What does it mean to be a good dog handler/ owner? You are someone who is skilled at managing your dog in any environment that you might reasonably find yourself. You have developed a useful craft, you are skilled at managing your own dog.
Before I start training a dog, I always ask about the owner’s expectations of what the dog will likely encounter in the future. I then design a program to get them there. I inquire about the daily lifestyle, vacations, walks, any jobs the dog expected to perform and so forth. There is no such thing as “one size fits all.” Hiking? OK, we can work on that. Road trips? We can work on that. Therapy dog? We can work on that. Lots of guests? We can work on that. As you can see, with that information, the lessons can be geared towards each of those situations.
Most dog owners are not skilled handlers. If I was to place them into any awkward situation, something isn’t going to work or one of them is going to risk some kind of danger. Knowing this reveals why I’m not a fan of “board and train” types of programs. In an emergency, the owners of those dogs will freeze and not know what to do. A well-trained owner doesn’t put his or her dog in that kind of situation, or is at least less likely to do so.
For example, your dog has jumped out of your car and run across the highway. Save your dog. Or your dog has run out the fence gate and is about to make contact with a javalina. Save your dog. Make a wrong move and something bad is going to happen. Now, I can’t promise you’ll always make the right decision with your dog. It would be silly for anyone to guarantee they can protect you and your dog from all harm, but a skilled handler at least has a chance of saving their dog, and possibly themselves.
Let’s say you have the perfectly trained dog. If you aren’t a skilled owner, you still will have a high probability of doing something wrong, or freezing, and the harm will happen right before your eyes. Your dog might be trained, but you haven’t earned the ability to use that training.
There are no shortcuts to becoming a skilled owner/ handler. I could put you in a crash course, you’d learn a lot of things, but within a couple of months you would have forgotten most of what you’d learned. A person can operate well on short term memory for a short term, but that kind of learning doesn’t flow into long term memory and quick reflexes which you can draw upon when you least expect you’ll need it sometime in the future. We all crammed for tests in school, but there’s no way we can recall all of what we learned because we dumped all that information once we passed the class. I got a 4.0 in college calculus, but don’t ask me to solve those equations today. Most likely you can’t make emergency decisions for your dog right now. You probably can’t even ensure your dog will be well mannered with your guests.
To be truly skilled, you need to be able to explain what you might do and why, and you need to be able to do those things without using much thought in a dynamic and stressful situation. If you are there with your dog, that’s good news. If not, then it is time to dig in and earn those abilities.