A recent email from one of my trainee dog’s owners provoked a lot of thought about this month’s topic…

She was delighted to see her dog on a walk with all of my pack, not on leash, not rough housing and not running away but…was interested in hearing how the “training” was going.

I did understand that she was referring to the more formal commands, sit, heel, down etc. but a big part of my reaction was to question what her actual perception of “training” was.

For most people, the idea of hiring a dog trainer is that their dog learn to achieve these generic commands and upon a verbal cue, they perform these feats promptly.

My question is increasingly “What are you training your dog to do…or not do?”

All interaction with your dog is “training”. When you move him to one side so that you don’t trip over him. When you go and get the leash in order to walk him. When you do not correct him for barking at the front door. When you avoid eye contact with him first thing in the morning before you have your coffee. These are all situations where you are “training” your dog to fit in with your life and read your signals.

Teaching your dog to “sit” has no meaning if you do not teach him how, where and  how long for. A command such as “heel” means nothing if you do not specify what heel means. However, your dog can quickly be “trained” that dinner is coming if you repeatedly go the fridge at around 5, bring out a can of dog food, open his kibble can and bring out his dogfood bowl!! If you go to the bathroom and brush your teeth at around 10o’clock, he knows that it is time for bed.

Unfortunately, these cues can become double edged swords as your dog starts anxiously pacing and whining when you pick up the car keys from the table or grab your coat from the coat rack. Yes, these actions can all be called “training” and have long been referred to in scientific terms as”operant conditioning.”

Training is something you do with your dog that teaches him something. You are either consciously doing this or unconsciously doing this but you are doing it all the time.

SO the question becomes “WHAT?” Do I want my dog to learn? Is it to share his space peacefully with his packmates? To come back when I call? Or to sit by my side when I say “sit”?

Do you want him to be able to lay down quietly while you have dinner or will you teach him to hover at the table waiting fir some inconsistent reward?

“Training” doe not just occur in a vacuum. We teach our dogs everything they need to do and not do in our company. We are ALL dog trainers but some of us do this mindfully and others are training our dogs unconsciously while being surprised at all the things they have learned!!

So the dog in the video did not simply learn to “hang out” with my pack and not run away. I taught him and I will teach him not to bark at strangers and not to steal food from his four year old owner. And if he does something I did not ask for, I will take responsibility for having “trained” him to do it or “not trained” him to refrain. And maybe I will also train him to “sit” when asked!!!

  My best wishes go out to all you dog trainers, professional and not and remember to bear in mind the part you play in your dog’s behavior. These guys are REALLY quick learners!! For support and encouragement, please feel free to contact me or join a class!!


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