There are only three factors that shape your dog’s behavior, and in most cases theres nothing you can do about the first two, except to be mindful of them. The third is generally where the magic happens, but you need to be aware of all three if you want to maximize the potential in your relationship with your dog.
1 - Your dog’s genetic inheritance. Natural and artificial selection over multiple generations have shaped your dog’s drives, instincts, and reactions.
One way to think about this is that, first and foremost, your dog is a dog. You are a human. There is a chasm between you. Your dog is going to interact with you as though you were another dog. You are going to have a tendency to treat your dog like a person. The miracle is that for the most part this arrangement works. Where it breaks down, the chasm must be bridged. Dogs do not build bridges. It’s up to the human to figure out how to interact with the dog in a way that makes sense to the dog.
The other thing to consider is there are variations between groups, breeds and individual dogs. Your training should take these differences into account. Though you could train a high-drive malinois and a subdued King Charles spaniel using the exact same techniques, it’s not the best way of doing things. Although most people looking into training have already selected a dog, it’s worth noting that choosing the right dog for you and your life has a huge effect on how successful you will be in your relationship with that dog, and what kind of training work you have ahead of you to get there. Selection is wildly overlooked as a factor for most people. They fall in love with the look of a dog, it’s story, or how that dog or breed reflects on their self image. There is a reason selection precedes training for service dogs, students at universities and navy SEALs. Even if you love training your dog, you probably should select one with traits that fit your goals and drives, and is compatible with your training style and temperament.
2 - The connection that your dog has made between past behaviors and stimuli and the responses they’ve associated with them. Dogs learn by association. Unless your dog was born in your home, he will come with some associations pre-installed. The older your dog is when you get him, and the less you know about his past the more you need to be aware of this factor. This is neither good nor bad, as most dogs will come with useful associations (like some obedience training or socialization) and problematic ones (such as inconvenient behaviors or fears). It is generally easier to have the opportunity to shape associations and build behaviors than to try to modify existing ones, but you also carry a significant burden of responsibility to do so.
Training programs where the trainer works directly with your dog basically create a future where your dog has had some useful associations installed. There is value in this, but without some training for the dog’s owner in the next factor, that value is limited. An obedience champion placed in a home with no understanding of training will not be the same dog 6 months later. When people say their dog is “trained” or has been trained, but are unhappy with his current behavior they are most likely missing out on the third and final factor.
3 - The ongoing feedback that the dog receives from it’s owner, and environment. Dog behavior is a result of the interplay between the dog, the owner and the environment. In most cases changing the dog is not an option - you are going to work with the one you have! The dog’s owner has complete control over their own behavior, as well as the environment that they subject the dog to. What this means is that to change anything in your dogs behavior, you need to take responsibility for changing your actions. The dog, excepting some of those with health issues, is always behaving appropriately as a dog should given his genetic inheritance and past associations.
I’m going to say that again.
The dog, excepting some of those with health issues, is always behaving appropriately as a dog should given his genetic inheritance and past associations.
This is hard medicine for many dog owners. If the dog is right, but his behavior is not what what they expect, there’s only one place to look. Given this maxim, the only way your dog’s behavior will change is if you learn to deliver better feedback consistently enough that the dog forms new and more useful associations.
You’re not a bad dog owner if you don’t know what to do when you realize this. The answer is that maybe you need some help. It may be in the form of a book, video or a blog like this. It might also involve enlisting the help of a trainer. If you need help, remember what it is you’re looking for - you need to learn how to deliver better feedback. A trainer that promises to “fix” your dog’s problem for you is not the solution. He can’t, because the dog is not the problem, you are.
Your dog’s behavior is the result of your relationship. It’s like a dance. Your dog already knows his part. Giving him dance lessons can cover up the problem, but chances are you’re the one who needs the lessons. The obedience champion placed with someone without an understanding of dog behavior can’t cover up the mistakes of his dance partner who doesn’t understand the dance. Not only that, but as the associations that the champion made recede into the past, they get weaker and less reliable without ongoing feedback, and the owner starts asking what’s wrong with the dog.
Getting better at delivering precise, timely, consistent feedback is the secret to bringing out the potential in your relationship with your dog.