When we got our youngest dog, Rizzo, my wife commented to me on how he was a “perfect” puppy. I agreed with her and suggested that he was ours to mess up. While that may sound a little callous, we both understood each other. Our 8 week-old Rizzo came to us pretty much as a blank slate. He was ready, willing, and able to learn whatever we were prepared to teach him. We could just as easily teach him, through poor techniques or just bad execution, all of the things he would need to make him a “bad” dog – a problem for us or even a danger to the public. But all we had to do was not mess up and we would have a wonderful dog. It sounds simple enough.
We put a great deal of thought and work into training Rizzo in that first year. My wife did most of the work although we talked frequently about Rizzo’s progress and what we could do to improve his learning by changing his training in small ways. We didn’t spend hours and hours training but we did short sessions every day and we were very specific about what we were working on teaching our new puppy each time we worked with him. Strangely, the process seemed to bring out a fear of “doing something wrong.” We didn’t want to mess up. We didn’t want to “break the dog” that had come to us wide-eyed and “perfect.”
I’ll huff and I’ll puff…
Rizzo has turned out to be a pretty terrific dog. He’s not perfect. There was more we could have done. There were things we could have done differently. But, on the whole, we taught Rizzo to be exactly the dog we wanted. The few quirks he has have become endearing traits and nothing we can’t manage. But still somewhere in the back of our minds is that little nagging voice that says, “Careful! Don’t screw him up.”
It reminds me of the children’s story of the “Three Little Pigs” who each built their houses out of different materials; straw, wood, and brick. All three pigs were convinced that they had built solid homes for themselves but when the big, bad wolf came to huff and puff and blow their houses down, only the house made of brick could withstand the test. When we train our dogs, it can be hard to know whether our training is “made of straw” or “made of brick” when it comes to standing up to accidents, slip-ups, and unexpected situations.
We train our dogs using Mark and Reward training (i.e., clicker training). It’s a great technique for many reasons. Among its virtues is that it is an overwhelmingly positive experience for the dog. They LIKE to do it! Behaviours are learned in easy-to-do increments. There is lots of practice and lots of fun. It’s quick, easy to learn how to do, and allows the dog to learn in a safe and comfortable way. As I mentioned, we trained a little each day. So new learning quickly became well known behaviour and then became good habits.
Training Rizzo just became part of the daily routine. We built up the behaviours we wanted bit by bit doing a little work every day. We were consistent to interrupt the behaviours we didn’t want and redirect Rizzo to more acceptable activities. I like to think of it like the Little Pig who built his house out of brick. We just did the work. We taught our dog, brick by brick, and eventually we had a dog that fit into our lives just as we had envisioned.
Fear of failing
We were doing our daily work with Rizzo and even though we could see him learning and growing each day, there was still that nagging fear that somehow it could disappear one day. What if we failed to interrupt his barking? What if he got loose and chased a squirrel and we couldn’t recall him? What if he found playing with other dogs more rewarding than working with us? There were a hundred “what-if” scenarios we could worry about.
But I remembered some very good advice I had heard when I was raising our older dog, Tiramisu. “If it takes months to build a dog, it takes months to break a dog.” My own experience with Tira had taught me that all of that daily training had other benefits beyond just what I teach my dog. It is our practice to keep our dogs success rate high when we train. They are successful at least 3 out of every 4 tries, even if we have to change the criteria to make it a little easier for them. That means even though they don’t get rewarded 1 out of every 4 tries (on average, of couse), they still enjoy training because the experience is still mostly rewarding.
But it’s a very human thing to worry about what might go wrong. In fact, there is well known principle in psychology called the Dunning-Krueger Effect that shows that very skilled people tend to worry more about their actual abilities while less skilled people tend to be overly confident of their abilities. Now, I’m not going to claim that our level of concern over “breaking” Rizzo is an indication of how skilled we are as dog trainers. But I do think that our planning and effort did make us more sensitive to all of the things that could go wrong.
Bricks and mortar
Can you “break” a dog? Sure. It happens all the time. Just ask the people who work at animal shelters and in rescue organizations. But if you are reading this, you very likely have put more than a little thought into how you work and live with your dogs. I want to reassure you that all of the work you put in is worth it. In addition to teaching our dogs how to be “good dogs”, we also somehow managed to teach them to be forgiving of our occasional slip-ups. It seems to be true from my own experience that the more effort you put into teaching your dog, the more resilient they seem to be to the forgotten reward, the poorly time interruption, or the occasional “bad dog” moment.
Rizzo isn’t perfect. He still barks at strangers on a walk sometimes (that’s not necessarily a bad thing) and he certainly gets overly excited and howls and whines when it’s time to play agility. But he doesn’t bolt out the door. We don’t worry about him chasing down the neighbors. He is a willing and cooperative partner with my wife in Search-and-Rescue style tracking, Rally Obedience, Agility, they often go kayaking and hiking together, and he is an excellent traveler with great hotel manners.
So even though I worry that we could have done more, I don’t worry about that unexpected “big bad wolf” situation that might come and wipe out all of the good work we have done. It’s all still there even though things might slip from time to time. That’s the wonderful thing about dogs, training, and behaviour – we can always do more work on things. After all, in our house training is fun. And who doesn’t like more fun?
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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All photos Petra Wingate copyright 2010-2014