Hey, you. Yeah you. The one with the dog.
(And you, the one thinking about getting a dog. You should pay attention to this too.)
Have you ever wanted to know why your dog behaves better with his trainer than with you? Do you ever wonder why, when the instructor asks if she can use your pup to demonstrate a particular command, little Rover trots happily along, never pulling, paying close attention and executes said command flawlessly? Does it ever chap your ass to see your pound pup or expensive pedigree pooch - we'll call him "College Fund" - plop his butt on the floor the first time the instructor says sit? Especially since you've been trying to teach him how to do that for a week with mixed results. Okay, not mixed exactly. Try no results. None. Do you ever look at your dog and then at the trainer and say "What magic did you perform on my precious Muffy?"
Would you like to know the secret?
At great expense to my reputation and my membership in the mystical society of canine educators I will share with you the Secrets of a Dog Trainer.
(I don't know why, but I feel like there should be some music here. Like the music sting from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?".)
THERE ARE NO SECRETS!!!
We smell like cheese, hot dogs and liver. We smile at the dog and use happy voices and lots of praise. We talk to the dog in even tones about nothing in particular, the weather perhaps. But when the time comes to get down to business we are direct and to the point. We say what we mean and mean what we say. And we smell like hot dogs. I cannot stress that enough. That's it. And we're more than willing to share these tips with you. That's what we get paid for.
Hope I didn't disappoint too many of you.
I get a little frustrated from time to time with the dog owners who attend my classes. I will stand in front of 8 or 9 of them, all with wiggling dogs straining on their leashes, week after week and tell them clearly and succinctly that this (demonstrating command with my own wonderfully - cough - trained - cough - dog) is what you should do to get your dog to _______ (insert command here - sit, down, stay, come to me now right now and stop rolling in that dead chipmunk carcass!). I will show them step by painfully small step how to go from a) dog nearly choking itself to get to the dog next to him, to b) dog sitting nicely next to owner and waiting for their tasty treat.
And I will stress over and over that what ever command they are teaching their dog should be said once and only once and not repeated over and over again in rapid succession. And what do I hear once I've showed them a few times what to do, step by step?
"Sit! Sitsitsitsitsit! SIT! Doggie, sit! C'mon sit. Come! Come here. Why won't you sit? No! Down! Stop jumping on me. Down! Off! Stay away! Okay, good dog. Now, sit. No! Down! Sit! Stupid dog, SIT!!!!"
I don't know about the dog, but I have no idea what those particular owners are trying to get their dog to do. Sit? Down? Come? My head is spinning at that point. Maybe I didn't make myself clear, something must have gotten lost in translation.
So I go over to one owner and ask if I can demonstrate the command again, this time with their puppy. "Oh, please!" they'll say. "I think she's untrainable. See what you can do with her." And then they give me that knowing look. The one that says "Good luck. You and I both know this dog is untrainable."
Before their very eyes I will wave my invisible magic doggie training wand (in the form of a small piece of liver, a tighter leash, and a direct command "sit") and to their astonishment get that untrainable puppy to put it's butt on the floor. The first time I ask. And then again and again. Wow. Some magic. When I give the pooch back to it's owner, the hapless woman (or man, but sadly its usually a woman) will make some remark about how amazing that was and could I continue to train their dog.
Uh, lady, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to teach you and your dog how to do this. Its not rocket science, its basic dog training 101. Tay appention, Panky.
In two weeks my classes will be starting again. Everyone has taken the spring to get their new puppies or shelter dogs to save themselves the trouble of housebreaking in foul weather. That means I've got at least a month of bad training to undo. Well, not bad exactly, more like incorrect. These people have the best intentions and want to do right by their new furry charges. But after the first night of class I will go home, tired and spent and covered with dog hair and drool, and sit on my couch with my head in my hands and my husband will ask me why I still do this if it bothers me so much that not everyone listens. Not everyone is as committed to training their dog as I am.
That's not the point, I'll say, I love what I do. And if I can reach these people and help them teach their animals the correct way to leave some of their canine instincts behind and live peacefully with a family then I can save them some heartbreak when their puppies grow up into dogs and become too big and unruly for them to handle. Their failures are my failures. If I can't reach them then what will happen to their dogs?
That's the real secret. Dog trainers can predict with some accuracy which dogs will be relinquished to pounds and shelters. And that's what we're trying to stop from happening. We're trying to keep those dogs from being passed from one concrete kennel to another. The magic does not lie in the commands themselves, it lies in the connection that an owner makes with their dog, when the two of you are working together. When there's no push or pull. When your dog knows what you want from them because its been made clear from the beginning. The walls of confusion come down and you're both speaking the same language.
And the look between the two of you speaks volumes and you can never imagine life without them. That's magic.
This post in no way reflects my feelings about anyone who has reached out to me through my blog for advice on how to handle their dog. Its the culmination of a few years of classes and the hundreds of dog owners I have met and counseled. I enjoy helping dog owners and will continue to do it, regardless of my occasional frustration.