A dog trainer is teacher, coach, cheerleader, behaviorist, and family or marital counselor all in one. Actually, the dog training part is pretty straightforward—the dogs are usually ready and willing to learn better behavior and live happier, more well-balanced lives. It’s the people that are most often stuck in “bad” habits and resistant or fearful, either consciously or subconsciously, of change.
As a dog trainer that performs one-on-one in-home private lessons, I work with a client for one to two hours a week and cram as much into that time and into their brains as possible with the understanding that they put into practice what was learned in the intervening weeks between our lessons. I make myself available to answer questions or trouble-shoot, but it is ultimately up to the primary caretaker, with the support of the family, to implement the training.
Defining the Primary Caretaker
Defining the “primary caretaker” in a household requires having a frank discussion about family dynamics. If you are lucky enough to be part of a household where the domestic responsibilities (cleaning, cooking, maintenance, child and pet care) are evenly split, that’s fantastic. Clearly you and your partner have excellent communication and it will be a cinch to split the dog training duties as well. These families are few and far between. In most homes, even in our “modern” times, there is still very clear delineation about certain jobs and roles. Okay, I’ll just come out and say it: in my experience, much of the caretaking duties in the home often fall to the mom/wife (when there is one). Also, if there are dog behavior problems, they’re often more severe or prevalent with “Mom” than “Dad” as reported by my clients.
While it might seem illogical or downright cruel to ask a potentially overburdened primary caretaker to take on another responsibility, in order to obtain real-world, reliable behavior modification results this is exactly what must happen for three reasons:
1) The primary caretaker spends the most time exposed to/in proximity with the dog, although this doesn’t necessarily mean the primary caretaker is the most interactive family member with the dog.
2) The primary caretaker spends the most time with the kids if there are children.
3) The primary caretaker often spends more time at home than their partner. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are a homemaker or stay-at-home mom. In fact, many women that work 40+ hour work weeks still manage to be the primary caretaker in their homes (but that’s a whole different blog post!).
As you can see from the criteria above, by opportunity and proximity, the primary caretaker simply has the most opportunities to correct unwanted behavior and reinforce desired behavior when those instances arise.
A Story of Sabotage
The Johnson family is comprised of Mom, Dad, and two young children. They also have a 9-month old lab that doesn’t listen and pulls on walks. He also exhibits emotionally needy and sometimes pushy behavior when he wants attention. He’ll sit beside a person, lean against them, sit on their feet, stare at them, nudge them, throw his ball at them, lick, jump up, bark, maybe even “nibble” on them in an effort to get them to interact with him—to play or pet. On the surface, this seems benign enough, maybe even cute. In fact, he’s been doing it since he was a puppy. What’s really happening during these interactions is the dog is learning he can control his people with his behavior. He can get what he wants by behaving in a needy or pushy manner because it generates a response in the person. They either pet mindlessly or toss the ball, maybe even push him off in an attempt to correct the behavior, but they still engage. One of the family’s goals is to be able to walk the dog without being pulled.
In order to be able to teach the dog to walk where we want him to walk (not pulling at the end of the leash), he has to first believe that we are actually in charge of his behavior and setting the rules, not the other way around. So it becomes imperative that no one in the family (not just the person primarily responsible for the dog training) give the dog attention when he’s attempting to get it from them in the inappropriate ways mentioned above.
If Mom is the only one reinforcing the new rules and handling techniques the trainer recommended, and Dad continues to offer his attention and affection for “free” and/or on the dog’s insistence, it undermines the training process. It causes confusion for the dog about the behavior expectations and slows, derails, or totally sabotages the training.
Before You Call the Trainer
Before you call the trainer, the adults in the household need to sit down and come to consensus on some key points pertaining to the dog. Get out a pen and paper and write down your answers to these questions as you discuss them.
- What are our ultimate behavior goals and expectations for our dog?
Frame this in terms of what you want the dog to do, rather than what you do not want the dog to do. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t want him to pull on leash,” you might say, “I want him to walk at my left side on a loose-leash for our entire walk,” or “I want him to walk in a heel beside the stroller,” or “I want him to be able to walk with us off-leash so I don’t have to worry about tripping on a leash,” etc. Your picture of “good” behavior may be very different from your partner’s. You may even find that your partner doesn’t experience the same behavior problems that you do. If consensus cannot be reached on some point, favor goes to the primary caretaker for the three reasons outlined above.
- Based on our dog’s current behavior, what’s our “worst case scenario”?
This may seem like a macabre question, but it is very helpful to consider an extreme scenario in order to appropriately frame the training conversation. It will help you determine how you’d like to train the dog (method, tools), the level to which the dog must be trained (precision and proficiency), and also the urgency or necessity for training in the first place.
If Mom’s worst case scenario is the dog becomes over-excited and bites one of the children on the face requiring a trip to urgent care and a few stitches, and Dad’s perceived worst-case scenario is that the dog steals food from the 3-year olds hand, the ability for both adults to consistently support the training over time (and not sabotage) will be compromised. Each person’s perceived consequence of not successfully training the dog are very different. The bite would be perceived as a major trauma to the child and dog, warranting any training tool or method to begin immediately. While food stealing may be a relatively minor infraction that necessitates a less urgent training timeline and could afford some room for error (read: sabotage).
[Insert “balanced” training plug here:] If you’re uncomfortable with a particular training tool or approach because of what you’ve read on the internet or been told by well-meaning family members and friends, even though you know or suspect the training would be effective in preventing your worst case scenario, it’s time to open your mind to new possibilities especially if your worst case scenario results in a person injured or traumatized, or a dog injured or euthanized.
- What will be everyone’s role in training new behavior?
You fall into one of three categories when it comes to training:
1) You’re proactively training the dog. This is the person with the leash or the remote in their hand. To get the best training results, all adults in the household (including adult children) that are of able mind and body should be able to effectively take on this role. However, the “primary caretaker” absolutely must take on this role because that’s the person that’s going to have the most opportunities to use the training, and is the person that will benefit the most from having a different relationship with the dog. If that person is Mom, even though she’s already got a lot on her plate, she needs to take on a central role in training the dog.
2) You’re neutral. These people aren’t actively rewarding or correcting the dog, they’re simply attempting to be non-factors in the process. In our story of sabotage above, being neutral might mean ignoring the behavior or getting up and walking away when the dog gets pushy with you. You are aware of the underlying issue of control playing out; you don’t actively correct, but you don’t accidentally reinforce either. Even if you participate as an active trainer in your household, there will be times when you’ll need to stand back and be neutral to allow someone else to practice asserting themselves and to not create confusion. Too many people rushing to correct the dog or reinforce expectations can be just as confusing for the dog as no one doing so.
3) You’re sabotaging the process. These people, usually unconsciously and not intentionally, do things to undermine your training. Sometimes it’s a child that doesn’t take direction well, a spouse that has difficulty changing their habits, or a parent or neighbor that doesn’t see how encouraging the dog to jump up on them a couple of times a year when they stop by for a visit is problematic. If you identify that you will likely have one or more saboteurs in your midst, you better set these people straight before you call the dog trainer. You will waste your time and money working with a professional only to have one or more family members sabotage your progress.
If the perceived saboteurs are adults (such as adult children or elderly parents that live with you), you must have a frank conversation with them. One possibility is to make them partly financially responsible for the training. It will literally make them more “invested” in the process and the outcome.
Saboteurs often come in small, cute packages. If your young children pose a potential obstacle to training the dog, you may need to set up some new routines within your household to manage the kids so they don’t have the chance to sabotage. For example, if teaching your dog to not pick things up off the ground unless he’s told is one of your goals (and this is a greatexpectation to set with your dog to keep him safe), you will need to manage your environment so you are able to supervise your dog when he’s around your children’s toys lying on the floor. You may need to implement a new rule that there is one designated play room so toys are contained in one area and not placed all over the home, thereby making it easier for you to supervise your dog and correct and reinforce as necessary when the opportunities arise. If toys are moved from one place to another, it is done in one designated special box. And if the toys aren’t placed back in that box (with lid) after they’re done being used, they magically disappear.
If a discussion of your family reveals more saboteurs in your ranks than trainers or neutral partners, address this before you call the professional. It is your dog trainer’s job to train the dog and teach the people. But try as they might, your trainer will most likely not be able to change your children’s or spouse’s behavior or habits in the limited amount of time they spend with you.
Additional Ideas for Motivation and Accountability
A good dog trainer should get you excited about training and keep you focused on your goals. But you may need to implement some other strategies to help keep everyone on track after the dog trainer leaves. Does your family thrive on structure, incentives, or discipline? Figuring out how to motivate and hold everyone accountable for their part in training the dog will be a challenge you may have to get creative to overcome. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- If you and your family thrive on structure, implement an in-home “board and train.” In this scenario, you’re always prepared to turn a mistake into a learning opportunity. The dog is managed on a strict schedule. He’s either kenneled, supervised by a proactive household trainer, or being trained. This also means the saboteurs in your midst won’t be able to do any damage. In fact, you’ve designed things so they’re actually assisting you in proofing because whenever they’re around the dog you’re prepared to reinforce the training and expectations.
- Write up some basic house rules that will promote good dog behavior. Examples of rules include: “no treats or petting unless the dog sits on command first,” “make the dog wait at the door before letting him outside,” “No talking to the dog unless you’re giving a command or the dog has done a command first.” Give everyone a rubber binder to wear on their wrist. They’re to snap the binder when they catch themselves breaking one of the rules to help them change their habits.
- Post your rules on the bathroom mirror so everyone gets a daily reminder when they wake up and when they go to sleep.
- Do a variation on a “swear” jar and make people put in a quarter every time you catch them breaking one of the “rules.” You could either incent them by redistributing the wealth when the money adds up or spend it on a fun family activity that includes the dog (or if the money adds up fast, you might want to spend it on more dog training!).
- Do you have a competitive family? Does bribery work in your household? Make it a competition. You can make this as complicated or simple as you’d like. One idea is to set up a jar for each family member and slips of paper in corresponding colors for the different rules. When you catch each other following a rule, add that slip to their jar. At the end of a week, tally everything up. The family member who’s been the most consistent in following the rules gets a special prize or treat. The color-coding is also a way to track what area each person needs to work on when it comes to handling the dog. If one person consistently does well making the dog wait to go outdoors as indicated by all the blue slips of paper, but talks to the dog incessantly as indicated by a decided lack of yellow slips, you know this is an area in which you could help this person improve.
- If you have a larger or extended family living together, this idea might be fun: secretly designate a different person each day as the “Sheriff.” That person watches out for people to be following the rules with the dog. Only one other person knows who the “Sheriff” is on any given day so no one else knows when their good behavior might be being observed and mentally recorded. At dinner that night, the “Sheriff” is revealed and one person is recognized for their exceptional efforts with the dog. Maybe there’s a small prize involved, a special privilege, or maybe that person gets to secretly choose the next Sheriff.
Please comment and share the successful strategies you’ve implemented for yourself, your family, or your children to generate motivation and accountability towards a goal (whether it’s training the dog or something else), and remember, dog training is a team sport. Go Team!