Training 101: How to be fair to your dog

An example of asking the dog to do something that is not possible would be asking your dog to retrieve something that he cannot reach or that is inaccessible because it is under a low table.


As I encounter more and more puppies and service dog trainees in my work, I am repeatedly awed by how much dogs can actually do, if only we humans teach them clearly what we want and show them — or encourage them to figure out — how to do what we ask. Thus I am increasingly convinced that my teacher was right, and that lapses in performance are usually the fault of the human and only rarely the result of willful disobedience on the part of the dog.

Before you all write in with clear examples of your dog’s disobedience, a caveat: Dogs can and do decide to disobey or ignore humans. I know that. I live with a German shepherd, after all. How is this the humans’ fault? I can hear you wondering. It’s not; sometimes a dog will simply decide that he doesn’t want to do what you’ve asked. But in many cases, the humans can be faulted for inconsistent leadership or for expecting too much from their dogs. We can’t and shouldn’t expect perfection from our dogs or ourselves. But we should demand fairness from ourselves.


Being fair to your dog means giving him time to respond to a request. Impatient humans that we are, accustomed to instant gratification, we want our dogs to provide instantaneous, precise responses. Some of us ask that of other people as well. So, take a breath, slow down, and, especially when your dog is engaged in an activity (or asleep), give him a few moments to process your request before you get angry. Call him — and make sure you have his attention — before asking him to switch gears and respond to your demands.

Being fair to your dog means giving him the information he needs to do as you ask before you “correct” or punish him for not doing it. Our dogs (much like our human soulmates) cannot read our minds. Unlike our human mates, though, their interpretation of our body language comes from their canine social code, which means they are even more likely than other humans to get it wrong. They need to be taught what our words and gestures mean before they can respond appropriately. If you want your dog to come to you in response to a verbal cue or a body language cue, you must teach him the connection between the cue and coming to you, and practice it thoroughly until he knows the cue inside and out.


Some methods of teaching are more fair than others, too. One of the incidents I witnessed this week involved an “electronic” collar, more honestly described as a shock collar. While being shocked — and without being given any hints — the dog was supposed to figure out that approaching the trainer would end the punishment. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do my clearest thinking when I'm in pain, and besides, approaching someone who is hurting me seems counter-intuitive. If you must use punishment, at least reserve it for after the dog has fully and completely learned what is expected of him! Better yet, choose an animal-friendly trainer who eschews punishment in favor of fair, motivational training. There are many in the Tampa Bay area.

In a similar vein, being fair to your dog means teaching him the rules of your household — again, before punishing him for breaking them. Dogs are not born knowing that it’s rude to jump on people in greeting. They think they are being social and appropriately showing deference to your status when they jump up to say hello. In dog society, food that has been abandoned on a tabletop, enticingly in reach, is there for the taking. Teaching the dog different behaviors, behaviors that are more acceptable in human society, is not only fair, it is essential. Only then is it reasonable to hold a dog accountable for transgressing these and other rules. Again, an animal-friendly trainer can help you instill good manners in your puppy or adult dog.

Finally, being fair to your dog means considering his needs and wants as well as your own. Don’t only walk him when you have three minutes to get out the door to work and while you’re on your cell phone and pushing a baby stroller as well. Take him for relaxed walks where you can allow him to stop, sniff, roll in the grass, and enjoy all the scents and sounds of your neighborhood. For many dogs, a walk or two a day is the only change of scenery they get, spending the rest of their time at home. Make sure your dogs, particularly young dogs, get plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and affectionate companionship each day. Providing that is fun for us, too — isn’t that why we share our lives with dogs, after all?

Sometimes dog trainers can be terribly unfair to dogs.

The woman who taught me how to train dogs had this mantra: “It’s never the dog, it’s always the trainer.” What she meant was that if your dog does not do as you ask, the reason is nearly always that you have not communicated clearly what you want or that you are asking the dog to do something that is not possible. You might also be asking the dog to respond to a cue that he hasn't learned yet; we often think that dogs "know" something when they really haven't fully learned and understood what we want.

Maybe your body language tells the dog one thing while your verbal cue tells the dog something completely different. For example, you say, “Come here” and walk toward your dog: The body language tells the dog to back up or retreat from you, not to approach.

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