The Difference Between Dog Trainers and Everyone Else

There’s one big difference I’ve noticed between “pet folks” and people who are serious about dog training.

No, it’s not that our dogs are well behaved. Dog trainers, pro and hobby both, struggle with the same behavioral problems everyone else does. (And sometimes we get all new ones–my 35lb puppy, for example, is completely convinced the coffee table is his personal napping platform and that he should be allowed to climb wherever our cats climb.)

The difference is in how we set goals.

When I talk to people about their pets’ behavior and what they want to work on, I usually get a list of a some big items and a few smaller frustrations sprinkled in, with something like “I want him to be less crazy in the house” or “I wish he wouldn’t act like such a jerk on our walks.”

Those could be goals, yes, but they’re vague ones. What does “less crazy” look like? What do non-jerk dogs do on their walks?

Dog trainers almost always have a specific goal; more often, they have a series of interconnected goals on the path to something else. It’s not only that we are always always working on something with our dogs. It’s that we lay out a path out toward where we want to go. And if we don’t know the next step–and I’ve been here with my reactive dog many times!–we ask for guidance as to where to head next.

Behavior is never static. You teach your dog a sit, and it’s perfect. Your dog has the best sit on the block! So you don’t bother to practice for a while, and then you ask your dog to sit… and he’s forgotten what that means.

Dog trainers set goals because we know this. If you’re not moving forward, you’re slowly losing all that good work you’ve done to forgetfulness, lack of practice, and bad manners that creep in when we aren’t paying attention to what we’re reinforcing for our dogs.

So how do you, as someone with a dog in your home but no aspirations towards obedience ribbons or national titles, keep from sliding into the vague goal of “I just want a good dog”?

Well, what does a good dog look like, in your book? Everyone has different criteria, so what’s yours? Does a Good Dog bring you your slippers in the morning, or is it just that she doesn’t growl at the pizza delivery guy?

If you end up with a “good dog” that only DOESN’T do things–doesn’t get into the trash, doesn’t bark at visitors, doesn’t beg at dinner–you need to do some switching in your brain. Instead of saying “I don’t want her to bark at guests,” think of what you want instead: “I want her to lay on her dog bed when we have visitors.” And then you break that behavior down: how do you teach her to love her bed so much she’ll go lay there when there are strangers in the house? Does she know how to go lay down on her bed and relax when you ask her to? Is her bed located in the right place for your dog–say, somewhere out of the way but still in sight if she barks because she’s nervous, or in the middle of the living room where you sit with your guests to watch the game if she barks because she loves visitors? Have you slowly increased her ability to go to her bed in more and more exciting circumstances? Have you made it worth her while to play this game with you, whenever you ask her to?

Try it: set one small, specific goal for your dog this month. Maybe “I want Chief to leave everyone’s appetizer plates alone at our New Year’s party,” or “I want Boomer to be relaxed around my niece and nephew over the holidays.” Break it down into what the end behavior looks like, and baby steps you might be able to take toward that end behavior.

Once you start thinking like a dog trainer, that “good dog” end goal goes from being something vague and maybe even impossible to a series of steps toward a goal. And that feels a lot more reasonable, doesn’t it?

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