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!

54380485 - border collie weaving through poles at a dog agility trial
It takes a long time for a dog to learn to weave properly and efficiently and when you want him to do so. Many dogs sort of learn to weave and they may go through the obstacle to your satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean they are truly ready to compete. This is the sort of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” situation that gets competitive trainers into a lot of trouble! Copyright: herreid / 123RF Stock Photo


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. 

17167398 - cute dog
We cannot tell what is causing this dog to be afraid for the pinned back ears, the giant pupils and the tense paws and muzzle all point to a dog who is being exposed to something he is deeply uncomfortable with. Here is a case of just because you can, does not mean that you should make this dog get close to whatever is freaking him out! Copyright: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

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.





By Guest Blogger John Alexander BA, CPDT-KA

Fireworks are not a cause for celebration for most dogs; thunderous booms, blinding flashes of light, smells of gunpowder, kids running around screaming, a cacophony of whistles, bangs, and explosions. This is what fireworks are like from your dog’s perspective, and can trigger a fight or flight response.

Fireworks are fun for most people, but not for most dogs! Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

Your dog is a member of your family and you want to make sure that he is confident about everything he will encounter. The following tips will help you to make your dog’s experience of Canada Day as good as yours!

• Do not abandon your dog to deal with new and highly invasive stimuli on their own. You wouldn’t take your 5 year old child to Canada’s Wonderland, plop them in the middle and leave them alone for the day; don’t do this to your dog. Leaving your dog at home, while you walk to the local fireworks display is just like abandoning your child at the amusement park.

• Remember back to your puppy class, when you were told that everything is a training opportunity, including fireworks. A most effective means to desensitize your pup or dog to fireworks is “classical conditioning”, which pairs up something really good, like food treats or retrieving games with something scary, like fireworks.

• Position yourself and your dog well away from the “front lines” of the fireworks display (you can do this at home too). Have your treats at the ready; wait for the bang/flash; then toss a whole handful of treats on the ground for your dog to eat. Be quick, deliberate and generous in your treat delivery – the goal is not to have your dog politely taking food from your hand; rather we are classically conditioning your dog to associate fireworks with tasty food treats. Repeat for every detonation; and when your dog has had enough, remove your dog and give him a break.

If your dog is looking like this, he or she is uncomfortable!  You can see that this dog is sitting off balance, and his ears are pulld back a bit and you can see the whites of his eyes.  He looks like he is crouching avoidantly.  Don't abandon a canine family member when they look like this.  Take them to a safe space and stay with them to help them to relax and be comfortable.  Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
If your dog is looking like this, he or she is uncomfortable! You can see that this dog is sitting off balance, and his ears are pulld back a bit and you can see the whites of his eyes. He looks like he is crouching avoidantly. Don’t abandon a canine family member when they look like this. Take them to a safe space and stay with them to help them to relax and be comfortable. Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

Remember the golden rule: to work sub-threshold. If your dog shows fear, remove yourself and your dog to the distance that YOUR DOG decides is safe and classically condition your dog at that distance. Only go closer to the fireworks if your dog is ready.

If you are medicating your dog for situational anxiety, please follow the instructions given by your Veterinarian and use the behaviour modification tools provided by your Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant.

Remember, when you are meeting your dog’s needs, you don’t need to feel sorry for him. So, if you train him and treat him like the valued family member he is, there will be no reason to feel sorry for him!

If you need help or want more information, please email John at john@dogsinthepark.ca.

Enjoy a safe and happy holiday weekend.

© John Alexander 2009

ADDENDUM BY SUE 2015:  If comforting your dog does not help, or if his fear is extreme, contact a dog behaviour consultant for more specific help, and if needed, your veterinarian for medical support.  Fear can be deadly; fearful dogs have been known to jump out of windows or rush into traffic.