Monday, April 15, 2013

Blog the Change: 4 Reasons to Train Your Dog (for life!)

Choosing a topic for Blog the Change was a tough choice.  So many animal-related causes are near and dear to my heart.  My first involvement in an animal-related cause was a group dedicated to saving right whales in southeastern Georgia when I was in elementary school.  I remember very vividly going to a meeting in a small conference room with my dad and hearing about the different projects the group was working on, including finding funds for a right whale statue.  I got a t-shirt and a pin--I still have the pin somewhere at my parents' house.  (I also vividly remember being angry at my mom for not allowing me to skip school to help volunteers get a beached right whale back into the ocean--my school was across from the beach.)

I'm also a huge supporter of adopting shelter animals.  Every pet I've had has come from a shelter.  My earliest memory is of bringing my first dog, Possum, home from the shelter.  For the entirety of the time the USPS had adopt a shelter pet stamps, I refused to use any other stamps.

Then there's spaying and neutering pets.  And our vet sent out a reminder that this is National Pet ID week, so that brings us to microchipping and ID tags.  Most recently, I've become a supporter of The Yellow Dog Project and DINOS--even more so after several run-ins with off-leash dogs.  I also try to speak up for pit bulls and other bully breeds.  And how could I forget raising awareness of the dangers of xylitol--the sweetener in sugar-free gum that could have killed my sweet pup.

So, with so many incredible animal-related causes out there, choosing one focus for today was tough.  But I've decided to go with the topic I deal with every single day because it relates to so many other animal issues.   Without further ado, here are my top 4 reasons to train your dog beyond sit, down, and shake.

All you need is love.

4. It gives you a support system.
  Whether you train your dog formally by visiting trainers or through your own research, you connect with so many people who understand what you're going through.  Before I started working with our first trainer, I had posted a status on Facebook that said something along the lines of "Why does my dog want to eat every single dog we see?"  A Facebook friend that is more of a real-life acquaintance from college had responded that her dog had similar issues and offered advice about training; since then, we have swapped success (and failure) stories, discussed The Yellow Dog Project, and many other dog-related ideas.  She's been a great resource, and someone that understands what I'm going through.  Reading books about training dogs has offered a similar solace--even though I don't directly communicate with the authors of the books or the people they mention in their books, they're good reminders that I'm not alone in having a crazy mutt!  And of course, the formal training at our training center has been invaluable for my support system--trainers pass on helpful articles and offer advice and exercises while our classmates swap stories of similar adventures they've had with their dogs (ex. a couple weeks before Barley's spring break butter incident, a dog from our agility class at two sticks of string cheese, including the plastic wrappers).  It helps to know you're not alone.

It's hard to put away clothes this way.
3. Dogs need work.  Before reading Jon Katz's border collie books, I'd never thought much about dogs working.  Of course, I'd thought of service dogs and police dogs, and I'd met Great Pyrenees working dogs on an alpaca farm, but I never thought of pet dogs needing work.  After all, my dogs growing up didn't have jobs and their tricks ended with learning to shake, so why would a pet dog need work?  Katz says that for some dogs, their work is love--he talks about his labs being this kind of dog, and I think my dogs growing up were this kind of dog.  But I've learned that's not enough for all dogs.  Dogs need to use their brains.  They like to learn.  And, living with a herding dog, my dog needs more work than just love if Soth and I are going to survive under the same roof with her.  I have a friend whose dog has destroyed purses, jackets, cameras, books, dvds, all in addition to destroying his own toys.  She always laughs it off and says she'd rather have her dog than the stuff.  I agree--Barley's better than stuff any day, but when she's destroying things, it's because she's bored.  If I exhaust her mentally, she's well behaved.  My stuff survives.  She doesn't eat butter.  When she doesn't have a job to do, she is destructive--and why let her get away with ruining my belongings when the solution is so simple?  Why let her put herself in danger by eating things she shouldn't, when I can work on a new trick with her or let her practice jumping or see how many treats we can balance on her paws?

A tired dog is a good dog (even if a tired dog isn't necessarily a lady).
A good stay also provides more photo ops.
2. It keeps your dogs (and people) safer.  I know there will always be problems that arise and bad things can always happen, but if your dog knows commands like stay or watch, it can save their lives.  Watch is a great way to build a dog's confidence in environments they aren't comfortable in; in addition to keeping Barley from looking at other dogs on our walks, it's also a command that reassures her that I'm there and she's ok--when motorcyclists or loud vehicles go by, a watch command takes Barley's focus off the sounds that make her nervous--and jumpy, which could lead to jumping off the curb or a more negative reaction towards strangers/other dogs approaching at the same time--and gets her focus on me.  Training her to respond to my movements when we walk has also increased our safety.  Barley knows that when we get to an intersection and I start to slow down, she is supposed to sit and stay--and not cross over the curb--until I release her.  Even though we live in a small town with minimal traffic, it's still important that she knows not to charge out into the street. Stay has been invaluable on our hikes when we've been on parts of the trail that aren't wide enough for both of us--or inclines that are too steep for her to charge ahead of me.  Knowing that I can trust my dog to sit and stay while I walk to a wider part of the trail or to sit and stay and wait while I climb down a slope makes hiking all the more fun.  We wouldn't be able to explore nearly as many areas of I couldn't trust her stay.  When other people see that Barley responds to me so well on our walks, they feel more comfortable sharing the sidewalk with us.

1. It's a fun way to build your relationship with your dog.  When you train your dog, your bond strengthens--the dog is always looking to you to see what you'll do next, so you become the center of your dog's world.  You'll have failures--some will be frustrating, but a lot will be hilarious and enjoyable even if you don't get the results you need (for example, while working on jumps in class last week, one of our classmates decided to crawl under the jumps rather than going over them--the whole class was in tears we were laughing so hard--and then the dog did it twice more!).  You'll also appreciate your dog more because they won't constantly be getting into trouble, so you'll feel less frustrated with your dog on a daily basis.  The successes are amazing, too.  You'll see that a crazy border collie mix that used to sound like rapid Old Yeller every time you walked can become a canine good citizen.  You'll see a dog that had such bad separation anxiety that you couldn't even go the bathroom alone learn to snooze right through your movements from one part of the house to the next.  Most of all, though, you'll just have fun.

So, I encourage you to teach your dog a new trick or pick up a book of techniques related to your specific dog-related issues or call a trainer to get your dog involved in classes (you can search for trainers through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers here).

If humans step up and start training their pets, a lot of the other causes I support won't need as much support.  Most dogs that are returned to shelters for behavioral problems, especially problems like Barley's reactivity, are overlooked by potential adopters, but with a little training these dogs can become loving, integral parts of a family.  Issues like xylitol poisoning become less of an issue (although as the butter incident shows, not an issue that is ever entirely eliminated!) because dogs are less likely to get into things they shouldn't if they are kept busy.  Breed specific laws (BSL) stand a better chance of being eliminated; when breeds that are discriminated against by these laws are well trained, they prove all of the critics wrong and highlight what wonderful loving pets bully breeds can be.  Even problems like finding a place to rent while owning a dog become easier; landlords are much more likely to reconsider their pet policies if you can prove your dog is well behaved.  Plus, you might make new friends and discover new interests in the process, so really what excuse is there to not continue life-long-learning for your pet? ______________________________________________________________________


  1. I love all the pictures! Barley has come such a long way! Love that crazy girl! :)

  2. These are such great points. I agree that the more ways we find to keep pets out of the shelter, the better and training is definitely one way. Plus, learning training techniques doesn't have to cost anything. There are great books at the library and excellent resources on-line (I have found better advice and techniques from dog training videos on youtube than ones I have paid for!)