Lucy is 13 years old. Last week she had a great day, then suddenly on our evening walk she lost all function in her hindquarters and fell sideways, unable to get up. I carried her home and nursed her through the night sleeping on the floor next to her. She continued to worsen with her head severely cocked to the side, tongue hanging out and eyes unfocused and rapidly moving back and forth. I called my veterinarian, unable to hold back my tears. I rushed her over and she was diagnosed with Vestibular disease, a condition that often affects older dogs. The prognosis is that she will recover over the next few days to a few weeks. That night, lying next to her, the pictures of our life together ran constantly through my head. All I could think of was how grateful I was for the gift of her presence in my life and how committed I was to making her life with me, however long or short it would be now, the best it could be. The last thing on my mind was whether she was or ever had been “obedient.”
I am a dog trainer. When we say “dog training” I find people often forget that at the heart of any training is their relationship with their dogs. Oftentimes people think of “training” only in terms of stern discipline. Certain TV shows and books often instruct people to train their dogs with techniques that damage their relationship, rather than tap into it and enhance it. Training techniques that rely on pain, fear or intimidation drive a wedge between a person and their dog. The good news is that you can train your dog quite effectively without ever having to hurt or scare them.
Most important is how you motivate your dog. As you tap into your relationship with your dog, you will understand what motivates your dog to work with you, rather than simply comply to avoid punishment or pain.
Another important component of training is communication. Can you clearly communicate with your dog in a way they will understand? How well do you understand your dog’s body language? Do you know what to do when your dog is telling you they are stressed and ready to react? Do you understand how medical conditions affect your dog’s behavior and ability to learn? Do you understand how distractions affect your dog’s ability to learn? Training gradually introduces distractions to your dog so that they can eventually be reliable even in a challenging environment. Training takes effort, time, commitment, consistency and respect for the relationship forged between you and your dog.
True we all become exasperated with our dogs at times. But it is good to recognize those moments as an outburst of frustration on our part, rather than justify it in the name of “training.” Then we can forgive ourselves and repair our relationship with our dogs.
Training that keeps your relationship with your dog in mind and center-front is both effective and rewarding for both you and your dog. And in the end, it is more important to have a dog that you have loved, and a companion with whom you have shared a life well lived together.
Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer.