Any given day’s emails are a collection of odd amusements, worrisome reports, sad news, glad tidings, and requests out of the blue. Recently, I was contacted by an Argentinian journalist writing for a woman’s lifestyle section of a publication. She wanted to know:
- What are the main features of any dog training?
- What are the easiest dogs to train? Why?
- What are the most difficult dogs to train?
- What qualities have these dogs? [sic]
I found myself intrigued by these simple questions, ones that are asked over and over again. This is what I sent back in reply:
Dog training is a relationship. Like any relationship, dog training requires clear communication, genuine curiosity about and interest about the other (in this case, the dog), respect for the other’s point of view and feelings and abilities, and a willingness to compromise in pursuit of harmony. Dog training is also education, and as with with any education, broadens the dog’s understanding of his world.
Dog training also has some components similar to parenting, as sometimes you must make decisions for the dog. For example, the dog cannot understand the full consequences of his behavior or the need for veterinary care. Like children, dogs must sometimes be protected from their own natural impulses. Very much like children, dogs must be educated so that they can be welcome members of society with good manners, knowledge that helps them in many situations, and an understanding of how to get along.
The dogs that are easiest to train are dogs who are interested in learning. This means a dog who is not afraid (fear makes learning very difficult, if not impossible). This means a dog who is not irritated or angry (anger and irritation make learning difficult). This also means a dog who is not in pain and who is not being physically threatened or actually hurt. A dog who is interested in learning finds the process rewarding and fun, and something he can be successful doing. Very often, trainers label dogs as “hard to train” when in fact they are bored, scared or confused. Sometimes, the trainer or the training equipment threatens or hurts the dog — this does not make for a dog who is easy to train.
Hardest to train are dogs who are afraid, who do not feel safe in the training situation, who are being asked to do more than their skills or their physical abilities permit, and dogs who are simply bored by the work and do not receive enough value (praise, games, toys, food rewards, etc) to make it worthwhile to participate.
What makes a dog easy or hard to train often has very, very little to do with the dog’s age, breed, sex or even upbringing. Fear, feeling unsafe, feeling threatened, being hurt, being bored, confused or unrewarded — these will always make training difficult. Feeling safe, enjoying the process, kind handling and generous rewards for doing well always make training easier.
Running through my head is an ongoing movie of the dogs I’ve met and worked with and lived with — and shining through as they morph from one to the other, shaggy to smooth to tall to short to tiny to young to grey-faced to robust to frail and on through all the permutations of Dog, I see their eyes. Eyes of confusion or boredom or distrust or irritation or anger or fear — these are the dogs that were hard to reach, the communication disrupted by so much between me and them. Eyes of interest, bright with curiosity, willingness, understanding, humor, delight and pride — regardless of what shape that dog’s body took, the eyes of the dogs engaged in the conversation of training shine clear.
Keep the lights on . . .