Myths are rampant in the world of dog training. Here, we’ll address the top five misconceptions most commonly shared by clients.
“Positive training won’t work for my breed. My dog is too pushy.”
The fact is, the laws of learning apply universally, just as the laws of gravity do. If you step off a roof, you will still drop like a rock whether or not you believe in gravity. Positive training is especially effective with dogs that have been exposed to harsh training methods in the past.
It develops a language you both speak which allows you to build a relationship based on trust, choice, and two-way communication. Not to mention a demonstration of the power of positive training with the client’s dog is especially effective and looks pretty sexy. Let your training do your talking for you! It often speaks louder than words. Want more? Read here.
“You can’t teach older dogs new tricks”
Really? This bit of folklore is, well, particularly long-lived (sorry, couldn’t resist!) To the contrary, dogs are capable of learning new things well into adulthood and beyond. Do keep in mind, though, that when teaching a senior dog, you may have to accommodate for some aches and pains or perhaps some hearing or vision deficits.
For healthy adult dogs, learning new skills is entirely possible. You may wish to remind your reluctant client that in fact, many service dogs do not begin serious training until they are beyond puppyhood. In some cases, the dubious client may really suggesting that in order to ensure a calm and easy-going dog, raising a dog from puppyhood will be a safer bet than adding an adult dog to their home. Of course the irony there is that every dog in the shelter system started out as a puppy.
“Positive training takes too long.”
Let’s face it, our clients are bombarded with ads from shock-jocks promising to suppress unwanted behavior in one visit, which can be especially tempting in today’s pushbutton world. But dogs are not computers or machines and we are certain that your client did not add a dog to their home to fill such a role.
Suppressing behavior often creates a seemingly helpful short term stoppage, but it doesn’t change the underlying cause and it comes with a lot of unwanted fallout. Dogs are complex social animals. Positive trainers use their knowledge and skills to effect long lasting change that happens even when the collar comes off or the treats run out. It’s a bit like those ads we see promising to “melt off pounds while still eating the same foods!”. Fishy.
“My dog pees on the carpet out of spite because she is mad at me. She knows she did something wrong.”
This is really a two-part myth, isn’t it? The myth of the dog seeking revenge and the myth of the “guilty” dog. Let’s start with the first part. For a dog to purposely eliminate to elicit a response from their human requires a great deal of forethought and the ability to plan. It also requires the ability to understand unspoken thoughts (theory of mind) to determine what action would be most hurtful to another. More on the subject here.
Dogs simply are not capable of such high-level reasoning and it’s a good thing they are not. As to the “guilty” look, dogs are very good observers of our body language and signals we send when angry. Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Inside of a Dog”, famously set up an experiment in which owners instructed their dog to not eat a treat, then left the room. They returned after the dog ate the treat or the testers themselves removed it. The “guilty look” appeared most often when the owners returned to see the treat was gone and didn’t know if the dog ate it or it had been removed (and scolded anyway), even in the cases where the dog hadn’t eaten the treat at all.
“If I use food to train, my dog will not listen unless I always carry treats”
There is an unspoken and particularly insidious myth that goes something like this: “If you reward your dog for behavior that he should be performing anyway, he will never ‘respect’ your authority and will become a food begging monster.” Reminding our clients that they feed their dog every day, for free is often helpful in shifting their view.
Why, you may ask, not have Fido work for his food? Can well-meaning clients teach a dog to only perform while treats are out? Of course! Here’s how: Bad timing (which would also make a really good band name!) Clients new to positive training will sometimes show the dog the treat as a prompt, causing the dog to (naturally) pair the sight of the food to the behavior itself. It can then inadvertently become part of the behavior. Be sure you give clients plenty of practice in delivering treats properly. Training is a skill, after all, for the human as well as the dog! Read more.
These are just a few of the top favorites in the playlist of myths and misconceptions that professional dog trainers hear from their clients. It’s up to us as the experts (and schools like VSA who train to an expert level) to meet the owners where they are, with understanding and patience (and without condescension) and help give them the tools to better understand our canine companions.