Dog Training – A Misnomer

In the United States, an estimated 2.7 million shelter animals are euthanized each year. Sadly, many dog owners surrender their pets to shelters due to behavior problems. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for altering the way a dog behaves.

By watching an episode of The Dog Whisperer or a YouTube clip of Zak George, you get the impression that dog training is easy.  They imply that in just one hour your dog can go from Cujo to Lassie.  Don’t get me wrong — some of these trainers are very gifted. But despite efforts at training, some owners still feel the need to surrender their animal.

These shows and videos paint an unrealistic picture of dog training, thus leaving the everyday dog owner feeling like a failure. Despite trying the expert recommendations, they achieve little or no successThe reality is that dog training is about 10% training the dog and 90% training the dog owner.  These numbers may be a little exaggerated but you get the picture.  With the magic of TV editing, you don’t see the dog owner’s required time commitment and consistent effort to have the well behaved dog they desired.

No Quick Fix

Most people want a quick fix.  A couple I know felt they did not have the patience or skill to train their pit bull, Daisy. They sent her away to a trainer for 2 weeks, at a cost of almost $2,000. Daisy returned home, wearing a $300 electronic collar, behaving splendidly and obeying commands. That did not last and she quickly returned to her unruly ways.

Daisy, like all dogs, is a very intelligent creature.  She realized her owners were not going to hold her accountable in the way the trainer had done. I have no doubt the trainer was great at getting dogs to do what he wanted. But he did not address the most import component. He did not address the other 90% of training by failing to also train Daisy’s owners.

It is Really Dog-Owner Training

Rose Dybel and Dog Owner

When looking for someone to train your dog, always expect them to require your participation. It may be by joining the trainer as he or she teaches your dog commands. It might also be with written instructions, i.e., “homework,” to do between training sessions. If your dog is going away to a training camp for a period of time, you need to find out how you will be informed about how to reinforce the training. Ultimately, if you are not going to be involved in the training process, your dog’s behavior will not change.

As a trainer, I emphasize that you get what you put in when it comes to training. I’m with your dog only one hour per week; you, as the dog owner, are with your dog the other 167 hours. The more you work with your dog and the more consistent you are with follow through, the more consistent your dog will be in his responses.  If the dog sees that you eventually “give in” to his bad behavior, his resolve will become stronger to disobey your commands.  I teach owners how to effectively use positive reinforcement such as treats, toys or praise to achieve desired behaviors and non-punitive corrections to deter problematic behaviors.

Remember, “dog training” is a misnomer. A well trained dog must have a well trained owner.


Make a List

The large, sad brown eyes of our golden retriever turned to look at me. In that moment, I had my answer.

In early November 2003, we received news that our 11-year old golden retriever Jake had an aggressive form of cancer. We had noticed a lump on the side of his nose that had grown large in a short amount of time. In addition, he had begun to experience nosebleeds. In all other ways Jake appeared and acted normal. This past January 20th was the ten-year anniversary of Jake’s death. The memory of that day is as clear to me as if it were yesterday.

Jake, Baxter and author

Jake, Baxter and author

It was a frigidly cold day, very windy, but beautifully sunny. The cold air helped Jake breathe more easily because the tumors had broken into his nasal cavity. Though I did not want him outside, I let him go when he asked. After about thirty minutes, I went looking for him from within the house by peering through the windows. I discovered him lying next to a Rhododendron bush in front of the large dining room windows. The bush was protecting him from much of the wind and so I let him remain as I stood watching him.

The maple tree in our front yard was always full of birds, and on that particular day it was especially crowded. I watched Jake for a long time as he watched the birds coming and going from the tree branches. His head would turn slightly to allow him to continue gazing at them as they disappeared into the sky. I had never before seen him lay in that spot nor had I ever seen him watch the birds so intently.

I was transfixed watching him, looking so peaceful, lost in my thoughts of what we were about to have to do. Then quite slowly, he turned and stared at me through the window. In all likelihood I had moved, but it was so strange because at that same moment, I was asking myself if we were really doing the right thing. His turn to stare back at me was in a way his answer – yes. It was as if he knew what was happening and what I was thinking.

As pet owners, we are often faced with life and death decisions of our animal family members. I am very grateful that early in Jake’s life we had found a veterinarian in whom we had great confidence. More importantly, we had found a man in whose compassionate company we were comfortable sharing those most painful of moments.

I am also grateful for a pet sitter Melissa Bensen who had quietly suggested after learning the news that my husband and I come up with an objective and very specific list of ways in which we would know it was Jake’s time to go. Though it was painful when we discussed the issue – for Jake was then happy following his usual pattern of begging for food, chasing popcorn tossed on the floor, and wanting to go for rides in the truck — we did create a list. Melissa’s reasoning was that towards the end we would be too emotional to be objective. She was right.

When Jake no longer stuck his nose in our lap at the sound of a fork scratching on an empty plate, or wagged his tail in anticipation of a ride in the truck, we knew his quality of life was gone. He died quickly in our arms, in less than 25 seconds.

As a pet owner, look objectively at your beloved dog, cat, bird, hamster, etc. Understand what it is in their lives that make them happy and comfortable – how do they define quality. Make sure you the owner are comfortable with your veterinarian. He or she will be there at one of the most painful times of your life. Most of all cherish that pet each and every day. Make time in your often overly busy schedule to be with them, to enjoy them. Sadly one of nature’s greatest gifts to us, is taken from us much too quickly.


Never Enough!

When people see the pile of stuffed animals, ropes and balls in the corner of the bedroom they often ask, “Do the dogs have enough toys?” My answer is always the same. “No.”

The pile has grown over the last twenty years of dog ownership. Many in the mound have been ripped apart and sewn together, de-stuffed and re-stuffed numerous times, have taken spins in the washing machine and have gone missing for months only to reappear, as if by magic.


I cannot come home at the end of the day without our black Lab, Cole, running to the pile, grabbing a toy and racing back to me with it in his mouth––often squeaking it the whole way.

Friends visit us with their mastiff, Dixie. She knows where the toy basket is kept, grabs one of the stuffed critters and settles down on the floor for a ripping and de-squeaking fest. Cole often joins her and the carpet is soon covered in piles of white cotton and mangled, plastic squeakers. Fortunately they don’t swallow these innards and the only adverse effect is the need to drag out the vacuum.

Our first dog, Jake, also loved to tear apart stuffed toys. As a new dog owner and having always been taught to take care of my own toys growing up, I was always distraught to see Jake tear apart one of his. At the time I didn’t appreciate the joy and soothing effect that tearing gives to a dog. Sadly, I would put a toy away so that it wasn’t destroyed. I will forever regret doing that.

Toys can bring great joy to a dog and to us as we watch them play. So, go help boost the economy and buy your dog a new toy. The pile is never big enough!

Note: This first appeared as the “Editor’s Notes” in the April/May’13 issue of Pet Tails Magazine.