Feb 19 2013

How to Set Training Expectations for Your Pet

Are your expectations causing your dog to become a dropout or a teacher’s pet?

Most parents have high expectations for their children, especially when it comes to school. In fact, kids know that good grades often equate to good things, and bad grades spell trouble. Certainly, a child’s poor performance at school causes tension at home, but a bad report card rarely has disastrous results. However, dogs and puppies aren’t always so lucky. Dogs are routinely abandoned because they don’t measure up — hard to believe considering the increasingly important role that pets play in families’ lives and the amount of money Americans spend to pamper their pets. So what gives?

Bringing Home Baby

Just like parents who depart the hospital with their newborn and envision raising the next president of the United States, many dog owners, too, have high expectations when a new pet joins the family. Naturally, they visualize a calm, well-mannered companion. But very few dogs arrive as made-to-order Lassies, even though initially it may seem that way.

That’s because dogs in the unfamiliar environment of a new home typically go through a “honeymoon” phase — usually for the first two weeks to two months, depending on the circumstances — when they are on their best behavior. The honeymoon phase occurs because the dog doesn’t know where he is or what to expect, so he’s cautious until he figures out the daily routine and how he fits into it. Once the dog feels comfortable, he begins to test the waters, so to speak.

The Honeymoon is Over

Owners, too, experience their own euphoric honeymoon state over the cuteness and seeming perfection of their cuddly new pal, so they often miss the subtle signs of their pet’s shift to rambunctious Rover. Consequently, euphoria turns into frustration. Weeks or months later, frustration leads to exasperation, and exasperation becomes helplessness. Helplessness mirrors a sense of failure, and voilĂ  — homeless pet.

Why the frustration to begin with? Because owners try to explain right vs. wrong in human terms: No! Don’t do that! I said stop it! Sadly, the dog is equally conflicted since his doggy genetics tell him that his behavior is appropriate according to standard canine protocol. In the end, the dog’s misconstrued “antics” cause the owner to believe that the dog is just inherently bad.

School’s in Session

The bridge, of course, is training. Dogs well versed in the basic commands — sit, down, stay, come — are a pleasure to have around, but let’s face it, learning is challenging whether you’re a dog or a kid.

However, there are two distinct differences between elementary school and dog school: first, most children are taught by professional teachers, while dogs are taught by their owners, who are themselves in the process of learning from a best-selling book, a trendy television show, or a real-life obedience instructor. Second, children and teachers speak the same language, while dogs and their owner-teachers do not — hard to believe, but dogs don’t speak English — really! Actually, they understand human body language far better than they comprehend human speech. Body language reveals a lot! Thus the reason many owners swear their pets know what they’re saying. In a nutshell, training teaches animals to pair a one-word cue with a specific action. Dogs learn the association between the action and the word, not the dialogue that may accompany it.

The bottom line in pet training is how well the owner grasps and applies what the book says, what the tv personality preaches, or what the dog obedience instructor teaches. Not surprisingly, owners are often uncertain when they practice solo. Dogs, in turn, sense the owner’s apprehension, which impedes progress. Consequently, owners may be inclined to give up when the dog doesn’t respond as expected.

Mirror, Mirror of Your Soul

For centuries we’ve marveled at the dog’s aptitude for responding to humans. In fact, we love movies and television dramas like “Lassie,” “Benji,” and “Marley & Me” because these fur-covered icons so eloquently mimic human moods. When owners are happy, dogs are equally joyous and playful. When owners are sad, dogs are quiet and remain close for mutual comfort and security. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs take advantage of their owners. It’s similar to a child whose parent is inconsistent with household rules; as a result, the child rules the roost, much to the parent’s consternation.

What’s the Secret?

If you’re a frustrated owner, you may wonder if there’s a “magic bullet” that successful dog trainers have up their collective sleeves. Yup, and here’s the secret: adjust your expectations. Remember, dog training is a learning experience for both partners. Establishing small, attainable goals empowers owners to achieve minor victories and to bask in every accomplishment! Equally important, the human-canine bond blossoms.

Certainly, the so-called “big picture” or “final outcome” is important, but focusing on the process rather than the result will reap the biggest rewards. For example, you want your dog to come when called, and you’re upset that he ignores you when you call him outdoors where there are lots of sights and smells to pique his curiosity. But have you ever considered calling him to you indoors as a first step so that you have better control of the outcome?

By adjusting your expectations, the ultimate objective is more likely to be reached and perhaps even exceeded. So don’t head down the path of frustration! Instead, be prepared for the honeymoon to end, seek assistance from a qualified trainer, adjust your expectations, and don’t give up! Your doggy pal is worth it. Heck, consider trying it on your kids, too. Maybe their grades will improve — you never know!
Summer Valley Veterinary Clinic
Aurora Veterinary

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