When I began training professionally I had this really all-or-nothing hardcore idea that every dog needed to be trained like a sport dog to be considered “trained”. I could not wrap my head around the idea of a loose leash walk being appropriate rather than a tight flashy heel, or a sit before eating instead of a 2 hour sit-stay only ever broken by a specific release command. Part of this came about because the dog that began my training career at the age of 15, called Wicca, was a very difficult dog with all sorts of aggression, reactivity, anxieties and the other usual cornucopia of crazy that comes with it. So everything I learned to train her was to specifically train a trouble dog, which means micromanagement, no room for error, strict structure and little free time. This had such a profound and miraculous impact on Wicca that I was sure that every single dog needed to be trained that way and would then turn into the picture perfect dog! I became obsessed with training hard temperament dogs, which then lead me to the world of sport dogs, eventually to IPO and Schutzhund training and that threw me down the rabbit hole that I am still falling through. All of these training styles, methods and philosophies overlap and reinforce each other because they all deal with dogs like Wicca. I had absolutely no interest in the average pet dog, soft temperaments, friendly and chill attitudes or easy going tendencies. I was attracted to the dogs that would fight back, and like most dog people, I became a snob about it and wouldn’t tolerate underachievement from dogs or handlers.
I couldn’t be talked out of this either. More training is always better, right? Almost always, yes. So to me there was no excuse not to give 110% to what you are doing. If you can’t devote that time, then you shouldn’t be a dog owner…. Yes, I thought that. The truth is that I was so wrapped up in the working dog world and was so arrogant about it that I saw dogs who didn’t require this sort of training as less-than. Like, not real dogs. I was about 17 at this point, but you see this from a lot of trainers still without the excuse of youth, “real dogs” meaning a hard temperament, work focused, high drive and defensive. Usually used by men using bad dogs as a way to feel important, and those men DOMINATE the American Schutzhund community, so I was sucked right in. I couldn’t agree more, and I began scoffing at dogs who weren’t that way.
Around this time I got my first apprenticeship with a dog trainer. She had me working primarily with group classes and the board-and-train dogs, who at the time were pretty standard cases. These tasks she gave me further reinforced my idea of one-size-fits-all approach where every dog is to be rigorously drilled on their obedience, rewarding only the top accuracy and having very high standards, especially for the B&T. It wasn’t until a few years later when I got another apprenticeship that my rigid protocol came into question. This time I spent most of my time working with the head trainer with private in-home training sessions where we worked directly with the dog and the owner on their particular issues and concerns. Because I was still green, she spent most time on the basic cases with me where we worked with dogs without any real behavioral problems, just jumping up, pulling on the leash and the usual nuisance behaviors. This is where I began to get frustrated. These simple dogs with lots of potential were being allowed to walk willy nilly on the leash as long as they didn’t pull, stopping to sniff the ground or changing from left to right sides. EXCUSE ME? I was appalled that a world renown trainer and behaviorist would allow such weakness! And the dog isn’t sitting and waiting in front of their food before being released to eat, but instead just handed it as long as they didn’t jump? I couldn’t believe it. I questioned her left and right, constantly trying to bring this up while still being respectful. She would say to me that they just didn’t need to do all that when their dogs are fine for them. This took me so long to accept, and my rebellious 20 year old mind refused for quite a while to lower myself to such sloppy obedience work. What finally made me give in was frustration. I was frustrated with the owners with slow reflexes who couldn’t give that leash correction at the precise 1/10th of a second window where the dog will learn most efficiently, and the owners that got frustrated with me when I wouldn’t stop nagging them to keep the dog in stay for the entire time they prepared their meals, etc. Ultimately I gave in from a sense of time management, it was just quicker to do things half assed then to do it right. I was not happy about that, either.
Fast forward about 10 years and I found myself on a training hiatus because of a nasty resurgence in my bipolar disorder that knocked me out for a few years. During this downtime I found myself totally overwhelmed with life and the smallest tasks exhausted me. Overwhelm lead to horrific panic attacks and I was essentially paralyzed from forward movement in life and just spent most of my time at home sleeping. Meanwhile I had my three current dogs, German Shepherds Dax and Adrien, and little Scully. The three had between them the span of just about every instability it is possible for a dog to have, as well as reflecting the absolute chaos of my mind all the time. In short, it was a nightmare. I was so impatient and tired during this that I didn’t lift a finger to formally work the dogs, and instead I just needed them to be calm. All I wanted was to have a quiet home where I wasn’t having to be majorly inconvenienced every second by enormous and high drive monsters. I just didn’t want them to cross in front of me when I walked across the room, or to bark insistently at the door, or zig zag in front of me when I walked them, or to try to get my food when I am on the couch, I didn’t care about anything else. I just needed to leave a peaceful life. Up until this point I had flogged myself for such laziness and incompetence, the same things I would grumble under my breath at the owners I used to train, but now, I finally got it. These people weren’t being lazy or negligent, they just didn’t have the brain power to spare to rigorously train their dogs 8 hours a day and micromanage their every move until they were like robotic obedience machines if they didn’t have to. Most of these people had full time jobs, school, kids, families, hobbies and other things that meant they couldn’t devote their entire existence to training like I had done. In fact, most people with dogs don’t particularly like training, they just do it because they have to to have a happy home. They weren’t obsessed with it like I was, they didn’t live, breathe and dream it like I did. Most important, they didn’t need to! They wanted their dogs to melt into their lives as a cohesive and comfortable family member, and that was it. There are lots of people who did need that kind of management for their dogs with problem behaviors, but for the average person and average dog, it is an absurd expectation.
So my training motto is this: if it doesn’t bother you, then it doesn’t bother me. When people ask me if their dog “should” or “shouldn’t” do something, as if there were some greater biblical writing on the righteousness of dogs on couches or walking in front of them, I tell them this. If it doesn’t bother you, then it is not a problem. If you don’t mind your dog sitting on your lap on the couch, then neither do I. If you don’t mind your dog walking across the dining room table, then neither do it. I finally understood that my job as a trainer is to help the family come to peace with their dogs. I teach them how to communicate with the dog in a way that the dog understands, help identify problem behaviors and suggest solutions to these problems. That is all a trainer needs to do.