Part of my job as a dog trainer is to help dog owners develop good habits to replace their bad habits. This is another reason why I don’t support board and train programs.
A lot of what you do, or don’t do, with your dog causes the behavioral problems your dog exhibits. If your dog housetraining habits aren’t good, then you can’t expect your dog to not soil your home. If your social skills when with your dog and with guests, friendly strangers, or other people aren’t good, guess what? Your dog can’t be expected to be properly social, either.
There are a lot of small habits you need to develop to have the very best experience owning a dog. Habits don’t just magically appear; you must do them repeatedly until they become automatic. Bad habits need to be replaced with good habits, and there’s no substitute for having someone who helps you change what needs to be changed. Just like a ball player needs a good coach, you’ll need a good dog training coach to help you develop good habits. No one is born knowing how to raise, manage and train a dog. You must learn somehow.
Here’s an example. Do you examine and groom your dog daily? You should. First, a young puppy needs a lot of gentle, positive handling to accept grooming and handling by strangers when they grow up. Thus, I recommend everyone schedule several Puppy Parties before they are 16 weeks old. Part of that is for your dog to get to know all your friends. Part of that, after 12 weeks of age, is to get to know all their dogs as friends. But another part of it is for your puppy to learn to accept and like being handled and examined.
Veterinarians report that they lose approximately 5% of their patients every year because of behavioral issues. When dogs become dangerous to handle, the veterinarians won’t mess with them anymore. That problem could be easily prevented if veterinarians handed out Puppy Party packs with every first vaccination exam. Those Packets could include how to set up successful Puppy Parties, including things that should be done with the puppies. Puppies should be brushed every day, which is good for their skin, helps remove potential parasites, and gets the puppies used to normal handling. Teeth should be brushed every day, and there are good ways to get pups to like it. As dogs mature, these daily grooming times also allow owners to spot potential medical issues long before they become serious or even life threatening. Daily grooming should especially be done after a dog has been outside. A lot of vet visits are to treat skin, mouth, and ear issues. Acclimating dogs to exams early on, and continuing daily grooming, saves lives and money. Most people don’t even consider that they should be developing this habit.
If I gave you a perfectly trained dog, but you don’t have good habits, you’ll slowly (and in some cases very quickly) unwind all that training. Regular lessons get you into a healthy groove with your dog. That makes life happier for you and your dog over time. I’ve mentioned this concept before, but I want a dog to be “power steering” by the time they are 2 years old. That kind of dog is in synch with you and is easy to live with. It seems effortless by then. Even the training is now fun, and you have the habit to keep up the training and to keep checking in and testing how the dog is feeling from day to day.
Lots of dogs die young. I don’t know today’s statistics, but just a few years ago, it was estimated that as many as 10% of puppies in America don’t live past their first birthday. Some of that is bad genetics, but most of that is because the people have let those dogs down in one way or another. For example, I spoke to an emergency vet last year, and she said she was seeing several French Bulldogs a week suffering from back injuries, typically from jumping off furniture. These little guys are super strong and highly motivated, and you must watch out for them and protect them from doing stupid stuff. They are the popular breed right now. In a few years, it will be some other breed, and the bad habits of those owners will cause different injuries in those dogs. When I lived in Seattle, I trained a lot of Dachshunds. Same thing. People let those dogs get up on furniture and then jump off. Those long bodies can’t take that kind of punishment. If the owners of all these dogs would have had good habits, diligently teaching these dogs to either not get on furniture, or to go down a ramp to get off, none of these injuries would have been a problem. Every breed has a vulnerability, you need to know the risks, and diligently manage them to keep them safe. Bad habits = dog at risk.
Good dog training habits are also built. People do a lot of dumb things, and even when they realize they are doing dumb things, it takes time to stop doing them and replacing them with good habits. Everyone makes handling and training errors, including myself. Even the best trainers in the world still make mistakes. It’s good to have a coach who can watch what you are doing and help guide you to do better. It’s about a lot of little details, from the attitude you bring to the lesson that day, to how you put on a collar, to your voice and body language and a lot of other small details.
I’ve had to intervene with students who took what I told them too far, and I’ve had to back them off. Sometimes I’ll instruct a student on how to correct their dog for some misbehavior. Sometimes that is necessary. But, when I return for the next lesson, they are over correcting their dog for everything, and I must take that “tool” away. Maybe their voice is too harsh, or they are being intimidating, or lashing out because they are tired after work. The small opening I gave them for a specific problem has now fed into a budding bad habit. People often don’t realize they are going over the top with their dogs, and someone needs to see what they are doing. I’ve also had to do this with positive reinforcement suggestions, as well. I’ve had students feed their dogs so many treats the dogs got upset stomachs. They figured if a little was good, a lot must be better. I’ve had to stop them in their tracks. I had one student who fed her dog kibble, but on top of that, she lathered a rice cake with a lot of peanut butter. She got in a habit of doing this, and the dog got used to eating that way. So, the dog wouldn’t eat without the peanut butter lathered rice cake, and then the dog might eat some of the dog food. I never did break her of that habit, and the dog was barely food motivated enough to introduce new commands.
I try very hard to suggest good habits to students. It’s hard, however, when people don’t buy into the idea that they have a role in how the dog turns out. You can’t have a well-mannered dog in one easy lesson. You are part of the problem, maybe more than the dog. I attempt to get you to understand that you must be diligent with every exercise to get the results you want. Just hearing me give suggestions isn’t going to turn your dog around. It’s one thing to absorb new knowledge, it is an entirely different matter to implement that knowledge wisely. That only comes by doing the work, making it a part of you, and then infusing all of that into your relationship with your dog.
The good thing about good habits is that they can be, eventually, as hard to break as bad habits. The sweetness of good habits fruit is better than the sourness if you allow the fruit to spoil.