Why dog training fails.

Pets and people.
Jan. 14 2005 4:26 PM

Train in Vain

Why dog training fails.

(Continued from Page 1)

The truth is, training is difficult, something very few people understand when they get a dog. I've spent four years working every day to calm down one of my dogs—a rescued border collie I adopted when he was two. It is so much better, but we are not there yet.

There's nothing approaching consensus about who or what a good trainer is or which training theory people ought to embrace. Yet the underlying premise of most obedience classes is that a dog can be trained and socialized in just a few hours. This is almost never true, and it's the kind of expectation that leads people to feel like they've failed when it's more likely they've been misled.

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It requires an estimated 2,000 repetitions, behaviorists say, before most dogs can fully learn a behavior. If you've told Ellie to "sit" 1,000 times, and she complies half the time, you haven't failed, and neither has she. You're both halfway there.

Training also requires that we understand the animal nature of dogs, their love of rules, ritual, food, and reinforcement. Let dogs be dogs—it's an honorable thing to be. Because many owners prefer to view their pets as soul mates, therapists, ethereal beings, even mind-readers, we give them too much credit, make them too complex, muddying our communications.

Seeing dogs as piteous, abused, and pathetic creatures doesn't help either. Many dogs are mistreated, including my elder border collie. But I never refer to Orson as an abused dog. I don't want to see him that way, and when it comes to training, it doesn't really matter. I treat him well, love him wildly, train him carefully, and have high expectations. We will work until we get there; he deserves no less. If one more well-meaning owner tries to explain that his dog is biting my ankle or attacking my dog because "he was terribly abused," I might go buy some mace. And not for the dog.

What is a well-behaved dog anyway? One who sits and stays and rolls over? To me, training is an idea that goes far beyond obedience. It's not about what you can make a dog do, but what you do with your dog, the cornerstone and foundation of your communication, your relationship. Training is a moral responsibility involving stewardship for another species; it asks as much of us as it does of them. There is no one simple or universal method or guru.

I don't really care if my dogs sit or stay on command. I do want them to live safely, calmly, and peacefully in the world; to respect my work and privacy; to behave appropriately with people—especially children—and other animals; to live in a world that wasn't built for dogs and makes increasingly fewer allowances for them. This isn't something that can be achieved in four hours of home visits, or a six-week obedience class.

Jon Katz’s latest book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, was published by Random House last October. You can visit him at www.bedlamfarm.com and http://www.facebook.com/BedlamFarm or email him at jon@bedlamfarm.com.

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