Most people who are active in the dog training world will probably receive conflicting advice at some point. This seems to be especially true for my students, who often see me for reactivity and focus issues while also working with another trainer for competition obedience or agility classes.
I recently got an email from one such student. Her dog- a reactive adolescent German Shepherd- has come so far since I first met them. Although the dog does still have some difficult moments, especially when there are sudden environmental changes, the dog’s ability to bounce back and work despite those moments has grown in leaps and bounds. I’m so proud of how far the dog has come.
In her email, my student recounted a recent obedience class with an instructor who uses very different methods than I do. The instructor did not like that my student was using the Look at That game to help her dog deal with triggers, nor the fact that she used the dog’s name when she wanted the dog’s attention. It culminated when the dog reacted towards the end of class; even though my student was able to quickly get her dog back under control, the instructor told her that she should have grabbed the dog, shaken her, and yelled. When my student pointed out that this would make things worse (so proud of her for speaking up!), the instructor disagreed, stating that my student needed to start "getting tough" with her dog. Dogs, the instructor said, need to work and focus when we want, for as long as we want.
But is this true? Should we expect this from our dogs? I replied to my student, telling her that I think that we can train our dogs to high standards without “getting tough.” I also told her that I think it’s reasonable to expect them to perform when requested. But I’m personally really uncomfortable with the line of thinking that says our dogs must comply.
Here’s the thing: my dog is a living, breathing person. (Well, dog, but you know what I mean, right?) She’s not a robot to be commanded. She has thoughts and feelings, though I’ll admit I don’t know what they’re like. She has likes and dislikes; she even has interests that don’t include me. And that’s okay! I know we have a strong relationship, and that we genuinely enjoy being and working together. But that doesn’t mean that I am- or should be- the center of her universe.
It’s not that she’s “just a pet.” Although I will freely admit that I’m not as serious of a competitor as others, I do enjoy showing my dog, and I like high scores, placements, titles, and pretty ribbons. (Oh, do I like ribbons.) I also like having a dog that I can hike with off leash, that I can take places without worrying about her behavior, and that is generally easy for me to live with.
Because of that, I have to make it worth her while to do obedience routines instead of hanging out with Auntie Sara ringside, or to come when I call instead of blowing me off to play with her doggy pals. I do this by offering her great rewards. Food, play, and interaction with me, of course... but I also allow her to be her own dog sometimes. I respect who she is as an individual.
Other people choose to motivate their dogs differently. They take more of a “have to” attitude, with an unspoken “or else” at the end. Their dogs are expected to do what they are told, or suffer the consequences. The dog’s motivation, it would appear, is not the promise of good things, but the avoidance of bad things. There is a continuum with this, of course; some trainers are heavy-handed, while others are sparing with their corrections. This is true with positive trainers like me, too. I know that I have fewer rules and expectations for my dog than others do. I don’t demand that she earn everything. I laugh hysterically when she makes a mistake in the competition ring. My dog is admittedly spoiled beyond belief.
This doesn’t make me right, nor others wrong. All of us will misunderstand or misinterpret the science behind training sometimes. But all of us will learn over time. All of us will make poor decisions for our dogs sometimes. But all of us will have moments of brilliance. Instead, it makes us different. Because when it comes down to it, Maisy is my dog. I get to decide what I expect from her, and I get to decide how to motivate her to give that to me.
If you’re getting conflicting advice, remember that you have choices. While I believe strongly in my methods, I don’t get to make decisions for anyone but me. I know who I am, how I want to train, and what kind of relationships I want to have. So when my student asked for my thoughts, I told her this: This is your dog. You get to decide how you train her and what you expect out of her. Not that other trainer. Not me. You.
She’s your dog.