Your Dog is Not an Oven
My oven broke this past weekend. My husband Phil made dinner Saturday night, used the broiler, and turned everything off properly after the fact, but for some reason one of the heating elements wouldn’t turn off. We realized the oven wasn’t cooling off (in fact that corner of the kitchen kind of felt like stepping into a volcano...) and immediately turned off the power to it for safety. Monday morning rolled around, I called a repair man, he was there by noon and out of my house after fixing the oven in literally 30 minutes. It was a thing of beauty, and I had my oven back. I was definitely a happy customer.
What could this story possibly have to do with dog training? It’s because your dog is not an oven. Our dogs are not ovens, or dishwashers, or computers, or plumbing, or any other inanimate object that we can open up and tinker around with. Your dog is not an oven.
I think some people (not most, because to be frank most of my clients are amazing pet parents who are willing to put in the work, but it’s definitely something I run into at least once a month when new clients speak with me) think they can hire me, have me in for one session, get some hot tips from me and have a changed dog after a few days. It's not their fault; after multiples TV shows with dog trainer quick fixes, and no regulation in this industry, how are they supposed to know any better?! But the truth is, that’s just not how dog training works. Your dog has learned their undesirable habits after weeks, months, and years of repetition; these behaviors are not unlearned in one hour long session.
Let’s say you have a dog that is barking and lunging on leash at other dogs. I have to instruct you on the following:
Why your dog is behaving this way
How we’re going to change the behavior
Proper equipment for reactive dogs
Different values of reinforcers
Leash wrangling skills
Treat delivery mechanics
Managing your dog to prevent over threshold exposures to the best of your ability
Discuss threshold distances and when you can push to next steps
Basic attention exercises
Basic maneuvers such as find its and emergency u-turns
How we’re going to change the ACTUAL behavior of barking and lunging
What to do if your dog goes off
I would be lying to you if I said I could not only inform you on, but could also coach you on the mechanics of all of the above topics in an initial session and then walk away with your dog ‘fixed’.
When the oven broke we were able to open it up, remove and replace the offending part, and go back to business as usual. We can’t do that with Fido, open up his brain and remove the part that says “AH, I'M IN DANGER!” Your dog is a living, sentient, feeling member of your family, and “fixing” them isn’t going to take 30 minutes, or even a few days. In serious behavior cases like fear and aggression, you may even be looking at months of work to see improvement. While this can be discouraging to hear, it’s important to celebrate the little victories, rather than getting hung up on the picture you want in the end.
Beware the trainer who advertises their “quick and easy” methods; any trainer claiming to modify your dogs’ fear or aggression in a small number of sessions likely uses suppression based techniques and flooding, and forces the dog into a state of “learned helplessness” (i.e. forces the dog to give up trying). The behavior will come back in these cases, often times much much worse than before, and you will be back at square 1. I know it’s tempting to think some trainer out there has the magic wand to come in and fix your dog in an hour, but unfortunately that’s just never the case.
On one hand, it would be simpler if our dogs were like ovens, able to be fixed in a half hour appointment on a gloomy Monday afternoon. I could certainly take many more cases at a time if this were the case. But it’s also important to realize that the very things that make our dogs sentient and feeling (i.e., not ovens and not quick fix-able) are the reason we love them, and with that comes the fact that our dogs feel emotions, sometimes very strongly, and sometimes in a way that scares us. We owe it to our dogs to understand where they are coming from, empathize with them, and give them the time they need to feel safe and learn new behaviors. Your dog is not an oven.