I don’t often climb onto my soapbox. For one thing, most times it takes more effort to mount the damn thing than whatever I feel the need to speechify about is worth.
But every now and then something is vexing enough to provide the necessary motivation. Ill-mannered dogs are one of those irritants that provide sufficient prodding because, unless the dog has serious temperament flaws — in which case the dog shouldn’t be out in public anyway — there’s simply no excuse for such behavior.
Frankly, bad-mannered dogs are just as offensive as rude, inconsiderate people. Have you ever strolled through the grooming area at a dog show and had some pooch threaten to rip your face off, even though you’ve done nothing more threatening than walk down the aisle past the grooming enclave? Well, I have, and more than once or twice. Then, instead of the sharp and consequential reprimand the dog richly deserves for such behavior, if the handler reacts at all, it’s with a mild, “naughty, naughty, mustn’t do” reproof. Putting aside the bad publicity it creates for the breed, if one of these bozos actually executes its threats, the dog’s handler, owner or both would likely be in hot water with everyone from the show committee to their liability insurance carrier.
You owe it to the dog, yourself and the rest of society to make sure your dog is under control.
While bad behavior on the part of a show dog is loathsome and can cause, at minimum, the handler to be subjected to some dirty looks, where unacceptable behavior can really get you in deep water is in performance sports, the herding arena or the field. There, if a dog displays bad behavior, all sorts of dangerous things can happen, ranging from a dog fight to someone getting bitten to an actual life-threatening situation. If you shout “whoa” and the dog keeps going, the odds dramatically increase that it will not end well for the dog.
It’s not that difficult to teach a show dog basic obedience, demand good behavior and enforce both. The other handlers at dog shows will definitely appreciate it if your dog is pleasant to be around. On the other hand, basic obedience is mandatory in virtually every type of performance sport, (except possibly those that are based on pure instinct), and it is the foundation upon which everything is built for gun and herding dogs. But even if a sport is pure instinct, a dog needs to come when called, sit when told to do so and not be aggressive to people or other dogs.
A well-behaved dog says a lot about the person who owns it. You have to love them enough to take the time and make the effort to teach them to be obedient, decent companions. It also speaks volumes about the involvement of the owner or the handler in the dog’s daily life. You can’t be a “part-time owner” who trains a dog for a day and then ignores it for a month or who corrects a dog for some misbehavior one time, then lets it slide the next and still have a well-mannered dog.
As politically incorrect as this topic may be in some sectors of the dog world, and may not be quite as applicable for show dogs as it is for field, performance or herding dogs, at some point correcting unacceptable behavior will become an issue. It usually occurs when the dog is larking across the field or around the ring, arena or course communing with his or her muses, and the only thing you want them to commune with is the person blowing the whistle or issuing commands. You know the dog heard you and understood what you wanted. It just chose to thumb its canine nose at you.
These simply are the times when you need to remind dogs who puts the food in their dish every day. This is considerably different from those once- or twice-a-year situations when you may have to have a brief but intense dialogue about who is the dog and who is the handler and the job descriptions for each.
Different training techniques work for different dogs.
The question, for most dog people, however, is how much correction is enough?
For several hundred years, dog training, like horse training, used techniques that could only be described as harsh, brutal, cruel and even sadistic. These techniques focused on causing a maximum amount of pain for the dog when it failed to obey. The idea behind this harsh treatment was by making disobedience so uncomfortable, the dog would never consider anything but total compliance with any orders. These heavy-handed techniques are still in use, particularly among some retriever field-trial trainers who continue to believe that this level of punishment is necessary to make the dogs so fearful of the pain for failure to obey instantly that it carries over when the dogs are in competition. While this method has made some great performers, it has produced far more dogs that washed out of the field-trial game as complete mental cases unfit for any job — including being a family pet.
Then, about 50 years ago, along came a group of folks who seemed to have an answer that was in direct opposition to the long-accepted brutal training methods. Everything in dog “conditioning” was to be positive. The foremost evangelist for this technique was the late Barbara Woodhouse, who contended that there was no such thing as a bad dog, just bad owners, although she carefully excluded those dogs genetically predisposed to nastiness from her “no bad dogs” statement.
Ms. Woodhouse’s techniques and those of others in the permissive culture have spawned several books by people claiming to be “dog whisperers.” While certainly some of the methods these folks have championed are proven training techniques, an equal amount of what they advocate could only be classified as a lot of canine psychobabble. Totally positive training may work with very, very compliant dogs, but it is not the complete answer even for dogs like my current one, who is about as soft as they come, and certainly not for strong-willed, independent-minded dogs. With most dogs, at some time, you will have to draw a line in the sand and not only tell them they may not cross it but also mean what you say.
Never train when you're stressed out. Take a walk instead.
Virtually all dog training involves force to some degree. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get away from it if you are going to be successful training your dog for any activity. A tap on the rump to get them to sit, pressure on their lips to get them to open their mouth, walking on a leash are all force methods you use when you want dogs to do something that may not be what they had in mind to do at that time. Even stacking in the show ring requires some force, since very few dogs learn to stack properly without being nudged around a bit.
All this finally brings us to the question of how much force/pressure/discipline, call it what you will, is appropriate.
The first thing to remember is that each and every dog is different. The gulf in attitudes between even two very closely related dogs can be wide indeed. So, after more years than I care to count training retrievers and pointing breeds for obedience and the field as well as seeing training fads come and go like changes in the wind, here are three inviolate tenets I have learned, frequently the hard way, about correcting undesirable dog behavior, assuming the dog has been taught and fully understands exactly what you mean and what’s expected of him or her with each command you use.
• Never use an ounce more force than is absolutely necessary to get a response. Response does not mean tail-between-the-legs-crawling-on-his-belly-screaming-at-the-top-of-their-lungs. All you need to know is whether the dog is paying attention; if they’re looking at you, focused on you, they are paying attention. Here is when it is imperative to know your dog. For some, a disapproving look and a stern “bad dog” will produce a “I promise I’ll never do this again” response. Others require that you be the equivalent of a Marine Corps drill instructor, getting up close and personal with them, just to get them to notice that something might be bothering you. There are others that view every training session as a contest of wills, and they test the limits each and every day to see if you might have gone soft overnight. With dogs like this, you can never yield an inch of slack because they view any such action as a sign of weakness.
Some dogs come unglued with hurt feelings, pouting or, even worse, freezing up if you administer a physical correction. For these dogs, frequently the use of an e-collar is the best option because it is impersonal — the correction doesn’t appear to be coming directly from someone they love. It’s a sort of “bolt from the blue” when they mess up. Still, for all its benefits, especially with “soft” dogs, you should never use an e-collar unless you have been well trained in its use and the dog is properly collar conditioned. Even then it should be used with not one level more stimulation than is needed to get a response.
Even in performance events fueled mostly by instinct, dogs need to be able to respond to basic commands.
• Don’t fall in love with a training system or method. Just because a technique works for Rover doesn’t mean that Spot will also respond in the same way. Where many a trainer goes wrong is trying to fit a dog into a system instead of adjusting the system to fit the dog. One size DOES NOT FIT ALL when it comes to dog training. Flexibility is the key not only to training but also to enforcing that training. Whatever works with your dog is the correct way to make sure the rules are obeyed. If your dog will work for food, become a “cookie trainer” with the discipline being withholding food when the dog disobeys. If you have a dog that when given an order responds on a regular basis with “Yeah, you and who else are going to make me do it?” attitude, you’ll likely have to do more than simply withhold praise and cookies. These hard heads often need some pretty stout persuasion.
Whatever technique you use for enforcing commands, don’t nag with constant little corrections. It is far better and more effective to have it out with the dog and then move on. But keep in mind that dogs live entirely in the present. You can’t get on a dog for something they did as little as five minutes ago because after about 30 seconds have elapsed, they have no idea why they’re in trouble.
• Make sure your own temper is under control before you make a correction. If you can’t control yourself, you have absolutely no business trying to control the dog. If you have had a stressful day at the office, or your spouse, the kids or just the world in general has driven you to the edge, DON’T TRAIN THE DOG! Instead, sit down and spend a half-hour or so petting the dog. Then you and the dog go for a long walk, preferably in some quiet park or on a pretty, peaceful path. The dog will love you for it, you’ll drop your blood pressure by several points, and, most important, you WON’T MESS UP THE DOG!
You owe it to the dog, yourself and the rest of society to make sure your dog is under control. For peace to reign at home, at shows, in the ring, in the arena or in the field, the dog has to understand that this is an unequal relationship. There can only be one boss, and that boss has to be you. The dog looks to you for structure in the absence of a four-footed pack leader. This means that a dog owner or trainer must be much like the skipper of a Navy ship — perhaps the last absolute monarch left in world. The word of the captain on a ship at sea is law. So must it be with you and your dog.