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I Have a Confession to Make…

I’ve been doing this for long enough now that it’s about time I stop pretending and own up to the truth – I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to training our dogs. I never have, and I probably never will.

Raleigh and Iggy are the first dogs that are my personal responsibility, and the only dogs I’ve ever tried to train. I haven’t come from a long line of dog trainers, I’ve never even known a breeder, and the only thing for which I could’ve been a Junior Handler was an Xbox controller.

Having no background in anything related to dog training can be quite intimidating at times. It’s an insecurity I carry with me every time we go to a new class, trial, or other event with our dogs. Usually it seems like everyone else has been training for decades, and their dogs all have every letter of the alphabet attached to the end of their names, twice over. And the hardest part is knowing that my ignorance is probably just as obvious to everyone else as it is to me.

The rational part of me knows that I shouldn’t let it bother me. Everyone has to start somewhere, everyone makes mistakes, and we’ve found that the people with lots of experience are perfectly friendly and welcoming. Even still, it’s hard not to feel like I don’t belong sometimes.

But that’s the whole reason we started this blog – to help others overcome their reservations as well and try being more active with their dogs. It’s been incredibly rewarding to have so many new experiences and grow closer to our dogs, and we enjoy sharing that with others.

I know we’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, and I’m sure we’ll continue to make more. We just have to make sure we keep learning from them. In fact, one of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned about training dogs stems from one of our many mistakes.

Raleigh was the first dog that we adopted. We knew we wanted a more active dog to match our lifestyle, and Raleigh seemed like the perfect fit; she was sweet and affectionate, had limitless energy, and had a naturally playful attitude.

When we brought her home she was 9 months old, but had never lived outside of a shelter. Therefore, the stairs from the garage up into our townhouse were her first new experience. She was naturally apprehensive at first, but after coaxing her with treats she conquered both going up and down the stairs with grace and ease.

All of a sudden, 9 months of pent-up puppyhood energy burst forth into our townhouse. She had decided that the only thing in the entire world that’s more fun than going up the stairs is coming back down again. For the next thirty minutes, our home was shaken and stirred by the sounds of Raleigh plowing up and down the stairs at full sprint.

At first everything seemed fine – she was a young dog in a new environment, after all. She needed the opportunity to let out some of her energy! However, after a while it started to seem like she was a bit out of control, so I decided to stop her. When I finally got ahold of her, she seemed to be pretty far-gone. Eyes: fully dilated. Mouth: frothing. We wanted a high-energy dog, and we definitely got one.

That same energy carried over into general housetraining. We tried to stick with the reward-based training that seems to be the consensus among folks on the Internet. You know what I’m talking about – the training style that says if you ask your dog to do the right thing nicely enough, they’ll eventually do it. And when the dog finally does the right thing, you unload a dump truck full of treats into its mouth.

This carried on for weeks with no progress. Her energy levels were so high that she was continuously distracted, and rarely able to pay attention to anything we were saying or doing. We would continue to try commands that we had been saying for weeks, and she never once showed any level of comprehension.

When she just-so-happened to do the right thing we would tell her she was a good girl, give her treats and repeat the command to help her associate the command with the action. Although she loved her treats and was perfectly motivated by them, she was never able to understand that she was being rewarded for something that she did.

As our frustration kept building, she kept acting up and doing bad things, all the while not knowing that there were good things expected of her. Finally, my frustration came to a head and I blurted out a firm, “NO!”

I had broken the dog training dogma of positive reinforcement. But, that moment proved to be revelatory for Raleigh.

Suddenly she seemed to understand that the words we were saying indeed had significance and that she needed to pay attention. We noticed that she was finally listening for commands and trying to understand. She wanted to please us all along, but never understood that doing certain things made us displeased.

The solution for Raleigh was that in order for her to understand what she was supposed to do, she first needed to understand what she was not supposed to do. Obviously we still rewarded good behavior as one should, but we found that correcting misbehaviors as well helped her hone in on the right choices.

Six months later, we found ourselves welcoming our newest bundle of joy into the Wolfpack – Iggy. He was everything we had hoped for: playful, energetic, and most importantly, intelligent. Even as a bumbling puppy, he had a proclivity for observation. His little eyes were always darting about, soaking up as much information as possible from his surroundings.

When it came time to housetrain him, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit cocky. Considering the battle we had gone through to teach Raleigh, we thought we had found a bulletproof formula for training.

Iggy’s intelligence, mixed with his desire to please and his love of treats made training him a breeze. We found it only took a few repetitions for him to grasp an idea, and he was always listening for keywords.

As to be expected, he did slip up sometimes and misbehave. And when that happened we applied the Raleigh formula – reward the good behaviors and correct the misbehaviors. We would very firmly tell him, “NO.”

Something was different this time though. Whereas Raleigh responded well to these corrections, Iggy responded a little too well.

He definitely understood that he did something wrong. In fact, he understood so much that he wouldn’t return to the location where the dark deed occurred for days after. His tail would go straight down, and stay there for hours. It’s not that he was afraid, but rather that he was so disappointed in himself that he thought the only solution was to banish himself to Bad Boy Island, where he would live out the rest of his days. No amount of reassurance could pull him out of his pit of despair.

The important lesson that we learned from this was that you can’t train all dogs the same way. While some dogs thrive off of positive reinforcement alone, others may need a balance of positive reinforcement and correction to fully understand. You may find that it can be a learning curve to understand what’s best for your dog. However, if you remember that training styles should be adapted to fit the needs of the dog being trained, you and your dog will not only succeed in training, but also strengthen your bond.

This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. Ah, I know the feeling. Each dog is so different and they have different motivations, it takes a while to figure out how to modify for each one to get the same results. I’ve just started going to trials with my youngest dog, and we’ve done pretty well but being a newbie at all of this can be so intimidating!

  2. Sounds to me like you’re doin’ quite well with this trainin’ stuff. You think you could give me a few pointers on trainin’ my peeps? What’s the best way for me, Seville the Cat, to let THEM know what THEY’RE not supposed to do? MOUSES!

  3. What an epic post! You seem to be doing more than fine.

    We all start somewhere, (usually at the bottom and learn our way up!) Stand tall, be confident. No-one knows your dogs like you do. Learn with them and you will all be a great team.

  4. Fantastic post and do not feel bad as I am lousy at training dogs, actually Layla knows a couple of commands and I have left it at that. It can be frustrating sometimes but I also feel if she is happy, not doing damage then I am good with it. Some dog trainers do disagree with me but so be it as I say.

  5. Individual motivation is one of the main keys to easy training. Food-oriented dogs are the easiest. Cookie, she just wants to hunt critters. That is a hard one to employ as a reward.

    1. like you I have a dog that isn’t food oriented and not really into “pleasing” either. His motivation we FINALLY figured out is freedom. As in he will work to earn time off leash. that makes for an odd dynamic. But we are sussing it out.

  6. I love this article! In fact the first five paragraphs describe my experience exactly, right down to the reason I began writing a training series for an animal welfare group’s blog. The only difference is I train cats. The lesson you learned about dogs being different and so needing different training techniques has been my experience too. Again, with cats. Thanks for sharing!

  7. You are obviously doing JUST FINE! and I agree that every dog is different. We do use the word no but in our case it’s a “non non non bonhomme” i(no no no little man) n a gentle voice. Maybe because it’s in French it sounds nicer? LOL no idea! But it very much is a corrective command. Monte isn’t food driven. Like … not at all. So we’ve had to find other ways. Luckily he’s just naturally a good boy.

  8. As someone else who did not grow up in the dog training or dog sports world, but is entering it now as an adult, I know what you mean. Last week at Rally practice, I kept messing up one of the signs. The trainer thought it was Echo, but I told her I thought it was something I was doing. She tried 5 times with Echo and he did everything perfectly. He is always good at everything and I am sure that he would be wonderful with a more experienced handler. However, I want to learn and I know the only way I am going to get there is if I practice. I have found the dog training community to be pretty supportive and open to a newbie like me asking questions. It took me a little while, but I am not afraid to ask questions if I do not know how to do something, even if it seems simple. A lot of my mistakes are my own body language and I am aware of that. I encourage the trainers I work with to please tell me if they see me doing something wrong or if I could try a better way. I too am a balanced trainer. Different dogs need a different balance too. They also like different rewards. My senior dog, Gracie prefers praise to treats. My youngest, Yoshi, prefers physical touch along with a treat. Echo, my athlete, will work for anything LOL. I have a friend who would reward her dogs with “sniff time” while teaching them to heel and they really enjoyed it. My perspective on it is that I know there are much better trainers out there than me and that’s okay. Every event and training class that I go to, I am there to learn and observe and practice. Everything is a learning experience. Me and my dogs are a team and we will grow and learn together.

  9. I like it how you think of each of your dogs as individuals. It seems like you really know what to do with your dogs and understand them well…. You’re great!

  10. This is a terrific post and so true! I have found the same thing in training Sulley and Junior. Sulley is like Iggy, very eager to please, intelligent and sensitive to correction. I call Sulley my perfect dog. I never have to say something more than once with him – whether it’s a command or a correction (which is never more than a uh-uh). Junior, however, couldn’t care less about anything unless I’m holding a ball and asking him to play. He isn’t food motivated at all and pretty much does what he wants. I call him my bad boy. It took me months to potty train him and, while he’s incredibly intelligent and picks up on tricks/commands quickly, he only chooses to comply half of the time. You are right, training needs to be tailored to the dog. There really isn’t a one size fits all for dog training.

  11. Well you are doing something right because your dogs have more skills than mine do that is for sure! I do agree every dog does have to be trained differently – I know with my girl who is incredibly fearful needs a certain type of training to not allow her to be fearful……investing in a trainer is on my list of things to do!

  12. Not only did I not grow up in a dog training family, I didn’t even grow up with pets! There’s nothing more important than training a dog, and I admit it makes me very sad when I meet people who haven’t and have no interest in doing it. When I saw all the untrained dogs being dumped at the shelter where I volunteered because of behaviour problems, I not only started to train them when I walked them, I also became a trainer. Thanks for talking about the importance of training and making it less intimidating for those just getting started.

  13. Aww… I don’t have a dog however I fell in love with your first line ” I’ve been doing this for long enough now that it’s about time I stop pretending and own up to the truth – I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to training our dogs. I never have, and I probably never will.” That’s the great thing about blogging your journey. There are others that are in the same boat! You just learn as you go as you are doing.

  14. It just goes to show that each dog, as well as us humans, are different. We learn with each dog what works well for them in day to day life. Training is great but sometimes we have to try a different approach.

  15. Many people misunderstand the concept of positive reinforcement. It does include mistake markers like “uh ah.” We rarely use the word NO because it makes us feel badly that we have not communicated with our dogs well enough for them to try again. A forceful NO can shut them down from offering any behavior in the future. Think of it as teaching an ON and OFF switch. If you want your dog to be Quiet, then you must also put their barking or Speak on cue…but only reward them when they are quiet. It’s a process that requires a lot of thought rather than reaction but the end result is a happy dog that lives to make you smile. Happy Days ahead 🙂

  16. You’re so right, every dog is different. Some need really firm corrections and others merely need a gentle Ah, Ah! Any more will upset them tremendously. Don’t ever feel like you don’t belong, no one starts out as an expert in anything! Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  17. Sounds like you’ve figured out what works best for your dogs. My dog doesn’t like having his nails clipped, but once I told the vet tech that he’ll do anything for food, his life changed. She gives him baby food while clipping his nails, and the process is so much better for both of them.

  18. This is the perfect post for my human to read! Every dog is so different and she is finally excepting that fact that River (my sister we adopted a year and a half ago) and myself are totally different. We have different comfort levels, interest, abilities and once my human accepted that life has been amazing! 🙂

  19. It’s been so long since I’ve had a dog/puppy that I know I’d be lost. It’s blog posts like this that I’ll keep should I ever had a dog again. My mom got her first dog when she was in her 70s and she’s made a few mistakes, but on the whole, her dog is doing pretty well.

  20. It’s good that you recognized when a certain type of training just wasn’t working for that specific dog. I’ve never trained a dog but your tips sound like good ones!

  21. wow, you’re one great owner, trainer and a friend of these dogs. They are very lucky to have you, not everyone have the time and patience to train dogs. And yes, I agree, not all dogs, can be trained the same as the other.

  22. I feel like dog training is so much like parenting! It’s actually like having a child sometimes with strops and all! Not everything will work on one dog that is does for another you just have to take advice and do what’s best for you

  23. Such a beautiful and very interesting post. You are such a great owner of this dog, I know training a dog is not an easy task because every dog has their different attitude and motivations. Those dogs are lucky because they have you!

  24. We all start from somewhere and especially, if we’ve never had a background about something, it might be quite hard to work everyone out perfectly from the start. Anyway, you have beautiful dogs and I’m glad you’re sharing that each dog has its own way of being handled. All the best…

  25. I hope I will be able to train my dog like you when I will have one. You are awesome! I love dogs however I don’t have an opportunity to have one now :(.

  26. Aww … at least you’re trying! I think as long as your dogs know how much they’re loved … Although ours was a great dog and trained so well which did make life a lot easier too. But I’m sure you’re doing a much better job than you think!

  27. THOugh I don’t have pets, I feel they are similar to our kids and every dog as its own understanding. Your learning curve goes as per the reinforcements which work for them.

  28. Isn’t it amazing how different each animal is? Of all the critters I’ve had, I don’t think any two learned exactly the same. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  29. I always wanted to have a dog. Now I waiting to settle down so I can get one. Your post is making me anxious about getting one asap. Thanks for getting me prepared that every dog is different and I need to understand their needs and act accordingly.

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