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— May 26, 2015 —
Training Your Dog is Never Finished. It’s Always a “Work In Progress.”
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

There are many different schools of thought on dog training, but I think its at least as much art as it is science.

One of the things I hear people say pretty often is, “My dog is fully trained.” It bothers me because it carries the connotation that training a dog is a one-time task that can be completed and then we don’t have to worry about it any more. Depending on what you need your dog to learn, or what his behavioral issues are, training is something that is never really finished. Like the artwork in our illustration, it’s always a work in progress.

When an artist starts out to create an image, regardless of whether they are painting or drawing it, the process often involves similar steps. First, they must have a canvas, a blank page or some other medium upon which to create the image. For the dog trainer, a young, healthy dog is a perfectly black canvas.

Once we have our canvas, we need to start setting down the outline. This will guide the rest of the project. Having the outline in place allows the trainer to keep the project on track. That outline is the “foundation” of the piece. The foundation is where you teach the dog that you will be teaching him things. Puppy class is a great way to do this, but eight weeks of puppy class does not a “trained dog” make. Over the years I’ve had a number of folks come to me with serious behavioral issues. I would ask them if the dog has had any training and their answer would be, “Yes. He’s trained. We did puppy class when he was younger.” In their mind, the dog was taught to sit and lay down, so he was “trained.”

Once the outline is in place we, like the artist, fill in the details and finer points. The glint of light in the eyes, the eyelashes, the details of the fur. The details are what an artist wants people to see when they look at the work. People looking at a piece of art may not specifically notice the details, but the details make the picture. For the trainer, this is the specific behaviors you will need your dog to perform to be compatible with your daily routine. For me, I need my dogs to heel nicely in public, behave with manners and not approach strangers unless invited. Since they are large dogs, I make it a point to not let them make people uncomfortable. They also learn some specific behaviors to help demo our training at Bark Avenue. You may need your dog to learn different behaviors. If you are a fan of off-leash dog parks, your dog should have a very reliable recall. If you are a runner, a nice heel would be a very helpful behavior. The details of your dog’s training can include pretty much anything that you can think of. It can include dealing with problem behaviors as well, things like separation anxiety, lunging or destructive behavior.

Once the artist has completed the image, they frame the piece. For us, the frame is the “trim” of the training. Examples of this would be ongoing training like agility, trick training, flyable or protection sports. Those are the little fun things you do with your dog like tricks, little in-home routines or whatever you do with your dog as part of your day-to-day routine. Basically, its the fun stuff we do with our dogs. Things that make our dog “ours.” I like to teach a few tricks, but my dogs don’t know a lot of them. Gunnie used to do shake, dance and bang (play dead) and crawl. Peace and Jelly both whisper, and Jelly learns a new trick at every Canine Therapy Corps semester that she completes. You may want your dog to learn every trick in the book, and I support every bit of it. It’s all valuable training. Any time you teach your dog a new, positive behavior, it helps them learn how to solve problems and think just a little more intelligently. I think that teaching your dog tricks is a good thing.

Then there’s the maintenance training. Maintenance is important. You may think that once a picture is finished, there is no real maintenance, right? Well, not so much. The best pieces of artwork in the world need to be maintained, especially the ones that last. The Sistine Chapel, one of the most spectacular pieces of artwork ever created, has had to be restored so that it can still be appreciated today. Many other impressive pieces of art, from The Statue of Liberty to Mount Rushmore have had to be maintained. If you want your dog’s training to last, to be enjoyed for many years, it will have to be maintained as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I got reminded why maintenance training is so important. I had a young couple come in who were interested in doing some protection work with their puppy. I looked at their dog and did a little testing. Then I did a short demo with my male, Peace. He displayed his defensive behavior well, and “turned off” as I instructed. Then I took him back to his bed and told him to lay down. He looked at me like I had spoken to him in a foreign language. He stood there looking at me as if to say, “I wasn’t done. I want to do more.” I had to give the command a couple of times.

Admittedly, at ten years old, he’s pretty much retired. He hardly has to do obedience commands any more and he display any problem behaviors. I wasn’t particularly worried about his lack of response. He is still a pretty responsive dog, but when he used to work regularly he would have been much better about following commands.

Maintenance applies to more than just obedience commands, though. If you’ve had to work out problem behaviors with your dog, the very things you had to do to eliminate those behaviors may need to be done regularly to keep them gone. If your dog jumped on guests and you had to practice calm sits for company, you may have to occasionally remind him to sit calmly when the door opens. If you had to deal with separation anxiety, you may have to refresh those exercises occasionally as well. With Peace, our maintenance revolves mostly around his reactivity. He used to be pretty reactive when he saw other dogs. That is where I do have to maintain his training, otherwise he may start to give me problems with it again.

In the end, no training is ever “finished.” It must be kept up with, maintained and advanced. Your dog’s training is always a “work in progress.”


Artwork by Jessica Lennox. To see more by Jessica,
visit her website here or Like her Facebook page here!


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