Petting a dog on the head

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.

Personal Pet Peeves

“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.
“He doesn’t heel, even though I use a corrective collar.”
I often work with pet owners who have long used corrective collars and see no reason to give them up. But these collars are ineffective at best and, in my mind, border on abusive. I often see dogs who are choking and straining at the end of their leashes, putting potentially damaging pressure on their necks and tracheas, which in turn can put pressure on their eyes. I also see pet owners who continually correct their dogs with jerks and pops on the leash, without giving their dogs the knowledge or ability to change their behavior and avoid correction. There are much better ways to teach a dog to walk politely, often with the help of a front-clip harness — but, again, this requires that the pet owner put in the time to teach the dog what behavior is expected of him when he’s on-leash, rather than just jerking the collar when he doesn’t heel.

“We couldn’t keep him — he was so badly behaved.”  
I am exasperated by pet owners who surrender their dogs to shelters and attribute their decisions to the dogs’ bad behavior. Most of the time, these pet owners have done little to no training and have made no effort to teach their dogs a better way to behave. I’ve also reached my limit with pet owners who make excuses to give up their dogs. Among my least favorites: The dog is too old, the family is moving to another city or state, or the pet owner is in a new relationship or expecting a baby. Though there are situations and circumstances when it is best for a dog to be surrendered to a shelter, these are uncommon and typically don’t stem from a dog’s behavior. Giving a dog away can seem like an easy fix, but it can be detrimental to the dog.

I forgive you if you have done or are doing any of these things, but if you see yourself in this list, please, do yourself — and your dog — a favor and take the initiative to change your behavior. You and your pet will both be happier.

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