Much to our chagrin, dog training is oftentimes not a linear process. What worked for one dog may not work with another. Even the same dog may need different approaches or adjustments depending on changes in their age, health and experience-level . You may also need to get creative when you take into account your dog’s personality, how it is that they learn, their prior life experiences as well as a myriad of other factors.
The ability of a trainer, whether they are a professional or a dog owner, to be flexible in their approach and make adjustments to help the dog be successful is the art of dog training. And this is a challenging art to master. However, to be successful, it is crucially important.
“What happens when I take a class and the instructor tells me to do an exercise, and it doesn’t work for my dog…what do I do then Ms. Smarty Pants?!”
This is a wonderful question! In this situation, take out your paintbrush and create your own, individualized training plan. For instance, let’s say the instructor described an exercise where they want the dog to hold a stationary stay for 5-minutes 20′ away from you…but here’s the rub: your dog has never done a 1-minute stay OR any stay farther from 1′ away from you. Clearly, something has to be adjusted.
One possibility is to break the exercise down into smaller pieces and spread it out over a span of training sessions and days. This way, you can incrementally work toward the goal of having the dog hold a stationary stay 20′ away from you.
Now, let’s make this even more complicated: you have two dogs. There is a good chance, you will have to individualize this exercise for each individual dog. For example, Dog #1 may be able to reach your goal behavior of staying for 5-minutes 20′ away from you in a series of 4 steps: Step A, A1 and A2 to get to Step B. Dog #2, on the other hand, may need it broken down even further: Step A, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, A7, A8, A9, A10 to get to Step B. Neither approach is better or worse; rather, each approach is designed to suit the needs of THAT individual dog.
“Okay…what if an exercise an instructor describes uses an approach I don’t want to do, what then?”
You must always be wearing your dog advocate hat. Do what will work for you and your dog, and what is in your best interest. If a particular exercise makes you uncomfortable, ask the instructor one-on-one if there is a way you can adjust it, if they have a suggestion for you or if they can better explain the reasoning behind the exercise. At the end of the day, this is YOUR dog and you have to look after their well-being throughout the entirety of their life. That will hopefully be longer than any class you are attending.
Does this give you license to be difficult to your instructors? No. But, if someone describes an exercise to you, you should understand the WHY behind that exercise, and also see how it can be adjusted and modified so it will work best for you and your dog.
“But what if class is only 4-weeks long, and we are struggling to master the exercises in Week 1…what am I supposed to do then?!”
You are not alone. Many students will stress that they are going to fall behind, and instead try to rush ahead. This is a mistake. Whenever I would teach in-person group dog training classes, I always stressed the purpose of the class was to show the students how they can practice to obtain a particular skill when they were ready to do so, but I was never looking for perfection in the class itself! In other words, if someone was still working to conquer the skills covered in Week 1, they could watch how to work on the Week 2 exercises but were not expected to actually work on those exercises until they were ready. This allowed people the flexibility to take the time necessary to master each set of exercises, before rushing onto the next. You need to learn how to hold your head up as an infant before you can begin to crawl.
“UGH! You don’t understand…my classmates are all doing better than I am…their dogs are so much better than my dog is!”
Are you sure about that? Do you follow them home every night, living with them day-in and day-out outside of class to back up that claim? Probably not. One of the easiest ways to diminish the quality of your training and the love for the activity is to begin to compare yourself to others. Every. Dog. Is. Different. They all learn differently and at different rates. What is easy for Dog #1 will be challenging for Dog #2 and vice versa. Couple this with the fact that the living situation for every dog is different in addition to the lifestyle, expertise and abilities of the human handler! Talk about comparing apples to SUVs! It is not even close!
At the end of the day, what all of us can do is recognize training can, and should, be modified and personalized, and we must to be willing to do so. The more tools in your toolbox the better. You may not need to use the majority of those tools and adjustments with this particular dog, but you may need them for your next dog.
How do you apply the art of dog training when working with your dog?