For anyone who has been in my classroom, you likely have realized that I am not going to ever be a supermodel. Aside from being 40 years too old, and the wrong body type, I just don’t care about clothing, hair and make up enough to bother. Incidentally, if you are curious, it is Sue writing, not John, but he probably would not be a super model either. Aside from being the wrong gender, and the wrong body type, he really just doesn’t care enough about clothing, hair or make up to bother either. Which brings me to a thought about our dogs. How many of our dogs are being asked to do jobs they just don’t care about?
Training is the way that we acquire skills and it doesn’t matter if you are a human, a dog or a dolphin, skills are important. In theory I have the skills needed to be a supermodel; I can walk, and wear clothes and if pressed, I can sit around while someone plays with my hair and puts make up on me. Maybe I don’t have the fine tuned strut that a model needs, but I can wear clothing, and I can walk, so what is preventing me from being a super model? Opportunity? Nope. I just don’t have the patience for the work! I would need a great deal of training and incentive to do that and you would have a very hard time convincing me that the work is relevant to my wellbeing.
So what about our dogs? You will hear me say over and over again that trained dogs get to do more, and that we should be willing to teach our dogs to do different things, so why not take up whatever sport the handler wishes? Recently, one of our instructors came to me to let me know that she had pulled out of one of our advanced classes, not because she and her dog were not learning things but rather because her dog was not enjoying the work. “My dog is doing this to please me, but she doesn’t actually like it” was the message I got. And good for the handler in recognizing that.
There are behaviours that I want every dog of mine to learn, regardless of how they feel about it; coming when called, not dragging me down the street, allowing the vet to examine them and lying down and staying for instance. These are the skills that allow our dogs to live successfully with us, but they are not their job. Have you thought about what your dog’s job might be? Many of us come to obedience classes because that is what we are supposed to do with our dogs, and then slot them into the jobs we want them to do without much more thought than that.
The problem with this is that many of our dogs are not actually interested in doing the work we wish them to do. As a behaviour consultant this is a daily frustration, as the Good Dog students probably all know. Consider what happens when we breed a dog to herd sheep 8 hours a day, and we expect that he is going to enjoy sitting on the couch day in and day out without any exercise. What might happen? Might that dog begin to engage in behaviours such as racing around the house and barking at traffic going by?
Many of my students want their dogs to participate in sports such as rally or agility and for most dogs, they really get into that. Some dogs don’t though. Some dogs prefer things like nosework, or tracking. When we put together our advanced classes, some of our students try and take as many of them as they can, and while we encourage everyone to give each class a try, it is really important to stay tuned in to your dog to discover which of these classes make you both happy.
All this preamble is probably bringing you to the point of asking yourself what to do if your dog doesn’t want to do the one thing that is really important to you? What do you do when you love agility and your dog just doesn’t like it? Or maybe the only thing that matters to you to do with your dog is hiking and your dog just doesn’t like to go out in anything other than the ideal weather?
The first thing I like to do is to is to try and figure out why the dog doesn’t want to engage in the behaviour. I once had a client who purchased a husky to go and run with him. As it turned out, we happened to have a very hot summer when he was just the right age to start running at about 18 months. The husky learned very quickly that running gear meant that he was going to become hot and uncomfortable. The husky was no dummy! He learned that running was uncomfortable so he didn’t like running.. He LOVED to run, but not with the owner or on leash. The only thing we had to do to change the activity was to choose running times when the weather was cooler. By taking the dog’s comfort into account, we were able to teach him to like the activity. As the old saying goes, if I had a nickel for every dog who was uncomfortable in the desired activity, I would be a whole lot richer!
Sometimes the dog is behaviourally unsuited to the work that the owner wants to do. Recently I saw a post on a hunting list I follow. The person on the list wanted a dog to go duck hunting with, but his wife wanted a German Shepherd. The person asking the question wanted to know how good German Shepherds might be at duck hunting. As it happened, I once had a German Shepherd who was pretty decent at fetching ducks. He enjoyed it and he was technically good at it, but there were a few problems. Firstly, he got a LOT of water in his ears. There is a really good reason why retrievers ALL have dropped ears! Secondly, once he was wet, it took a long time for him to dry off and if I had asked him to retrieve in the late fall when goose hunting usually happens, he would have gotten very wet and cold and likely he would not have thought that retrieving was quite that much fun. Even though he was good at retrieving, including in water, he much preferred to do tracking.
Sometimes something happens during training that makes the activity you want to do more difficult for your dog. If you keep changing your mind about the behaviours you want when preparing do to an activity, the activity itself can become very frustrated. I did this to one of my dogs early in my obedience career. I kept changing how I was approaching training with this particular dog, and ended up just confusing the dog. The dog got to the point where she was confused, annoyed and frustrated and just really didn’t enjoy obedience competitions. I had a coach who noticed that I was creating frustration and we were able to work through it however, if I had persisted I might have eventually caused much more damage to the relationship I had with that dog. We went on to have a great relationship once I straightened out my training program.
If an activity with a dog is really important to you, consider that BEFORE you get the dog and choose a dog who is going to start out with an aptitude and an interest in that activity. There is a reason that we usually choose hounds for trailing, and herding dogs for rounding up sheep. These dogs have been bred for a long time to do that work, and allowing the dogs to do what they were bred to do helps a lot.
If you already have a dog and he doesn’t like doing the activity, you may want to either do less of the activity, or stop doing it altogether. If you have a dog who does a lot of things they really like, and you only ask the dog to do something you like that the dog doesn’t some dogs might be willing to “play the game” to humour you if you don’t ask him to do the activity too often. The key is take your canine partner into consideration, and like the trainer at our facility, choose activities that both you and your dog will enjoy.