Board And Train Is A Mistake For Your Dog

Skye (the tan dog) does amazing off leash obedience. She’s loving her new sister, who we just started training.

I have had to retrain many dogs that had been “trained” in a board and train program. Dog owners should become skilled dog handlers. Skilled handlers accomplish goal proficiency through sufficient practice supervised by a skilled teacher. In addition, whatever the dogs got didn’t require anything from the owner. The owner/ handler didn’t earn the skills and knowledge, thus the dog training decayed faster over time. Lastly, the dog hasn’t now developed the proper relationship with the owner before the dog goes home.

First, there should be some training standards. That starts out with defining the “end picture” which relates to what the dog should be capable of doing, that is, when the owner would consider the dog to be “trained”. I always have a detailed conversation with owners regarding their goals. I also interject other objectives that should be incorporated in order to have a “finished” dog. What might be enough for one dog family might not be enough for another.

Second, an initial assessment of the dog’s potential needs to be made. Usually a reasonable compromise needs to be established between what the dog is capable of doing and how much the owner is willing to do and invest. For example, if you have a Basset Hound, it isn’t going to be very productive to expect the dog to be an off leash obedience champion, a bird dog, and do night duty as a police K9! I love a Basset, but they are a scent hound, they make excellent family dogs and some are capable of the hunting role they were created for. But they are never going to be obedience champions, pheasant dogs, or police K9’s. The DNA of the dog was “baked in” long ago, and we have to work within those boundaries, otherwise we might actually be doing something cruel to the dog, and deceiving the owner as to the possibilities. Further, if the owner only has a short time here in Phoenix before they move back to their second home in the summer, we can only get as much training in as their schedule allows.

Third, good training of the dog and owner must happen together. Most of the retraining I’ve done has been with dogs that came back, and would not do a thing for the owner after about a month after they left the board and train program. I remember a black German Shepherd I worked with in Cave Creek a few years ago. These people had spent over $2000 on a board and train program, but when the dog came home, within just a few days, the dog was back to not obeying anything, being totally out of control. They told me I was their last chance before they got rid of him. Once we completed the weekly lessons, they ended up with a trained dog. Truthfully, I couldn’t tell that the previous trainer had done anything with the dog at all.

Good results have to be earned. There is no way around that. That starts with the initial training program. What I’m looking to do is make sure each step is learned and performed correctly. Skills taught precisely and sufficiently are retained longer, and are better able to be relied upon in an emergency. All good trainers know that mastering the basics is advanced training. Thus, we focus on the small details. The clearer the owner knows what to do, and the clearer the training is for the dog, the better the performance. Quick turnarounds, especially with electric collar training that has been rushed, indicate someone who didn’t want to earn their results, they wanted a push button dog. Sorry, but that isn’t good training, and I’ve seen some pretty abusive “boot camp” programs based upon short term electric collar training that didn’t involve teaching the full basics prior to the finishing touches.

Maintenance training is needed for the owner and dog to sustain performance goals over time. The better the initial training, the less maintenance training will be required over the years. You want to get the initial training right. That pays off big time. Maintenance needs depend upon what was taught, how it was taught, how it was reinforced, and how it will continue to be reinforced after the dog goes home. This is a big missing piece in most board and train programs. Once the extrinsic reinforcers such as food or the electric collar are removed, will the intrinsic motivations be there to take over and do the owners know how to maintain that? That’s a major concern.

If your knowledge and skills are sloppy, you’ll decay your dog’s training very quickly. If your dog’s skills are sloppy, their training will go away very quickly. Even a well trained dog, with an untrained owner, is doomed over time. The training will slip away very quickly. If the training of the dog wasn’t performed to high standards, their training will also slip away very quickly. And if the owner’s skills are weak, then they will untrain their dogs and re-establish a poor relationship with their dog.

Today, I was working with one of my students and his adult male pit bull. Excellent dedicated student. Excellent working dog. We are fairly early in the program, so before we began the lesson, I inquired regarding how things went since his last weekly lesson. We had added a lot of new material last time, so I knew there would be some issues. Sure enough, I could tell from his description, the owner was making errors in the precision of his actions and commands, because the dog wasn’t performing well. So, I had him demonstrate his homework. We went step by step, through everything. By the end, we had cleaned up 99% of what was wrong, and his homework was to practice what we went over today. Now, things look very smart, and we will be able to add new material next week. He is earning his skills and proficiency through working with his dog. One of his goals is excellent off leash obedience in the field, such as if he goes camping. This dog has the ability, so does the owner, and when we are finished we are going to hear some amazing things.

I have another student, more advanced, who texted me this week regarding an incident involving his dog, Skye, a Husky mix. He was with her at an off leash park, a dog fight broke out, and Skye went running towards the fight to see what was going on. In a full run, he was able to verbally stop and “Down” his dog, which kept his dog from getting involved. Apparently, one of the other dog owners saw what he had done, and he gave them my contact information. This owner has earned this level of proficiency with his dog, and it might have saved his dogs life. It sounded as if this was a pretty bad fight. He said he probably won’t go there with his dog again, because he’s seen a few bad fights there recently. Good thing he’s been continuing working with his dogs initial training program. We have more to do since he now has another dog he just adopted. Now we are going to work so both dogs can be controlled like this off leash in case of an emergency.

So, no, I’m not a fan of board and train, “bootcamp”, types of training. It just doesn’t create the kind of results, and the kind of dog-human relationship, that I think people want when they spend their hard earned money and precious free time. You need your own relationship with your dog, it has to start there, and you need to know what you are doing. Furthermore, I’ve seen way too many such dogs that acted as if untrained within a short time of getting home, for the reasons stated before. I’ll say it again, I think board and train is a mistake for your dog.

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