What’s Important to You?

For a professional dog trainer, my dogs are not very “well trained.” They wear Freedom harnesses on walks to keep them from pulling. They get excited when visitors come over. They bark when people come to the door.

purplepenRecently, I posted a picture on Facebook of my youngest dog, Mischief, with purple ink on her paws from a pen she had just destroyed. A good friend of mine was very concerned, and contacted me privately. Perhaps I might be hurting my business, she worried. Wouldn’t people be less likely to hire me if they saw that my puppy was destructive? What kind of dog trainer would let her dog do something so blatantly naughty?

Well, I would, for one. I love bragging about the amazing things my dogs can do, but I’m also not afraid to share their less impressive moments with the world. I thought Mischief’s pen murder was cute and funny. The pen had fallen from my desk and she did what any curious young dog would: she picked it up and chewed on it to see what it was. She doesn’t chew on other things that she finds on the floor such as my shoes, dirty clothes, or furniture, because I’ve taught her that these are not appropriate things to put in her mouth. If I wanted to teach her not to touch pens on the floor, it would be easy to do, but since pens rarely wind up on the ground it’s not something I worry about.

Here’s the thing: we each train what’s important to us. What I find important with my pets and what you feel are a priority may be very different, and that’s okay. Our pets become part of our family, and every family has its own unique rules and priorities. As long as your dog fits well in your family, it doesn’t matter what skills she knows or doesn’t know.

It’s important to me that my dogs travel well, and indeed they all ride quietly in the car, usually sleeping for most of the trip. They don’t bark out the car windows or pace restlessly. It’s important to me that they have rock-solid leave its, so most of my training sessions involve toys or treats on the ground, which my dogs ignore unless I give them permission to grab them. If we walk past roadkill or animal feces, my dogs respond quickly and happily when I tell them it’s not theirs.

As a family, we have certain rules that I expect my dogs to follow. It’s important that they enjoy their crates, and all three dogs are happy to hang out in their kennels whether I’m home or away. With my odd work hours it’s vital that my dogs not wake me up when I’m asleep unless it’s an emergency. When I’m sleeping, all three dogs curl up and sleep too, whether it’s 2am or 2pm. They never pester me for meals or wake me up, even if I want to sleep in.

Loose leash walking? Well, sometimes.

Loose leash walking? Well, sometimes.

Your priorities are probably very different, and there’s nothing wrong with that! If you want your dogs to walk on a loose leash, you can have a dog who walks politely by your side on nothing but a flat collar. Maybe having the leash yanked on or using a harness bothers you, and if that’s the case we should fix that issue. It doesn’t bother me if my dogs walk ahead of me, so I let them. We all enjoy our walks, so there’s no reason to change their behavior.

Similarly, maybe you want your dog to behave impeccably when visitors come over. Fine! Teach him how to do so. I rarely have visitors, much less those who aren’t “dog people,” so it’s not a priority for me. I actually prefer to have dogs who bark when people come to the door because I don’t live in a great neighborhood and this makes me feel safer. If you want your dog to be quiet when people ring the bell, you can teach him that.

When I work with clients on a one-on-one basis, I ask that they fill out a behavior questionnaire before our first appointment. Besides collecting information on their dog’s day-to-day life, this questionnaire asks what their training goals are. It also asks whether that client is considering rehoming their dog if they cannot fix the problem behavior as well as whether they’re considering euthanasia.

These last two questions are some of the very most important, because they help me figure out what that person’s priorities are. Some people are at their wit’s end when they can’t housetrain their puppy and are ready to rehome him if they can’t solve the issue immediately. Others are horrified that I ask these questions and wouldn’t dream of rehoming or euthanizing their dog, even though he has a multiple-bite history and has been declared a dangerous dog by the city. While it might be easy for us to pass judgment on the former owner for “giving up” on their dog over such a “minor” issue, for that person the issue might not be minor at all.

I once worked with someone whose dog was highly aggressive towards people. This person lived in the country and didn’t care about her dog’s aggressive behavior at all: it was easily managed by crating the dog when she had the occasional visitor and by muzzling her during yearly vet visits. So why did she hire me? Her dog had killed one of her chickens, and that was unacceptable to her. We taught her dog to leave the chickens alone without ever addressing her aggressive behavior towards people, and my client was thrilled with the training.

As easy as it may be to pass judgment on other people who do not share the same priorities as you, it’s neither kind nor fair. If your dog is not fitting into your family, work to change that by teaching them how to succeed in your household. If you don’t care whether your dog holds a perfect sit-stay while you open the door, don’t let anyone else bully you into obsessing over it.

We bring dogs into our families as friends, companions, and playmates. Enjoy your dogs for who they are, and for who they have become with your guidance and support. Enjoy their individual personalities and the special, unique bond that you have with them. Your relationship with your dog is one-of-a-kind. Cherish it, and never let someone else tell you that there’s anything wrong with it just because their priorities are different.

57 responses to “What’s Important to You?

  1. annik vuffray and Becca Kumi Na tatu

    YES, YES, YES, you couldn’t write better for this end 2012. Thank you.
    My wish for Becca and myself and maybe also for all great teams out there,for 2013 is:
    also if sometimes difficult, live every single day fully, and share together as a team. Sometimes accept to be the one who is following, because your dog is showing you an unexpected side of youself but nevertheless take car and responsability for your dog you decided the kind of society to be in.

  2. Nicely written.

  3. Such a great piece!

  4. Another excellent article! Thank you for posting this. A very happy New Year to you and the doggies!

  5. AMEN! I’m a widow who happens to have 3 dogs…1 is willing to yap at strangers…I want that! THanks for great article!!!!

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  7. Yes! We all have our priorities, and our different situations often require different behaviors. A dog hearing the doorbell and running to sit beside his owner might be “perfect” in one household while a dog rushing to bark at the door until called back might be “perfect” in another. What’s right is what keeps everyone safe and happy!

    My own post on this topic, shared by request: http://blog.caninesinaction.com/2011/03/the-cobblers-kids-are-occasionally-barefoot/

  8. Agree with all you say, however, I am curious how to stop my dogs waking me up when I am asleep. I am not awake enough to correct them. They fidget beside the bed until I wake up to let them out, and then scratch at the screen to get back in. If I dont respond they hi-tail it down to the next bedroom etc. etc. They are toiletted before bedtime – which is not until midnight – so its a challenge. Joy

  9. I love this post. I had the same realization after my reactive dog died, and that’s actually the theme of the book I’m writing about her: http://rhymeswithsafari.com/bark-and-lunge-the-isis-story/

  10. I agree 100%. Our dogs are taught to get along with each other and any animal I bring into our home. But due to living in the country they are allowed to protect the yard from any animal that wanders in. They also bark and do not like strangers unless we introduce them first. If we don’t introduce the person knocking on our door that person will not enter the house without being bit or pinned to a wall

  11. Makes me feel like a much better dog owner. Thanks….I love your approach!

  12. This is a lovely benediction for anyone whose guilty pleasure is living with some measure of canine inspired chaos. Ahhh….relief!

  13. I came to your blog with Joy’s reference. In a world filled with A) not enough dog people and B) dog people who know it all and decide to decide for you, YOU are a breat of fresh air. Thank Thank you for saying that my relationship with my dog is my way and it is perfect, well almost. And thanks for saying it is ok to have our own rules for our life together. Then there’s room for lessons. Thank you.

  14. I agree with this well-written article. I have many small-dog intermediate classes where we do not teach heel which is part of the usual program. Most small dog owners don’t care if their dog heels – they will just pick them up. My dog is 106 lbs. so he knows the heel command. I always ask my students what they want their dog to do and we work on what is important to them.

  15. Great post! Though I’ve never had anyone tell me what I should or should not be training with my own dogs, I don’t doubt that there are people who do that; if I ever come across someone who presumes to tell me I “need” to train, I’ll be sure to tell them – nicely – that the exercise has little importance for my family.

  16. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I will be sharing.
    Sue McCabe
    APDT UK 00956
    Kennel Club Listed Status.

  17. This article is awesome. I totally relate to what you are saying and it is so true in my own life with my 3 whippets. I have tweeted it out to my dog Radish’s 1,100 followers. I hope it gets shared widely!!!!!

  18. Yep, I am sure there are many who would find my obnoxiously friendly dogs very tiresome. I wouldn’t have them any other way.

  19. Love this post! We have 2 shy dogs that take a very long time to get accustomed to new things. People have mentioned trying agility or flyball, but it isn’t worth the amount of stress it would but them through, plus neither one is really food or ball motivated.
    They are great with our cats, good on walks and in the car and are generally well behaved in public, they just aren’t very receptive to attention from new people. Not too bad since Maggie used to be so scared that she wouldn’t walk anywhere at the shelter and Duke was labeled fear aggressive and unadoptable by the first shelter. :)

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  22. I loved this post – it reflects a lot of my own values with my dogs, and then reminds us not to judge others. Very well written! I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog (through a link on facebook) and am happily adding it to my blogroll.

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  25. Melissa A. Morse

    So well written,u sound like an amazing person,there should b more people in this world like u. I bet ur fury friends especially appreciate u:).

  26. Spectacular post! Thank you for articulating so beautifully what I have been feeling. Just wonderful.

  27. What a fantastic article! As an owner of a 7 month old vizsla puppy this was so re assuring to read.
    Yes, he gets on the sofa and no I don’t care! He walks all the time off lead cause he comes out with me and my horse! No, I don’t want him calm and sensible he is a vizsla!
    So true though there are many opinions on a well trained dog! Hummm Weeing on the mother in laws carpet though….eek, not good! K x

  28. I think trainers who are not afraid to admit their dogs behave like real dogs and that some things are not important to them (the trainer) do a tremendous service to pet dogs everywhere. Thank you. Too many people think their dogs must be perfect all the time and that a well trained dog never does anything independent or naughty. Not true! And thank you for saying so.

  29. I am a dog trainer in Spain, and I totally agree with virtually everything in this article! Yes, my dogs sleep on my bed, on the sofa. My little rescue dog will chase cats, but works devotedly in class. My older 15 year old dog will bark for a treat, and will go and bring my ‘slippers’ to ensure she gets one! (I taught her that as a trick, and she has never forgotten it!) If she can’t get mine, she will bring hubbies!! BUT, what I do in my home, will not suit or be acceptable for my clients, and I will work with them to get what they want from their pets! As a trainer I don’t want people to think my dogs are ‘Crufts standard’ and can do no wrong, they are pets too! Even in class, things may not go to plan!!! How many laughs it can cause when ‘the trainers dog’ doesn’t actually get it right!!! But then, of course, they can see I am NOT infallible! All my classes are fun, which can be heard when the dogs arrive!
    Great Article, Thank you!

  30. I love this philosophy. One of the struggles I have had as a new dog owner is the plethora of dog training advice out there… and trying to figure out what works best for US and OUR family.

    We have a one year old labradoodle who was re-homed at six months due to a change in his owners’ work situation. He was undisciplined, unruly and BIG when we got him and we’ve worked hard to help him learn better manners. In six months he’s learned so much (he is the smartest dog I’ve ever had!), but I am struggling most with one really bad habit he has. He loves to grab pillows off the couch and run off with them — trying to get us to chase him. I know it’s a game and attention-seeking behavior. I put the pillows away for a few weeks, but frankly, I WANT the pillows on the couch. I have tried numerous ways to teach him that the pillows are MINE, not his, to no avail. We quickly learned that chasing him is what he wants, so that is totally counterproductive. I’ve tried ignoring him (but then he chews the pillows), I’ve tried yelling and shaking a can with coins in it (i know.. not proud of this), I’ve tried calmly asking him to “down” and “leave it,” I’ve tried “trading” for a toy, I’ve tried “time outs” in his crate. I’ve tried walking him past the couch several times a day for about a week and telling him “leave it” any time he even looked at the pillows. None of this has worked. I am beyond frustrated! He gets lots of attention…and LOTS of exercise. I play ball with him outside every morning for at least 30 minutes, then walk him, and play again in the afternoon and often in the evening as well. I intersperse mental stimulation also, having him practice tricks and obedience as we play/walk. It almost seems like he’s worse after a day like today when I played ball with him, then took him to the dog park and played again, then took him for a nice long walk and even a visit to the hardware store. I love this dog, but this little habit is about to push me over the edge! Please help!

  31. A good post. As a trainer I do sometimes feel guilty that my dogs aren’t perfectly behaved. I have two giant breed girls. They bark when people come, they get very excited when we have visitors they too, wear harnesses when walking, though actually they don’t really pull, except when they see a squirrel or something and then it’s helpful to have them on a harness, especially when there is a combined weight of 225 pounds of dog. There is stuff with them that is a work in progress, but they do leave things when they are told, and they normally do as they are told when I ask them. So actually, I am happy :-)

  32. I understand the writers comments perfectly and to a great extent embrace them. I have however run a fostering service for a charity that sought to help owners escaping Domestic Abuse or who needed urgent hospital treatment. The owners desperate to sort their lives/health back. Fosterers are generous people caring for the pets for up to six months, poss more. When pets do not react or behave calmly in certain situations or ar strong and unruly on a lead finding fosterers can be nigh impossible. A word of caution…we never know quite what is around the corner…be prepared and know that the more generally socially ‘acceptable’ your dog the more options he and you may have if you ever experience any change in circs that you may not ordinarily anticipate. I wish all safe and happy lives and that none of you are affected by such worries 😊

    • Gen, I, too, foster generally reactive/scared dogs from shelters to prepare them for adoption. These are adult dogs as well with lots of baggage That you foster for owners escaping domestic abuse is most generously spirited. I’ve found a drag leash in the house, sometimes tethered to me, and then a lonnnggg drag leash when at the dog park/on walks through the woods, sometimes with me holding the other end, sometimes, later, not as necessary, gives that dog some confidence, almost like an umbilical cord. Plus I can more easily stomp the drag leash to prevent harm.. I’ve found the walks through the woods the most calming/healing for these dogs. Thanks for doing this! It must be hard, sometimes, to return the dog or even NOT be able to return the dog.

  33. Loved this. I am a trainer and my dogs are not perfect, but they fit my life.

  34. Elizabeth Penning

    Good words, thank you.

  35. If you lower your standards enough, you won’t have to train at all. If this is the case, of course, you shouldn’t take money from other people who **expect** you to be able to train dogs.
    I tell my students all the time “if your instructor’s dog(s) cannot do what the instructor is trying to teach? FIND ANOTHER INSTRUCTOR.
    It is amazing to me what passes these days for training……….

  36. Reblogged this on From Beaks To Barks and commented:
    This! So true for all species, and couldn’t have said it better myself.

  37. i totally agree with your article… sometimes my dog barks and my friends will tell me i have an aggressive dog but i do not wish my dog to be too quiet… if my friends dont like it i dont care… as long as i love my dog i think he can do whatever he likes in my own house.

  38. Reblogged this on DogSentials and commented:
    One dog trainer to another – THIS IS BRILLIANT! A MUST READ.

  39. Very sensible article. Totally agree…. and your approach has worked for me!

  40. As a trainer, so much this! Yes!
    Training is such an individual experience, because every dog and household are different. I left a training company years ago because I didn’t agree with their one size fits all way of thinking.

  41. Great article. Yesterday, my little dog got kicked out of the big dog park because he was bullying the big dogs (in particular a German Shepherd and a Great Dane). We went over to the little dog park because there was nobody there and when people and pups started arriving there we went back to the big dog park and no problems. These dogs are so funny.

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  45. I love this but must admit, I had a very difficult time walking into a good and trusted friends home, who is also my associate in a small dog rescue we maintain, when her little pack of 5 ankle bites WOULDN’T SHUT UP when i walk in her door. They have seen me 100’s of times but it made no difference. The shrill barrage of deafening noise would continue long after I had entered and settled in making conversation impossible with my friend seemingly oblivious.

    I tried very hard to practice what is preached in this article but finally one day, when I had a very serious issue I needed to speak with her about that was being rendered impossible by the obnoxious canine choir, I stood up and yelled in my best Drill Sergeant voice, “KNOCK IT OFF!!!”

    My friend was every bit as shocked as her dogs but silence was immediate and held. Then I turned to my shock faced friend and asked in exasperation, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph. How the hell can you stand that racket?”

    I guess it had never dawned on her that something could be done about it and she had just “gotten used to it”.

    Oh sure they still wake up.the Heavens when i come over but it only lasts until I sit down. Then I’m assaulted by a pack of loving little kissy faced furballs who, after they have properly greeted me, curl up around us for a little snoozing while we chat the afternoon away.

  46. Yes exactly I say this to my clients all the time, great article you have a new follower

  47. Totally agree. My Mom had Papillions who were great guard dogs, their toys were everywhere, and God forbid you should sit down, they were on the lap. Just he way we all liked it. Mom had a sign on the door: my home is kept for the comfort and convenience of my dogs. If you don’t like it, don’t come in. Perfect!

  48. From one dog trainer to another, if you teach your dogs what is acceptable for them to put in their mouths, and that nothing else is acceptable, problem solved. Easy peasy. Thebar lowering of dog trainers these days is astounding

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