Carolyn Menteith is a behaviourist at tails.com with over 25 years of experience working with and training dogs.
Most people know that a key part of dog-owning is making sure their dog is well trained. They know it is important – because everyone tells them it is – but even so, a staggering 80% of the UK’s dogs don’t receive any training. Following lockdown and the lack of availability of in-person training classes, that might well be more.
Part of the reason for this is that the image people have in their minds when they think of ‘dog training’, has absolutely no relevance at all to the lives they are going to live, or the skills they need to be successful in that life! And so many owners just don’t see the point!
It is however sobering to discover that the biggest cause of death in dogs under two years old isn’t accidents or disease, it is euthanasia as a result of behaviour problems. These problems don’t come as from a dog not knowing how to do a formal retrieve or an out-of-sight down stay, or any of the other ‘obedience-type’ exercises people think of when they think about ‘dog training’ – they come from not having learnt the life-skills needed to be a family dog.
A good modern training class will be focussing on this far more than on traditional obedience.
To be a family dog is the hardest job we ever ask a dog to do, and yet so often we expect dogs to somehow manage to achieve this without any help from us, or any training for this – and are very quick to blame them when things go wrong.
It’s easy to look at those amazing Border Collies at obedience competitions and assume that is the embodiment of what we should all be aiming for. This couldn’t be farther from the truth and what you see in in the ring in these competitions are motivated and skilled people training their dogs to do something they enjoy in order to compete at a high level. This is a far cry from what most people want – which who just a well-behaved dog who is easy and fun to live with.
It’s like comparing the difference between working hard and single-mindedly to compete in your chosen discipline at the Olympics, compared to going to pilates classes once a week because you want to be healthy and not wobble when you walk!
So what are canine life skills?
Life skills come in several parts. First is safety – for people, especially for children and for the dog – along with introducing all the strange and wonderful things life as a companion dog will bring. This will involve socialising your puppy, making sure they are happy to be handled, teaching them to give up things that they shouldn’t have, and habituating them to all the sights, sounds and experiences life as a family dog brings .
Then there are the ‘keeping your dog sane, sensible and safe’ skills. Trainers and behaviourists will tell you that many behaviour problems can be solved or vastly improved by giving the dog sufficient exercise. This means concentrating on teaching dogs the skills they need to make walking a pleasure. If it is a total nightmare every time you walk out the door, human nature says you will avoid doing it (no matter how guilty you feel about it!). And so your dog will get more frustrated, more bored, and more of a nightmare – and that becomes a vicious circle that either ends up with a manic, or depressed dog – or else a dog destined to be given up to a rescue centre – or worse. So… walking on the lead, reliable recalls, and being happy and relaxed around other dogs and people should be the focus. And it doesn’t matter if a dog can do beautiful heelwork in the village hall if they are dragging your arm out of your socket in the park!
It doesn’t matter if a dog walks on the left or the right, as long as the lead is loose and they are not walking next to the traffic. Recalls need to be reliable and proofed with distractions – or dogs should stay on the lead. And dogs and owners alike should know how to behave around other dogs and people.
And then lastly there is the ‘easy to live with’ skills. These involve good manners at home, whether eating, leaving the house, being left home alone, having company, and just hanging around calmly and sanely.
Many of these things can be taught by just changing your routine, doing day-to-day things a little differently, or else by focusing on the things that make your dog a joy to live with far more than on largely meaningless obedience exercises.
So don’t feel like your training has somehow failed if your dog doesn’t shine in obedience, isn’t glued to your left leg, or doesn’t retrieve a boring dumbbell and present it to you adoringly. Are they fun and easy to live with? Are they a joy at home? Are they a pleasure to walk? Do they have the life skills needed for a family dog? If so, congratulations. If not, find a modern trainer who can help you teach your dog the life skills they need so you can both have a happy life.