How to fail your dog: don’t practice

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For all of my truly wonderful clients and their dogs who work their tails off—which is the majority of you—this post isn’t directed at you. You guys are great. And you know who you are.

Do you know the number one reason dog trainers get burned out? Here’s a hint: it’s not the dogs.

The truth is that even when they’re at their worst, the dogs are easy. What’s not so easy is training dogs when their owners don’t bother practicing. Training a dog is work. And if a dog owner isn’t willing to put in the work, then coming to me—or going to any other trainer—is just all a waste of time.

But wait … aren’t you the dog TRAINER?!?

A trainer is someone who trains dogs.

A handler is the person who actually handles that dog. As the dog’s owner, you’re automatically the handler.

Think about it this way: You care for your dog, feed and water him, and take him to the vet when he’s sick. You’re the one who takes her for walks, plays fetch, and goes on outings. And really, who’s the one that your dog is thrilled to see when you walk in the door? Who she wants to snuggle up next to? Whose face he wants to lick in joy?

In other words, your dog’s main relationship isn’t with the trainer; it’s with you, the handler.

I’m here to guide training and work through any issues you might have. But unless you, the handler, are an active participant in this, then there’s really no point. Because at the end of every training session, the dog is going home with you—not me.

Why I am writing this post.

Really, it’s been a long time coming because I am tired of people expecting this instant magic fix. But recently, there was a situation, and it sent me over the edge. I don’t want to seem vindictive, but here’s what happened.

We’ve been working with a working line GSD since he was a puppy. In this case, working line means police or military dogs. We’re talking about hard dogs here, the kind of dogs that law enforcement trains to bite people and take down bad guys. They are not for the average person; they can be a challenge even for experienced owners. And without solid professional training, just walking down the street can be a nightmare.

The owners signed up for Level I training, loved it. They signed up for a Hands Off course, loved it. Signed up for another, and loved that too. Then they signed up for regular dog walking. Throughout it all, we were in constant communication with them because handling a dog of this caliber is difficult, and they needed all the help they could get.

At nine months, this dog had amazing off-leash skills. And by amazing, I mean kick-a** off-the-charts obedience—especially considering how young he was.

And yet the owners fired us because they said our training didn’t work.

Here’s what happened: They left the gate open, and the dog rushed out and nipped at the pants of a passing jogger (many people forget that GSD are herding dogs). They contacted us to let us know that they were going to PUT THE DOG DOWN because it bit someone, and it was our fault because our off-leash training failed.

Here’s what’s wrong with this picture: The owners never practiced with their dog, either on-leash or off. They didn’t really learn the commands or hand signals, much less the leash work that would have reinforced those commands. Furthermore, they allowed the dog to fence fight and get riled up, even though we warned them about allowing this to continue. So when the dog dashed out of the yard, he was totally amped up.

The bottom line is that we love this dog and we trained him really well—but at the end of the day, HE IS NOT OUR DOG.

Your dog trainer can’t raise your dog for you.

I honestly never thought I would ever need to say this because it seems like a total no-brainer. But let me repeat that anyway: your dog trainer can’t raise your dog for you. If you don’t want to raise and manage your dog, why even have one in the first place?

More than that, you are not entitled to good behavior if you’re not an active participant. We can’t train your dog if you don’t show up for class regularly, you don’t practice what you learned in the last session, you let weeks go by between sessions without practice, or you refuse to take the leash.

We just can’t.

Let’s reset the expectations.

As a dog trainer, I can offer you and your dog these services. And I want you to know that I am 100% committed to getting you exactly what you need, whether it’s obedience training or helping your dog with aggression or anxiety.

Every single dog training session offered by Nitro K-9 is tailored to the needs of the individual dog. I want people to call me if they ever run up against any problems. I will spend whatever time it takes, and I don’t charge for advice, for phone consultations, or for any extra time I spend with you. And most people will tell you that I’m responsive, just a phone call or email away.

I do what I do because I love dogs, and because I love the people who come to us for help. This is why we don’t charge more for aggression, therapy, or service dogs. I get flak from other trainers for this, but I won’t do it.

Here’s the thing: I need you to be 100% committed too. Because I can do a heck of a job training your dog, but I can’t force you to be your dog’s handler.

Being your dog trainer is an exercise in trust that goes both ways. You trust me to guide you and show you how to get your dog where you want him to be. I trust you to handle your dog, practice, communicate with me—and ask for help when you need it. It really is that simple.

No consistency is a big, fat fail.

People sometimes assume that practice starts when they snap on the prong collar and ends the moment it comes off. In reality, every interaction with your dog is an opportunity for practicing what you’ve learned. “Sit” on a walk doesn’t mean anything different than “sit” when you’re at home.

The same thing is true of sessions with a trainer. “Stay” doesn’t mean one thing when you’re working with us and something else when you and your dog are alone.

Furthermore, if the only time your dog is performing a stay is when it’s in a training session with us, then what’s the point of being in training at all? Eventually training is going to end. If you haven’t learned how to handle your dog, you won’t have anything to show for it.

Training and handling a dog requires consistency … and if you’re not consistent, your dog’s not going to be consistent either. Which totally defeats the whole purpose of dog training.

If you’re having any problems, we want to know about it. We’ll work with you and your dog. If you’re having a hard time being consistent, let us know. We’ll work with you to identify areas for improvement. Is training breaking down in the house? We offer a free in-home visit as part of our Level I training program exactly for that reason.

There’s a lot we can do to help, but we can’t swoop in and fix every problem if you’re not learning to handle your dog.

Our training works.

You’ll notice that I define myself as a balanced trainer. The main reason I use that term is because it’s the easiest way to characterize the Nitro approach to training dogs; we are neither using clickers and “purely positive” methods on the one hand, and we are categorically opposed to causing any kind of pain or harm to dogs on the other. In other words, we’re not fanatics.

But within that broad category, I would really say that first and foremost the Nitro training system is bond-based training.

Everything we do, all the techniques we use, create a strong, deep, and lasting bond between the dog and his handler. That bond is what makes your dog WANT to perform. And the bond that you’ll get with our training is beyond anything you can currently imagine.

To achieve that goal, I’m going to be upfront with you about your dog and what your dog needs, and I’m not going to waste our time just telling you what you want to hear. The purely positive folks have the market on that. They’ll do anything to get your money, but the minute your dog does something wrong, they’re gone. Poof.

I can show you glowing references all day long. There’s a reason that in my 20 years of dog training, I’ve never been out of work. But you need to make up your mind. If you spend more time searching the Internet and watching YouTube videos than talking to me, you will ultimately be too divided to succeed at the work we’ve begun. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t question and learn. You should. That’s part of the journey. What I am saying is that you’re either on board or you’re not.

Personal responsibility check list

If you don’t do the work, you’re not going to succeed. But if you do, you’re going to achieve great results. With a calm and determined handler, any dog can. The key is not to waste your time. Dogs need consistency. The thing is, you don’t have to try too hard—just get out there and do it. The answers will come. Everyone learns at his or her own pace. Take your time and enjoy the process. Relax. You’ll notice a change.

If you’re still struggling or you feel like training isn’t working, ask yourself the following questions.

    • Am I working with my dog every day?
    • Do I enforce a heel on our walks?
    • Am I being consistent?
    • Have I learned the voice and hand signals?
    • Do I understand the leash work?
    • Can other people handle my dog when I can’t?
    • Do I understand why my trainer is making particular recommendations?
    • Am I following those recommendations?
    • Do I understand the genetic makeup and DRIVES that govern my dog’s behavior?
    • Have I studied the videos?
    • Do I read the blog?
    • Do I ask when I need help?

A special shout out to anyone who deals with aggressive or anxious dogs.

The majority of my business in the past 20 years has been with aggressive and anxious dogs. These dog owners who come to me are the finest of the finest. I mean that. These are the people who live in fear of what their dog might do, the people who feel like they can’t leave town, take any break, or relax for a moment.

In my opinion, these people are the real heroes. They refuse to accept defeat. They fight for their dogs every single day, sometimes for months or even years. They work and work and work. And most of them win.

I am honored to work with you guys.

A final word.

Like everything in life, success requires determination and hard work. This kind of training can be hard to learn, and it takes time and practice. If you’re like me and refuse to accept defeat, then practice and stay consistent. I can guarantee that you will achieve things with your dog far beyond anything you might currently believe possible.

 

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