Or You Could Blame The Dog

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 🙂

Categories: Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Or You Could Blame The Dog

  1. Penny

    Most excellent. MOST EXCELLENT.

    All of this. A+++++++++

    Sorry I can’t write much because I am at work.

    And to be honest…if a person who has zero dog experience researches Cesar Milan I don’t mind. Because they are on a journey of learning. And who knows, it might work for them and their dog at that point in time and hopefully very quickly they will read other methods too :). We all have to start somewhere. Let hope when they google “dog training for Agility” they find something more motivating.

    Release the guilt, and work with the dog you have, keep using your brain and you can’t ruin your dog! Instead focus on polishing the rough diamond

    • Yes! Guilt gets in the way of good training and enjoying our dogs.

      I’m just hoping that if they only know Cesar Milan that they don’t take my advice and blame the dog… I wouldn’t give this advice to someone who trains with positive punishment. At some point I’m going to have to make a page with links to those “reputable sources”, but I just wanted to publish this post before I changed my mind.

      • Penny

        Yes I can imagine your hesitation there 🙂

        And I suppose this ties into your very well written point “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. ”

        The key there is “those who try”. Some people ‘try’ more than others… at EVERYTHING. And they are your target population for this post. People who don’t like to try will always be very comfortable with blaming the dog and harbour very little guilt about ‘failing’ to train their dog to a high standard.

        Which then leads onto a great debate about Acceptance vs apathy. Oh I could explore this for hours 🙂 … And I might loose my job because this is much more interesting than seed 😉


  2. Internetz being such an unfenced property that it is I cannot possibly know who will find this post while googling for “sit” and “prong collar”. So I felt I needed a bit of disclaimer 😉

    You are of course correct about my target audience… those who try very hard. And of course I’m not cured of it at all. I still need reminders.

    Hm, acceptance vs apathy. They don’t feel similar to me at all – acceptance brings energy and is full of hope while apathy carries no energy and no hope. I don’t mean hope that things you’re accepting would change, but hope that with these things that you’re accepting there are still wonderful adventures ahead of you.

    Ha ha I know what it’s like to have your head hijacked by thoughts like this 😉

    • Penny

      That is the feeling I get from acceptance too.

      I suppose if you take the logic to the extreme, if you become accepting of everything then you would never change anything and therefore become apathetic. But like you, I don’t think that is a risk, just funny how there can be an undercurrent of ‘laziness’ and ‘not trying hard enough’ with it. I think that is where a lot of my fear and guilt came from, worrying that I was stepping over a blurry line into nothingness by accepting my dogs for who they were. That I was giving up on trying.

      Hahhaha, in hindsight I laugh because I don’t think anyone could stop my from trying or learning and testing new things EVER!

      • Exactly! It’s not like irritation is the only reason we ever take action, we also do it because we’re inspired… and I think acceptance only takes away irritation, not inspiration. And only if I could do it perfectly, accept everything… which of course is not my nature at all so there’s no worry that the supply of irritation would dry up 😉

        I think I know what you mean with feeling like you’re ‘not trying hard enough’. It’s a hard one, but sometimes one just has to stop and think ‘is this still fun?’ (I mean trying hard of course…. I think I better go to bed now, I can hardly think straight!).

  3. Thanks, Andreja. I got to the end and had to laugh: “Inspired by Em” – I’d been reading through going: wow, yeah, I think I know where this post has come from, hahaha.
    And it was a great post, seriously. Made me tear up a little. Still is. Don’t know why. No sleep? Hormones? Truth? Combination of those? Yep.
    I wonder what my plan needs to be. I don’t know if I rush to abandon a plan too quickly and therefore never give it time to work, or if it isn’t working. Maybe that’s what I need to observe.
    Yeah, so… a wonderful post, but then I just want to know: what’s my plan? my Lu is so paradoxical and strange that I just can’t figure out how to make it fun for us.
    I think that not expecting her to progress on the same timetable is important- lots and lots and lots of Aussie people have told me that their Aussie sped up heaps when they started competing and doing more and their dog got more confident, but I have a lot of people trusting that – it’s something I can’t guarantee and therefore it might not be true, so I need to try hard to make it happen now so I can trust that it will continue to happen later. Hmm.
    I’m going to go play with my puppy now. 😉

    Actually, it’s really interesting- your post here showed up just before another post on my reader. The other post talked about how you shouldn’t rush out to get a BC, you should train the dog you have and have success with that dog and you can do anything with the dog you have if you just train it. I was trying to craft a nice response to say: ‘well, no, it’s not that simple’ but then your post showed up too and I felt much better after reading it. 🙂

    • It’s ok. I get all emotional when I’m tired, too. And it IS an emotional topic 🙂

      Yes I too think that you need to step back and look at what is working in terms of getting more excitement and what isn’t. I get a feeling that Lu is the kind of girl that would be most excited if she saw agility equipment once or twice per week. Or, alternatively, every day for a few minutes at the time when she is naturally very excited and wants to play. This way I think you would get speed and excitement now, but you wouldn’t be able to train a lot.
      Lu is not slow by any means, she is just not as fast as she could physically be. I think it’s quite possible that she would speed up after she got more experience running courses (and yes, perhaps competitions would play a role, too). So in my eyes, either way you choose has a good chance of getting that speed out of her. But it will happen on Lu’s timetable (with your help), that’s for sure.

  4. Thank you for this. It’s hard to get out of the mindset of “but if I’d just done THIS maybe my dog would be better, maybe I could actually take him to an agility class instead of furtively trying to train when no one else is around.” He IS “special.” I still can’t let myself totally off the hook, a more experienced and driven trainer might have taken Jodah a lot further. But you know what? He’s my dog, he is who he is, and I am who I am, and we make it work for us.

    • Yes, it’s good to acknowledge when we have a “special needs” dog, not so we would give up on them, but so that we cut ourselves some slack. Thanks for letting me know it was useful!

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