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Can it be just good enough

20/06/2016 - Behaviour Matters

As a trainer and behaviour consultant, I love the process of training. I enjoy watching dogs learn and experiment, I love that my dogs feel safe enough to explore their world and try out new behaviours to see how it benefits them, or not, as the case may be. I love learning about dogs, I love reading about dogs and I love watching dogs. As you may have guessed by now, dogs are a huge part of my world!

As trainers though, we have to recognise that most of the dog owning public are not like us, they do not wake up in the morning thinking ‘brilliant, what can I train my dog to do next?’ They want to get up, take the dog out for a nice walk, enjoy a cuddle and then go about their daily business. When things do not go as they want, they come to trainers for help and they generally ask for the finished product; I want my dog to come back when called, I want my dog to stop jumping up on people in the street, I want him to stop growling at people etc, they very rarely ask what’s involved in getting there and the reality is, that to train a dog to respond reliably when requested or to change an underlying emotion, can take a significant amount of time and labour and the majority of this work often falls to the dog’s guardian.
As trainers, we can be guilty of compounding the situation – take for example predatory chasing, this can be a very difficult and time consuming behaviour to modify. Many trainers would love this challenge and would happily spend hours training. However, I see trainers also asking their clients to do the same and then struggle to understand when they do not do as they have been instructed.
I wonder if these trainers have had an open and frank discussion with their clients beforehand to describe what’s involved and explain to them fully what they have signed up to with regard to the work involved, or are they expecting the client to be like them and want to spend hours training? 
It is important that we recognise this difference and understand that owners do not have an infinite amount of time or the inclination to train their dogs even if they should, but who are we, as trainers, to say what people should and should not do? As somebody said recently, I should floss my teeth every day, but I don’t.  
Sometimes the simple solution is all the client needs and is all they have time for. In the words of Dr Seuss, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”

In the case of predatory chasing, I very rarely hear trainers say ‘keep your dog on a lead and exercise him off-lead when safe to do so’. Which in reality, may be perfectly appropriate for their lifestyle and training needs.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I would love it if dog owners had the time, financial resources, patience, skill and inclination to train their dogs to do everything they wanted, but many do not. 

So, taking aside public safety considerations, we really must take into account what the owner is realistically able to achieve and would be happy with and not what we, the trainers, think they should do. This was brought home to me again very recently when I was asked to come and help with a large breed dog that was boisterous, mouthy and pulled like a train when on the lead.

As the consult unfolded, we started talking about ways we could manage the dog’s behaviour and prevent him from rehearsing the problem behaviour further and then if she had time, she could do some training, which we would build into the daily exercise period. At this point, I suggested either a head collar or anti-pull harness to manage the pulling and explained all the benefits. 

My client then said, “I have a head collar and he’s so much better when wearing it.” I was not expecting this comment! Normally, I have to encourage clients to see the benefits of using anti-pull equipment and so her saying to me that she had one and the dog was much easier to manage when it was being used, but she was not using it and instead choosing to struggle, was a tad unusual! 

As you can imagine, my next question was, “So why are you not using it?” Her answer is what prompted me to write this article. 
At this point, we had a minor confession – she started to tell me she had been advised by a local trainer/dog walker that using the head collar was not training the dog and that she should instead train the dog to walk nicely alongside her and not rely on the tool. Up to this point, my client had not disclosed that she had been taking advice from another trainer, albeit the trainer was contracted as a dog walker.

In one foul swoop, I managed to completely confuse my client, from one person saying don’t use anti-pull equipment, to me saying do.

Trying now to navigate the complicated waters created by the inconsistency of advice, I set about explaining why it would be really helpful if we started to use the anti-pull equipment again, even then, she asked me again if it would be alright and of course I was happy to provide the assurance that it would be fine. 
It was like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders and I thought for a moment we may even have a few tears. 
So, in short, we reinstated the head collar for management of the pulling and added in some training for when she had time. Of course, I could have given her a lot more to do, but instead of overwhelming her with training and possibly setting her up to fail, using management and training when she had time was good enough. On a recent follow-up, she informed me that the walks were much more pleasant, she confessed she had done very little training, but most important of all, she was enjoying her dog again. 

Management is the foundation of all the plans that I build, as we need to stop the dog from messing up and rehearsing unwanted behaviour and good management can be all that is needed – it provides relief from problem behaviours, preventing them occurring in the first place. Management can be as simple as using stair gates to prevent access, keeping the dog on-lead to prevent running off, wearing muzzles to prevent biting and the list goes on and on. 

So in summary, for some, management may be the whole solution and for others, just part of a bigger plan, but we need management, then from this foundation, dog guardians can decide on how much they want or are able to train, given their life pressures, it may not be gold standard, it may not be how we would like, but a big part of our job is to make the relationship work and so just good enough, may be good enough!