Once upon a time when dog trainers wore stern expressions on their faces and barked their commands in firm voices, hovered over their dogs to push their hind ends into a sit while simultaneously pulling on the prong collars there was an unspoken assumption that everything that went wrong in dog training was dog’s fault. Dog didn’t sit on command? He’s stubborn. He didn’t come when called? He’s blowing you off. So they corrected those unwanted responses (or more often, non-responses) and punished if they saw fit.
Then we saw the light and embraced the all-positive way of training, threw away the prong collars, replaced the stern expression with a smile and “commands” became “cues”. (Command says the dog needs to obey or else… Cue signals to the dog that now reward is available if he offers a behavior). We were told that if the dog doesn’t sit or if he doesn’t come when called the responsibility lies squarely on our shoulders. We didn’t train him well enough. Moreover, if he doesn’t do [insert behavior X] with lightening speed and an attitude that this is the best thing that ever happened to him, that’s our fault, too. We were not fun enough. We didn’t try hard enough. We didn’t place ourselves into the center of our dog’s world. We failed as trainers. Maybe you know where this is going…
The result of this thinking is that those who try the most get most disheartened, because every single thing that goes wrong is their fault. Which would be fine if it would be obvious where we went wrong and how to proceed, but usually it isn’t so clear cut.
I’m not saying that you should blame your dog for everything that didn’t go according to plan. But if you did a fair amount of educating yourself from reputable sources (just so we’re clear: Cesar Milan is not a reputable source), did your best to implement a sound training plan, asked for help, and you still didn’t get the results that you were looking for and just feel like you wasted all your energy and came back with, well, not much, I hereby give you permission to blame your dog.
Now before you report me to the Purely Positive Training Enforcement Authority let me tell you a story. It will only take a minute, then you can drag me down for
interrogation tea and cookies.
When Ruby was a puppy he was hyperactive and interested in everything for about 0.1 seconds before he moved on to the next thing. Needless to say, boring old me was not interesting at all. He was my first dog and we had a lot to learn together. I read everything I could get my hands on, asked questions on training forums, and took a puppy class with a world renowned trainer. There is no doubt he was much better off for these efforts, but at the end of the day he was still nothing like some more “normal” dogs.
For example, it was almost impossible to keep his attention outside. We could be standing in the middle of an empty field with no animals anywhere in sight and he just stood there, looking in the distance as if in a trance, waiting for *something* to show up. He would stand like this for 10 minutes before remembering that boring old me was still there on the other end of the leash. If I couldn’t get his attention in the middle of an empty field how would we ever be able to work with other dogs around us? How would I ever get a solid recall if I couldn’t even recall him on leash?
One very frustrating afternoon I decided that this couldn’t all be my fault. I decided that he IS different than most dogs. Sure, I made mistakes, but he is not like this entirely because of my mistakes. He is this way because of who he is.
This made a big difference for me. Once I acknowledged that the reason for my training not working is also in him, not just in me, I started thinking what would be the best protocol for HIM, not assuming that he should respond like most dogs and not expecting him to progress on the same timetable, no matter how disheartening that was. I made a training plan, observed how Ruby reacted, tweaked the plan, observed his reaction, tweaked the plan some more… ‘Blaming’ him for what went wrong enabled me to really observe him instead of second-guessing myself all the time. Then I changed the plan to account for what I saw. It took a few months of tiny tiny successes before I saw any real progress, but in the end it did work. And boy did it feel good that MY plan worked when nothing else would! (Of course, “my” plan was nothing more than a combination of training plans from various reputable sources. Educating yourself pays off. And yes, a more experienced trainer would certainly have an easier time with Ruby than I did, but I don’t think they would have a smooth sailing, either.)
Even after that I still wasn’t sure that he improved because my plan worked. Young dogs change all the time and some things improve even if you don’t work on them at all. I was wondering, perhaps he would have become this wonderfully focused dog regardless of what I did?
Then he injured his shoulder and we weren’t able to work on much for 6 months. His old personality started to show very clearly. Yes, he matured, but it was clear that without ongoing work on his behavior he was still that independent, disinterested dog that he used to be as a puppy. It actually worked!
So there. Take an objective look at you and your dog. You can blame your dog for his part in it for 5 minutes. It doesn’t mean you love him any less and I promise I won’t tell the Purely Positive Training Enforcement Authority. Then go make a plan!
Inspired by Em 🙂