Monday, February 18, 2013

Train the dog you have

I’ve quit counting how many times I’ve started this post and never finished it. My thoughts go winging off in so many different directions that it’s easy to lose track of the points I intended to make. Please bear with me while I get this random collection of loosely related thoughts out of my head.

Have you ever been advised to imitate someone else in terms of training your dog? In other words, has a well-meaning instructor/friend/observer/passerby suggested you “be more like” someone else because their dog is so fantastic – just do what they do and certainly all your troubles will disappear?

I’ve encountered this occasionally over the years and it always feels a bit awkward. While there’s nothing wrong with admiring someone else’s training style or the relationship they share with their dog, it may do very little to help you with your own dog.

My biggest problem is that the “be more like So and So” approach ignores the individuality of your dog and the value of the relationship you’re building.

There are a number of trainers I sincerely admire and while I may draw ideas and inspiration from them, they are not me and their dogs are not my dog. Simply trying to plug in their methods and expecting them to work is not very realistic.

One lesson I learned early as a trainer was never to compare myself to another trainer or more importantly, to never compare my dog to other dogs. Everyone’s journey is different. Although some days it may seem like mimicking others is the easiest route to achievement, that can only make things harder in the long run because instead if focusing on who your dog is and what he needs from you, you’re just following a formula that worked for someone else.

Which  brings me to the title of today’s post: “Train the dog  you have.” Don't train your current dog like he's your retired dog who was brilliant. Don't train him like the dog you WISH he was. Don't train him like he's the dog you believe he can become in the future. Train him like dog he is NOW. Evaluate his strengths and weaknesses and tailor your training accordingly.

It’s easy to become enchanted with a training approach that is completely wrong for your dog but “everyone else is doing it” so you jump on the bandwagon, too. Been there! Often, the hardest thing about training your dog is learning the best way to train your dog.

Unless you’re one of the truly blessed trainers who gets everything right the first time, training throughout a dog’s career is often a matter of trial and error. That’s not what anybody wants to hear but it’s often the reality of pursuing any level of achievement. I think the best trainers (winning ribbons does not necessarily equal being a good trainer) are those who aren’t afraid to experiment and try new things to help their dogs learn. If they feel a conventional, traditional or currently popular method isn’t giving them what they want, they modify it or seek another method all together. Perhaps the popular method will be right for your dog in six months. Maybe it will never be right.

In spite of what people may swear, there is no single “right” way to train a dog. If Trainer A gets lovely results with one method and Trainer B gets lovely results with a different method and both methods are fair and humane and taught with compassion, is one method “better” than the other? Of course not.

The error isn’t in trying a training method that produced wonderful results for someone else. The error is in not valuing in your dog’s individuality as well as the value of the relationship and journey you share together. Train the dog you have.


  1. I needed this post. This past weekend, I uncovered ring-wise-ish behavior from my dog during a run-through. She left the ring twice. I have been pretty depressed about it because we've been working the same stuff you have (play-based) for some time now and it clearly hasn't yielded the results I wanted or thought I would see by now.

    I love watching happy dogs during obedience. What makes my dog happy isn't play in between exercises. In fact, I think she prefers more work to link together the exercises. What makes her happy is a gigantic jackpot. I have a video I made several months ago of my use of the jackpot reward and the difference is staggering. Her tail is up and wagging. My dog never wags, so upon reviewing the video again... I may have found something that will work. That has worked in the past. That will always work. For her. You've helped me realize that I can't have a herding breed or a dog who will enjoy play with me. She's lower than ever when I try to make her into those types of dogs. I will train the dog I have - the one who enjoys jackpots and work for the sake of food. And that will have to be okay with me.

  2. Amen. There are so many "methods" out there and debate. it drives me insane. I always think it's not just about the trainer or just about the dog. but a variety of things: how you live with the dog, your own value system (for real... when it comes to using things like positive only or correction, what level of correction etc.) ... also what the dog needs. It's a combination. I notice I work with both my dogs similarly AND differently. each dog has different learning styles too. Juno takes a ton of repetition and small accurate steps while Loki has no trouble making guesses and tightening his behavior with little repetition. I've meant to comment on your posts a few back on training methods and I just feel like its so controversial, every time I write it, it sounds like I'm bashing one method or another. The truth is, at the end of the day, the method you use, barring that it isn't abusive and absurdly punishment oriented, consistency is a key element. doesn't matter what method it is, consistency is crucial. and timing. and drive. and motivation. and training equipment. oh and value of treats. oh wait...what was I talking about? ;) Great post and couldn't agree more....

  3. Excellent post! I think you could have also called this post "Be Your Own Trainer and Start Thinking for Yourself".

    I think good trainers tailor their approach to helping new clients/dogs based on *that team*, not based on the last dog/client they taught. So why short change ourselves by teaching our latest dog "exactly" like we taught a previous dog...or teaching them by using someone else's plan.

  4. I agree excellent post! The only thing I would add is to be SURE you're executing a method effectively, and give it a little time to work before you scrap it. I see so many inexperienced trainers bouncing from technique to technique looking for a magic pill, and often times the problem was never the method, but a lack of ability to apply it well.

  5. Well said. And a lesson I have learned well.