It’s never too late, or too early, to start training your dog, so what better time to make a training plan and set some goals than the start of the year?
Christmas is a time where we often become all too aware of those niggly issues with our dogs. We can easily fall into routines and subconsciously adapt to our dogs. We may not notice some of the behaviours we put up with, perhaps some of them you don’t mind, but others you may have made adjustments in order to avoid problems or to minimise the impacts. While management is never a bad thing, and if it means a harmonious life for you and your dog then that’s all that matters.
However, enter family and friends at Christmas and suddenly it becomes impossible to keep up your daily management with your dog. This is where the problems are become increasingly evident and you may have a stark realisation of just how much challenging behaviour you put up with from your dog. Not only is it hard to see this for yourself, it becomes even worse if people begin to point it out to you. Perhaps you’ve had comments from visiting family … ‘your dog barks so much’, ‘does that barking not annoy you’, ‘how do you cope with him jumping up so much’, and so on.
Having niggly issues pointed out to you or overhearing snide remarks can feel deflating and insulting. But it can also be a timely reminder that maybe it’s time to stop putting up with these issues and tackle them head-on.
It’s important not to have a moment of despair, setting end goals for fixing every issue with your dog, this will only lead to more disappointments and frustration for you and your dog. Goals need to be realistic and achievable. Depending on the challenges you face with your dog, your starting goal is unlikely to be to ‘fix’ the problem, it might be to simply teach a few basics and begin the journey of training.
The road of training and behaviour modification is never smooth, there will be moments of progress and setbacks. Just like any New Year resolution, it’s not easy to stay on track and it’s inevitable that we sometimes fail. Setting realistic goals is the key to success, if your goal is to stop your dog from ever barking or never jumping up at anyone, you will soon fail and feel like giving up. If instead your goal is to reduce barking and tackle the underlying causes of barking, or to teach politer greetings, then you will be able to see the beginnings of progress and each step will feel more achievable.
When attempting to change any behaviour, we have to remember we’re trying to change much more than simply the outward appearance of a behaviour…
If your dog is prone to barking at visitors, your first goal isn’t to stop the barking, it’s to understand WHY the barking is happening:
- If your dog is worried by visitors, you first need to implement some management so they can feel safe around visitors, you can then work towards building confidence with visitors. Your dog may never love visitors, he may always choose to keep his distance, and he may sometimes still bark. But if your goal is help him feel safer and have less need to bark, this is far more achievable then stopping barking altogether
- If your dog is super excited by visitors, you first need to work on calmness and control around new people, you may even need to work on some calmness in general before you begin to add people into the mix
The early steps are often a million miles from the end goal, but if you approach training knowing you need to first build the foundations, then each step becomes more satisfying. When we think with the attitude of ‘I just want my dog to stop doing this …’, we forget all the contributing factors within the behaviour. It’s rarely as simple as teaching a dog to do something else or stopping a particular behaviour, it often involves a much wider picture of training.
Unravelling the reasons why a behaviour is happening and working first on the underlying causes is absolutely vital to success.
When Times Get Tough
How often do we set New Year resolutions before giving up when we lose motivation? It happens so frequently, it really is an achievement if you can stick out and succeed with a resolution. Often our resolutions fail because we set unrealistic goals, when we break it into achievable steps, we are far more likely to succeed.
It’s also no good to set a resolution for the month of January only to throw it all out by February and return to old ways. When we have a resolution centred around a lifestyle change, perhaps to eat more healthily, exercise more or cut back on certain foods and alcohol, we have to create new habits and adjust our attitudes in a way which enables us to build a new lifestyle and persevere when temptations come knocking. It isn’t a month-long whim, it’s a whole lifestyle change. While the early weeks and months can be incredibly challenging, with enough time and commitment these changes become so natural we no longer have to think about it.
It’s no different when training our dogs and trying to change their behaviour. It takes time, consistency and some amount of compromise. Behaviour doesn’t change overnight, in dogs or humans, it takes a long time to create new habits and even longer for these new habits to feel natural. This isn’t only applicable to our dogs, who’s behaviour we are ultimately focused on changing, it also applies to us who are instigating the change.
We are guilty of falling into habits with our dogs, when it comes to changing their behaviour and teaching them new skills, we too have to learn new skills and change our own behaviour. For some people, it will take a long time to be able to read their dogs’ body language, implementing new management strategies or new boundaries can feel exhausting, and even something simple like remembering to take treats on your walks can be a battle at times.
If we can keep persevering consistently, these adaptations will start to feel normal and natural, it becomes part of our daily routine and just how we interact with our dogs. We’re no longer having to remind ourselves 24/7 to check the dog has had regular rest time and we aren’t finding ourselves stuck on a walk with no treats and no way to reinforce the dog, because gradually we don’t even think about it, we pop the dog in a quiet room for a rest without guilt because we know it has transformed his behaviour at home, and we pack plenty of treats, happily dishing them out on the walk for good behaviour while relishing how enjoyable walks can be now.
Find the Positives
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the negatives, to focus on the elements of training which aren’t progressing as much as we wanted. We can forget to enjoy the good moments and to see the areas where progress has been made. If you get too caught up on what still needs to improve, you lose motivation and you can quickly feel deflated and frustrated by the lack of progress. It’s important to remember what has improved and to celebrate the small successes.
Looking at the good progress, however small and insignificant it may seem, is a good way to see what is working in your training and to remind yourself that success is possible. Sometimes we’re too busy thinking about what hasn’t improved to see what has, so take on board other people’s comments and encouragement if they’re telling you they can see improvements in your dog. If it’s all feeling too frustrating in some areas of training, try to take a step back from these and spend time doing things you can enjoy with your dog.
If life starts to revolve too much around ‘fixing’ issues and making our dogs ‘better’, we can lose the enjoyment of simply being with our dogs and doing what they love. There’s no harm in taking a break to play silly games, taking them to a secure field and running around with them, or having a pressure-free week at home where we can chill with them. There is always a balance between being committed and consistent with training, while also having strategies in place to enable you to take a break from it all and just have fun together!
Don’t do it Alone
Having the support of an experienced trainer can make all the difference when it comes to achieving goals with your dog. When you’re wondering where to go next or despairing at the lack of progress, knowing you can turn to a trainer for support is so important.
Choosing a good trainer who is able to support you with training, and the emotions that can go with it, can make the difference between succeeding or giving up. It doesn’t mean progress will necessarily be faster, but they can certainly help you find the best ways to progress with your dog. Behaviour change is rarely straightforward, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start and to understand whether you’re doing the right thing with your dog.
Using positive, force-free methods is unlikely to do more harm than good, but we can still be at risk of pushing our dogs too far or setting them up to fail. It can be easy to inadvertently create associations we weren’t aiming for or expose our dogs to situations they weren’t ready for, it’s often a learning curve for our dogs and us. With a trainer alongside you, they can offer guidance about the right environments and when your dog is ready for next steps of training.
Sometimes progress isn’t happening because we’re not setting our dogs up to succeed, there may be small changes which make a big difference to our dogs, and an experienced trainer will be able to spot these things and advise on a more productive method or set-up. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to begin with your dog, residential training can offer the perfect way to give yourself a break from it all, enjoy some space from your dog and then start with a new attitude together after the training.
Many people choose to rehome their dogs at this time of year, the pressures on life are high at the start of the year and something has to give, all too often it’s the dog who is the first to go. So if you’re feeling on the edge of it all being too much, residential training may be the best solution to rebuild your relationship with your dog again.