Give Them What They Need

Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes a "good dog."  For trainers, it may mean a dog that can take home an OTCH, or a "bomb-proof" dog that can be used in behavioral consults with reactive dogs.  For an agility devotee, it would be a structurally sound dog that has the drive to compete.  Some people think a 300 yard stay and a bomb-proof recall makes a good dog.  For a hunter, the ability to work off leash in the fields and woods amidst extreme distractions constitutes a good dog.  Others think good dogs are those that will let children climb on and ride around on a dog with nary a calming signal.  Whether you want your dog to be a therapy dog, enjoy living happily in a home with many children, a multi-dog or multi-animal household, or whether you have competitive goals, whether you are a trainer or a devoted pet owner, we all get to define what a "good dog" is, and therefore, what level of investment we want to make in training a dog to perform at that level.

Take a behavior like "sit" for instance.  A trainer may want that sit to be at least 90% reliable in a wide variety of training environments.  She may have to train individually for a number of criteria to "proof" the behavior, including but not limited to:

  • distractions - when you are cueing and while the dog is maintaining stationary position or moving behavior
  • distance - how far away can you be when you cue the dog?  How far away from the dog can you move once he has assumed the position?
  • duration
  • speed
  • precision
  • latency
  • stimulus control
  • ability of behavior to survive on a fairly limited variable reinforcement schedule

Each of these aspects of fluency will need to be trained for individually.  Once the trainer has achieved what meets her criteria of fluency for each of these factors, she then needs to drop criteria and carefully combine them in a manner which sets the dog up for learning success. This process can take a fairly long time and requires a high level of commitment from the trainer to achieve.

I'll be honest - my schedule has been pretty limited (although with any luck, that's about to change with the introduction of a new master schedule a la DogTec!), and many of my dogs' behaviors need refining and maintenance work for at least one, and sometimes many, of these aspects of fluency.  Behaviors are certainly what you put into them, and I haven't been putting as much into them as I'd like lately.  Here's the rub - I actively enjoy training my dogs.  LOVE IT.  But life sometimes gets in the way of fun, and behaviors, like muscles, deteriorate quickly without frequent enough "work outs."

Taking all this into consideration, I wonder if, sometimes, the advice that we give to pet owners is not always reasonable.  I can't remember who said it, but recall reading not long ago on Facebook a fellow trainer say, "I don't care how sexy your training plan is if it's not feasible for the family."  Truer words have rarely been spoken. 

Finding a balance between your expectations and your resources (time) is critical to helping set dog trainers and devotees up for success in your training plan.  Generally, the higher your expectations, the more time you need to spend training.  We must always ask, "are the expectations reasonable for the time you can invest?"  If not, one of the factors needs to change - investment or expectation.

Much of my business is comprised of families.  Very, very busy families, often with limited (time and financial) resources.  Families where the parents may work two jobs each, or one job plus school.  Families with single moms and dads working really hards to make ends meet and struggling to find quality time with their family, children and dogs alike.  Families where Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, baseball, ballet, karate, parent teacher meetings, football games and science fairs are all real considerations and priorities.  When I talk to these families, the goals generally include:

  • I want my dog to be friendly with and tolerant of my children
  • I want my dog to walk politely on a loose leash in our neighborhood or at the park
  • I want to be able to go camping with my dog and my kids

These families don't care about all those core areas of fluency.  For them, often, the first step is, "let's just get the food out of the food bowl and into your pockets."  They don't care about stimulus control, and aren't that concerned if their dog lies down when they ask him to sit.  Barring any significant behavior problems, without even doing a single actual training session (or very, very few), these people can meet their goals just by watching their dogs throughout the day and rewarding nice behavior when it's offered.  Give your dog a treat when he offers a sit.  Give your dog a treat when he approaches without jumping.  Give your dog a piece of kibble when the leash is loose or when he offers you eye contact.  Reward your dog handsomely for calm behavior around the children. These families want training that is easy to fit into hectic schedules, training which is "organic" in that it just happens as you go throughout your daily life with your dog.  What they want is nice default behaviors - polite behaviors that the dog offers reflexively in the hope that reinforcement might be available.  Often, it is perfectly possible for a family to get exactly the dog they want and some of them decide that it's no problem if getting that dog means having kibble in their pockets and rewarding offered sits, downs, and other polite behavior forever.  If that's ok with them, that's ok with me!  It's certainly less work for them, and will give them the behaviors they desire rather quickly - it is reinforcing for the people, which is CRITICAL if any training plan is to be followed through on.  If that's not ok with them, we will then launch into reinforcement variety and variability. 

Early in my career, my enthusiasm led me to try to persuade people into more training than they actually wanted or needed.  Now I spend a lot more time listening to the clients, how do they define a good dog?  Can we get there together as a training team given the resources available?  It's less about what I think a good dog is and more about the client's immediate wants, needs, goals, and circumstances.  I don't get to define what a good dog is for their home, because we may have very different ideas on what exactly that is.

Now, I like to sell clients a plan they can implement, that is the definition of setting someone up for success.  While I may think that it's great for dogs to have a bomb-proof recall for off leash hiking, or for dogs to take enrichment classes, learning new tricks, games and skills throughout their lifetime, that's not what this family wants nor is it reasonable for them.  They might not be interested in investing the time in that beautiful, deep woods bomb-proof recall, because they don't like hiking, perhaps live in a very urban environment, feel uncomfortable taking their dog off leash, or may only go out in the woods once a month and be happy using a long line to manage the dog in that environment.  If that's fine for them, that's fine for me - we can invest those limited time and financial resources in things which are a higher priority for this particular family.

While both of my dogs are certainly a work in progress (as all dogs are, always), I've been thinking a lot of my resource investment.  My Saint Bernard, Cuba, was sold as a show prospect.  But he's struggling through adolescence a bit, and with my limited resources (time), I had to decide - what's more important to me right now?  Having only limited time, should I be working on the perfect stack, or teaching him to walk through the neighborhood with confidence when other dogs may rush up on him off leash or rush the fence for a fence fight?  What will improve our quality of life together today?  What is important to me? 

I want my dogs to be fun to walk, camp with, and to be able to perform tasks as needed in my business.  One of my biggest priorities is snuggly dogs - I spend time actually teaching my dogs to enjoy snuggling and smooches and hugs from me because that is important to me, and the payoff is what may well be one of the snuggliest female Chow mixes on the planet, once a puppy who didn't really like being touched, now a fuzzy brown pillow when sighs contently if I want to nap with my head resting on her thigh.  Many trainers would laugh, many clients would empathize - a lot of them just want their dog to learn to not only accept, but seek out snuggles, or lie under the bed covers without hogging the bed.  On the other hand, I also need my Chow mix Mokie to be able to perform reliably off leash at doggy camps that employ me, sometimes surrounded by 70+ other dogs - a goal that is, for the vast majority of my clients, neither necessary nor attainable.

What is important to you?  How do you define a good dog?