Every dog owner knows that you have to train your dog. That simple statement seems to suggest that there is thing called “dog training.” As if there is a standard set of things that everyone teaches their dogs. If you ask the average dog owner why they train their dog, it’s likely that you will get some variation of “to keep them from disrupting our life at home!” While I understand that dog owners mean that they want their dog to fit into their lifestyle, the fact is that owning a dog will disrupt your life; caring for a dog will make your life different than if you didn’t have a dog. The real question is whether that disruption becomes a mostly pleasant or unpleasant disruption.
The fantastic variety of books, articles, web pages, DVDs, and training methods illustrates one simple fact – “training a dog” means very different things to different people. Before I get too far into this topic, let me say that I believe that every dog owner loves their dog(s). We may not always agree on how to live and work with our dogs, I truly believe that with very few exceptions people who have dogs love them and want to do the best for them. But people have different lives with different circumstances and they keep dogs for a variety of reasons. It only makes sense that they will have different reasons for training their dogs and that their expectations of that training will be different.
Choose any two
When I look at all of the options for training a dog, I’m reminded of a saying from my years working in the computer industry. When we discussed a given technology problem we would often say that the solution had three options – “Fast – Cheap – Good.” You could pick any two of those but not all three. If the solution was “Fast”, we got results quickly. If the solution was “Cheap”, it didn’t cost a lot of effort or money to do. If something was “Good”, that meant that the solution was high quality and would last a long time. Any “Fast and Cheap” solution would not be “Good.” Likewise, any “Fast and Good” solution would not be “Cheap.” And while a “Cheap and Good” solution would be possible, it would not happen “Fast.” The same seems to be true for dog training.
In the technology world, “Cheap” meant in terms of monetary cost. But when I apply this idea to dog training, the “cost” seems to be more in terms of the toll it will take on the emotional and mental health of the dog. The term “Good” usually means whether the dog owner gets the behaviours they want from the dog. So that would mean that a “Fast and Good” solution is likely to be hard on the dog but the desired results will be achieved relatively quickly. Similarly, one would think that “Fast and Cheap” training solutions that don’t stress the dog cannot be effective (“Good”) or that “Good and Cheap” solutions that don’t stress the dog will take a long time to do properly. Modern training technology is proving those last two scenarios to be less true that you might think but we’ll discuss that a little later.
Depending on their life situations and personal interests, dog owners seem to choose how and what to “train” their dogs based on these three criteria – How fast do I need results? How much effort will it take? How good or complex does the training need to be? Some owners have very basic requirements for training; house training and basic manners. Others choose have an interest in participating in dog sports or other activities that require more specialized training. So while all dog owners “train” their dogs, “training” doesn’t mean the same thing in every household.
A rose by any other name?
It’s not unusual for me to meet with other dog owners while out walking who will proudly show off that their 6 years old Boxer will sit and stay on command. To them, this is a major training accomplishment. As an avid training enthusiast who has trained his dog to championship titles in dog sports and taught her dozens of tricks in addition to these basic “manners” type behaviours, it would be easy for me to dismiss the Boxer owner’s training efforts as no big deal. But it is a big deal. For that owner’s household, that might be the most complicated and important thing they needed to teach their dog. It can be all too easy to judge how people train their dogs by some ideal training standard. I don’t think that is fair.
The fact is that some people don’t need their dog to walk on a loose leash or stay off furniture or be comfortable in a crate or ex-pen for management. As a dog trainer, it is important for me to recognize that different households have different training requirements and have different amounts of time, effort, and money to devote to working with their dogs. Different homes want different training results but they all want their goals to be met.
What’s the real cost?
The real cost of training a dog usually boils down to how much time and effort we put into working with the dog. Traditional or compulsion based training often claims to get fast results without much effort. Tools like shock and prong collars and methods like leash corrections and verbal reprimands can quickly discourage dogs from doing any behaviours other than those the owner wants. But is a dog who is reluctant to behave in any way for fear of reprimand what the owner wants? In some cases, the answer is yes but not as often as you might think. More humane, reward based training methods are often said to take longer and produce less consistent results but in actual practice, those assumptions are proving to be wrong.
If you are thinking that I am about to violate my “Fast, Cheap, Good – Pick Any Two” analogy, you are very perceptive. Give yourself 10 points! Improvements in technology often create effective solutions that allow us to “have our cake and eat it too.” And just as things like power tools have made building homes faster, easier AND cheaper, advances in behavioural science and our understanding of how dogs learn have given us training techniques that can give us the same effective results as more Traditional methods just as quickly and with less cost to the mental and emotional health of our dogs.
Reward based training methods like Mark & Reward Training have been used for teaching everything from basic potty training and house manners to incredibly complex training like Search & Rescue training, Service Dog training, and championship dog sport training. The past 20 years has seen an explosion of great books, videos, and training instruction for reward based training that produces great results quickly no matter how simple or how complex your training needs might be.
Why do you train YOUR dog?
Why do you want to train your dog? Is it just to keep him from being a nuisance or is it something more? There really isn’t a wrong answer to that question. As I have said, we all have different lives and different requirements. It comes down to two simple questions. What do you expect from your dog? And what are you willing to do to get there? Whether you just want a canine companion for your family home or if you want to train your dogs to be an Obedience or Tracking champion, choosing the right approach to working with your dog can make all the difference.
We live in incredible times and there are more options for dog owners than ever before. Not only do we have so many great ways to teach our dogs, we have more ways to access that information than ever before. The Internet has given us access to online stores for books, DVDs, and training materials. There are web pages for organizations, individuals, and directories that can help dog owners find some of the most knowledgeable dog trainers that live and work in nearly every geographic location.
No matter what your training goals are, we don’t seem to be limited by the “Good, Fast, Cheap – Choose any two” cliche anymore. Not all training methods are equal any more. Some are definitely better than others at producing different kinds of results. Modern reward based training like Mark & Reward training can help you achieve basic training goals with much less effort and stress on your dog. More traditional methods may get results and even get them quickly but they might produce a very different dog.
Twelve years ago, I found modern science-based training so easy to do that my training goals went much further that I had expected. I found that I could do more with my dog than I ever thought possible. Give it a try. Check out Clicker Training or any of the great websites on modern reward based training. You have nothing to lose and lots to gain!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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