At Dogs in the Park, we have two mottos. The first is “It Depends..” It is on all of the staff uniforms to remind people that the answer to dog training questions are dependent upon many variables. The second is less commonly said, but almost all of my students will eventually hear me say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. I was reminded of this by one of my staff the other day. She had been challenged by a colleague at school to train a dog to do a trick. The problem is that the trick required the dog to roll back onto his very arthritic and dysplastic hips. My staffer replied “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,” and she is right. She COULD teach the dog to do the trick, but she shouldn’t because it will cause the dog more injury than not.
I have an exercise I used to do when I ran my fun-gility workshops. Fun-gility is informal agility. I would get out all the cavellettis (small light jumps for teaching dogs to take off and land smoothly; they are about four inches high), and place them as close together as they can go. There is about four inches between each jump. Then I ask all the humans to walk through the twelve or so jumps. People with really big feet slide their feet in sideways, and people with little feet slip in between the jumps toe first. One very athletic man in the last workshop danced through them like a ballerina on point, pronking up and down in the manner of a gazelle. Once everyone has walked through these, I challenge everyone to go through as fast as they can. The only person to every run through these successfully was the man I just mentioned-but he said afterwards it was really difficult and uncomfortable.
Next I spread the jumps out so that each is one of my foot lengths wide. Everyone expresses relief at the ease at which they can place their feet. When they run through though, they are once again frustrated by the lack of room to solve the problem of where to put their feet. Some people just take two jumps at once and then congratulate themselves on coming up with such a neat solution. At this point I ask them; “Would it be okay if your dog chose to do two jumps at once if that was easier for him?” Most folks who have been through the exercise reply that yes, it would be okay with them if the dog solved his problem that way. If I were to ask someone who is serious about agility though, the answer might be different-the person might decide that the dog must take each obstacle one at a time, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be for the dog. That brings back the statement of “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should”. Just because I can make the dog take jumps at an uncomfortable striding, doesn’t mean I should.
I come across this situation when I work with dogs with behaviour problems. I have had clients with dogs who are noise sensitive. I prefer to resolve problems like this by working below threshold, so that the dog is not being set off repeatedly. When the dog gets to relax a little, they often become bolder and more willing to accept some noises they weren’t previously. Recently, I was at a community event and I saw a little dog sitting terrified under her person’s chair. I approached the person and told her that I thought her dog was afraid of the noise of the crowd, and the owner replied that yes, she was, but the dog had to accept that this was part of life and must get over her fears, and so she was brought out to as many noisy events as possible. I bit my tongue but what I wanted to say was “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” When it is my client who is doing this though, I try and help them to understand that just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should!
I think we need to consider this carefully when we work with dogs and other animals. We CAN make a dog go out in public when he is afraid to do so, but should we? We CAN make a horse jump over a fence when he is physically uncomfortable, but should we? We CAN make a child stand up in front of a group of people and recite Evangeline…but should we? As trainers and teachers, we hold a very powerful position, and Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should applies to our jobs on a daily basis. Just because we can make a student take a risk we are comfortable with when training our own dogs doesn’t mean we should make our students do so too. Part of what we need to teach when helping people to train their dogs, is that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Keeping “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” in mind when you are training your dog can really help you to do two things. The first thing it helps with planning your training. Many of us have asked our dogs to participate in sports they don’t really have the skills to succeed in. Often the dogs “fake it till they make it” and we feel like we are able to do the sport even if we haven’t trained for it. This is the classic case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. Better by far to teach your dog to do the skills and then participate in the activity.
The second thing that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” helps with is acknowledging what the dog is struggling with. If the dog is shy, let him leave when he has had enough. If the dog is bold, don’t put him in situations where he is going to take risks that are dangerous to his health and wellbeing. If the client lacks confidence, I don’t put them in situations where they are going not going to succeed. Setting up for success means a lot more than just setting up to get the right answer, it also means taking into account that sometimes, the dog cannot or the human cannot do something and allowing them not to do that thing, all the while balancing that they need to be challenged sufficiently to continue to move forward.