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Animal training offers an opportunity to work directly with animals, as opposed to working with people, which can be appealing on a lot of days. My canine clients are delightful: They don’t judge, they have no hidden agendas, and their reactions are honest and sincere. But as a dog trainer, I have learned that the animals are only one portion of the training equation. In reality, my job is more about teaching pet owners than it is about training pets.
Fortunately, I enjoy working with both people and animals. But sometimes my patience is tested by the bad behavior I encounter in my clients. I’m not talking about the dogs — it’s the humans who rub me the wrong way.
At the risk of sounding persnickety, I want to share some of my personal pet peeves — or should I say pet owner peeves? Here are five things pet owners say and do that get on my nerves.
“I tried to train him once, but it didn’t work.” Miracle cures are almost never a cure for anything —and quick-fix training is not the answer to a dog’s behavior problems. In fact, because these overnight solutions are often punishment based and rely on force, fear and intimidation to change the dog’s behavior, they can create even bigger long-term problems, including increased aggression. In order for pet owners to consistently see the desired behavior, they must follow through with ongoing training and positive reinforcement. It’s unrealistic to think that one training session — at home or with a professional trainer — will magically cure a dog’s bad behavior.
“I don’t want to carry treats with me all the time.”I hear from lots of pet owners who don’t want to use treats in training because they don’t want to be the cookie guy with pockets full of snacks. This bugs me for a couple of reasons. First of all, in positive reinforcement training, treats are not the only reinforcement we use. Pet owners can offer a variety of rewards, from attention to toys to — yes — treats. Second, loving pet owners already give their dogs rewards, like petting and praise, all the time. Why not just frame these rewards in a way that reinforces polite behavior? Finally, the alternative to rewards is punishment, but then the dog behaves because he is afraid. I would much rather have a dog do what I ask because he likes me rather than because he feels threatened, forced and fearful. And dogs like people who reward them — it’s that simple.
“My dog is too old for training.” When I hear a pet owner say that a dog can’t be trained because “he’s set in his ways,” I call baloney. The only one set in his ways in that situation is the pet owner — and he usually doesn’t want to put in the effort to help his dog change (or doesn’t really want to see any change in the dog’s behavior). I’m also fed up with pet owners who tell me that they have “already tried” whatever I am suggesting and they’re “not going to try it again” because it didn’t work the first time. Training strategies may need to be tailored for the individual dog; this can mean anything from making a little tweak to an existing strategy to starting over with a new approach. If a pet owner is willing to put in the effort, though, a dog’s behavior can be changed for good, regardless of his age.
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