Pampered Chef party. Dogs don’t stop being dogs when human lives get hectic, busy, or stressful.
For many dogs, two half hour exercise sessions a day are sufficient. For some dogs, particularly very young dogs and especially those from the working, herding, and hunting groups, this isn’t nearly enough exercise. These dogs were bred to work long days closely with their handlers and have difficulty adjusting to sedentary lifestyles. Some Border Collies, German Shepherds, even Jack Russell terriers can work twelve hour days easily. A ten minute walk once a week or month just isn’t going to cut it for these dogs.
Exercise can be any of the following (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): walking, jogging, rollerblading, bicycling, backpacking, hiking, swimming, playing with other dogs, tug, fetch, or chasing a toy attached to a flirt pole.
Before implementing a new exercise program for your dog, consult with your vet and make sure there are no medical problems that would interfere with your dog’s ability to engage in your chosen activities.
I recently attended a seminar by behaviorist Ali Brown. Ali specializes in rehabilitating aggressive and reactive dogs using positive reinforcement (specifically, clicker training) and is also an accomplished instructor and judge in rally obedience. Ali suggests a dog receive at least three different types of exercise each day (so tug sessions, fetch sessions, plus leash walking as an example).
If your dog doesn’t receive the physical exercise she needs, no amount of training will fix the problem. If she is not allowed to be a dog, she cannot be expected to be a well-behaved dog. The only dog that needs no exercise is a stuffed animal. I am a good trainer, but I cannot train your dog to be a plush toy.
INADEQUATE MENTAL STIMULATION
I won’t go into great detail on this particular subject as I’ve recently addressed it in another RBDT blog entry (Throw this dog product away today!). Most dogs don’t receive nearly enough mental stimulation. Dogs are smart, they need to use their brains to be truly happy and well-behaved. Training, food dispensing toys, tracking exercises, interaction with new dogs, people, and environments will provide your dog with mental stimulation.
The mantra of many trainers is “a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.” To truly satisfy a dog’s needs, she must receive species-appropriate nutrition, adequate physical exercise, and adequate mental stimulation.
How much time should you spend training your dog each day? I tell my clients to aim for 10 – 15 minutes a day. I always tell them to find one hour long or two half hour long television shows they like and use commercial breaks for training sessions. This allows them to easily fit training sessions into their daily activities. Commercial breaks are generally around 2.5 minutes. More frequent, shorter training sessions are better than one long training session (ten two minute sessions are better than one half hour session). Don’t feel as though you need to work on one specific behavior for the entire training session – this can get boring for you and your dog.
I also advise that dog owners offer variety in training sessions. Some sessions should focus on further developing known behaviors for fluency. Other training sessions should focus on training new behaviors. Variety is the spice of training. While known behaviors always require maintenance training, new behaviors should be introduced frequently to optimize the amount of mental stimulation in your training sessions.
WHEN SHE WAS GOOD, SHE WAS VERY, VERY GOOD
A dog who receives appropriate and optimal nutrition, physical exercise and mental stimulation is a well-behaved dog.
BUT WHEN SHE WAS BAD, SHE WAS HORRID
The unwanted behaviors we see from our dogs, the jumping, barking, nipping, chewing, digging, pulling, behaviors are often the only way our dogs have to communicate with us that their needs aren’t being met. I can’t train a dog not to need all of these things. These “behavioral problems” are symptoms of lifestyle diseases. You can’t treat the symptoms and leave the disease unaddressed.
Very often, it’s not the dog who is horrid but the lifestyle match. Most dog owners have very clear expectations of what they want their dog to do for them – they want them to walk politely, greet politely, be pleasant and well-mannered companions. Far fewer dog owners have a very clear understanding of their dog’s expectations of what the dog NEEDS the humans to do for the dog’s well-being.
Bringing a dog into your home is a bargain, a promise, an agreement, a contract. It’s a two-way street. Just like you have expectations of your dog, your dog has expectations of you. Your dog expects you, the biped with a bigger brain, to make sure her basic needs are met.
If dog owners are unable to provide for a dog’s basic needs, dog trainers are unable to solve the behavioral problems which are a direct result of this “breach of contract.” I cannot “undo” the contract you agreed to when bringing a canine into your home; the contract which reads “I will give you everything you need to ensure your physical and behavioral well-being.”
I can train your dog to do anything. Anything except being something other than a dog.