Guest Post: I’ve A Confession to Make

Reprinted with permission from Brian Monson, Adventures with Wolf Packs. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced elsewhere in any form. Copyright March 16, 2018.

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.

The Wolfpack consists of “an ordinary couple with two extraordinary dogs.” Raising dogs has been more of a challenge than the Monsons could have ever imagined. They strive to keep their dogs involved in a variety of activities and to give them the best life possible. At their blog, they tell the stories of all of the triumphs, challenges, successes, and failures as of their wolfpack life.

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