When Should We Train Our Dogs?
There is a long list of things I will forever appreciate about my mother. One of them being her strong desire that I receive a broad education. She fought hard for me to have educational opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t normally have had. She took opportunities to help me learn lessons about life, sometimes when I didn’t want to. Because of her commitment to my education, I have thus far had a wonderful life full of really incredible opportunities. It doesn’t mean things were always smooth, and sometimes they were far from it, but learning to self-reflect, to learn and grow from mistakes, and to love learning and growing no matter how challenging the road can sometimes be has provided me with the foundation from which my joy of life is born.
As a dog owner, I apply what I have learned from my mother about care and raising to my own dogs. I have developed a huge love of watching them learn, of encouraging them to problem solve, to find joy in both experiences and learning lessons. Neither my dogs nor I are perfect, but damn do we have fun and get to enjoy doing a lot of things together.
As a dog trainer, I dream of that for my clients. I see how seemingly far a family’s dog’s behavior might be from what they dream, and I see how much change in the family it will take to achieve it. But I also see the dog’s potential and the family’s potential. For years, I have observed families interacting with their dogs and have taken note of many things, but one thing in particular stands out: how much the family values educating their dog.
In my observation—and this applies to families training relatively well-behaved dogs and families training dogs with extremely difficult behavior—dog owners who value educating their dogs, and who make effort to understand their dog’s language, enjoy the training process far more than those who don’t value that education. Those who value that education see greater potential in their dogs because they have seen their dogs grow, not just age. Those who value that education also better understand that the growth never ends. The same way a parent never stops sharing life lessons with their children no matter their child’s age or life experience.
I am currently working with a family who has a Belgian Malinois, a breed that can be and often is a difficult family pet. The owners adopted the dog some years back and almost immediately began educating their new dog. They signed up for training lessons and participated in some group classes. The husband, especially, came to love training the dog and even after they wrapped up their training program they continued to work on their dog’s education. Because of the dog’s temperament, much in relation to his breed and likely poor breeding practices, he began to show seriously aggressive behavior after maturity. The dog’s owners immediately knew it was time for training. They were ready to fully invest themselves in the training process, and engage in a deeper learning experience.
Finding solutions for aggressive behavior is a trying and tedious process, especially for families, who are hoping that they never have to go through it. Something I noticed immediately about this Belgian Malinois’ family, let’s call him Teddy, is that they were not only welcoming of the training process rather than resistant to it, but they also saw great potential in their dog. They had worked with him in training so much that they could read changes in his body language, they could anticipate when and why his behavior was going to change, and had already formed some solutions. When we dove into the training process, it ran smoothly because Teddy already has a pretty wide vocabulary and his owners already have a communication system with him.
The trend of calling dogs ‘fur babies’ or ‘kids’ has set in for years now. Sometimes I think using those terms is an excuse to coddle dogs or simply spend every moment with them, but doesn’t always represent a true commitment to putting energy into raising them to be educated, well behaved, and well-rounded. When I work with these clients, the training process is always burdensome, and their dog showing challenging behavior is always like popping the biggest bubble and leading to significant disappointment. It actually changes that owner’s relationship with the dog negatively because oftentimes their connection to the dog was built on the dog’s behavior at the start and not on the relationship that they built through encouraging the dog’s growth and development.
I encourage every one of my clients to engage in training their dogs in a multitude of ways so that they can always find opportunities. It’s not always about lengthy training sessions at inconvenient times (although that sometimes has value too), but more about finding and creating meaningful opportunities when we’re already spending time with our dogs. We do this not just when they’re puppies, not just while they’re young, not just while in a training program or just when we get them. I believe this should be a way of life with our dogs, just like we would prioritize our children’s growth throughout their lives. This is where we deepen our bond with our dogs, where we learn to truly communicate with them, and is the space where joy with our dog flourishes.