So many times people say to me – your dog must be perfectly behaved right? Well…yes, he responds very well to what I ask him to do in various situations, but it doesn’t ‘just happen.’ It’s not something that miraculously occurs – it takes work.
Unfortunately, sometimes owners enter the world of ‘dogdom’ with the expectation that a ‘perfect family pet’ is generated within the realms of a six-week puppy starter course. During this initial period, puppies are entering a rapid stage of physical, mental and social growth and learning. Do children learn everything they need to learn during primary school? Of course not. It’s the same with dogs. Formative training classes are simply building blocks, opportunities for social learning with conspecifics, a chance to instill basic cues and perform these well with limited distraction. Young puppies are busy and investigative and so they should be, they have a huge amount of novelty to explore. We should not expect a ‘push button response’ right from the early weeks – understand that a rich environment is far too much competition – yet. One of the most frequent frustrations is that a (young) puppy is too distracted, will not respond when other dogs or people are around – this is entirely normal! It is our desire to accomplish and achieve all our expectations: perform all the cues we want, be calm, settle with unfamiliar people and dogs and respond fully with all distractions within a limited time frame that is abnormal, so to speak. This is why training schools build in successive courses which specifically address owner concerns such as responses in more socially demanding settings, but targeted at a more realistic age, normally approaching adolescence and beyond. As owners, we can achieve all that we want, dogs can do it all, be we must understand that training is progressive and takes time and patience.
Puppies are not ‘blank slates.’ They are malleable and impressionable and their very existence, prior to coming to their new home, will have a huge influence upon how he or she behaves. Early socialization can play a vital role in shaping early experiences regarding behaviour with conspecifics, habituation, feeding and sleeping habits to select just a few. How you interact with a puppy right from the very start is also crucial. These are vital first weeks – make those negative, lacking in socialization/habituation experiences and then you could be in for trouble later. Start from the outset making this an enriching, positive and bonding time with lots of opportunities for reward and reinforcement and you won’t go far wrong.
What about when things don’t go to plan? Do we work through it, do we just live with it, or do we give up? Obviously, I would advocate that for the benefit and positive welfare of the dog, we work through any ensuing issues. Contrary to what some might think, a dog who engages in undesirable behavior is not “spiteful” or willfully “bad;” he is most likely fearful or stressed out by something or someone and desperately looking for a way out, quite possibly looking to his owner for clues as to what to do. If he receives no help or is continually challenged or threatened, nothing will change. He may even be punished. It is so much better is to put in the effort to work through problems – short-term pain for long-term gain, so to speak.
I always discuss what we’re dealing with with my clients right at the outset, what their goals are, realistically, what the end result is going to be, and then we usually do some goal adjustment. Any trainer or behaviour consultant who offers the ability to ‘solve’ problems within a stated amount of time or a ‘quick fix’ is just kidding themselves and misleading their clients. Dogs have brains and we are dealing with their emotional well-being. Throughout any behaviour change plan, things change. Plans should also be for individuals, and not generic for ‘every dog’. Working through behaviour issues can be tough, there’s no doubt about it. It requires commitment, and if that’s in place, with the right guidance from the right professional, then you will succeed.