To Train or Not to Train… (That is the Question)

A couple weeks ago I was reading through a Facebook group that was focused toward dog owners. One post that I looked at asked about people’s experiences with sending a dog to a professional trainer, commonly called a board and train. The responses to the post were interesting; they were incredibly inconsistent. Some people absolutely loved the experience and called it some of the best money they had ever spent. Other people felt that it was a complete waste of money and time. Why the disparity? I don’t personally know any of the individuals in this Facebook group so it is hard to know why all their experiences were so different. Maybe it was because of different trainers that were used, maybe it was the situation or environment, or maybe it was related to the owner themselves. I wanted to share some insights from my time as a trainer and owner on when and why it can be helpful to hire a trainer, but also the important role owners can and should play in training their dogs.

One specific type of situation comes to mind when I think about this set of circumstances. Let’s say my friend Jill sent her dog to a trainer because her dog had a number of problems, one of which was jumping up on people when they came into the house. The trainer worked with this dog on establishing personal space and boundaries. Once the training was finished the trainer sent the dog back to Jill. When the dog first returned, it was fantastic and never jumped on people. Slowly though, it started to go back to its old behaviors and started to jump on people again, first every once in a while, but eventually it was jumping on everybody again just like before the training. Why did this happen? Was it just because the training didn’t “stick” like Jill hoped? 

When asking questions like this we need to remember that dogs are animals, not machines. When a computer is programmed to do something, it does the exact same thing every time.  We would like it to be this way with dogs, but because they are animals, they adapt to the environment that they find themselves in. If the environment at home doesn’t change, then they will come back to the house and start to regress to their original behavior because it is what their environment encourages. 

Whether we train our own dogs or have someone else train them for us, the success of that training ultimately comes down to our ability to communicate with and lead our dog. They are not a robot that can be programmed to perform the same way, regardless of the situation. It takes communication and leadership to help the dog maintain the behaviors that they learned in training.

So why do we ever send dogs to training? There are three things that are needed to train a dog effectively: knowledge, experience, and time. So when a person sends their dog to a trainer, it is usually to utilize the trainer’s expertise in one or more of these areas.

Trainers have knowledge of the processes that are needed to train a dog, as well as knowledge of what the end results of the training should be. They are also aware of the potential challenges that might arise when training a dog. This is very valuable because having a vision for the finished product allows them to be deliberate with all of their actions to help the dog get to a stable and healthy place very quickly.

Another big benefit to hiring a trainer is their amount of experience. They have run the river more times then they can count and have seen a lot of different behaviors and situations. These experiences give them the ability to speak the dog’s language in a very fluent way. That fluency helps the dog find the desired behaviors and become comfortable in a variety of different situations. This experience also allows them to avoid making common training mistakes, and avoid possibly dangerous situations when training.

The biggest thing that a person gets when hiring a trainer is their time. The trainer has the time to go through the repetitions that are necessary to build a solid behavioral foundation with the dog. This opportunity for prolonged, consistent repetition helps build understanding and proper habits within the dog. This is very helpful and convenient for a lot of people because then training exercises don’t have to be another thing added to an already busy schedule.

When an owner sends a dog to a trainer they are getting the trainer’s knowledge, experience and time.  However, when the dog comes home, the trainer’s experience and knowledge are no longer there to shape the dog’s behavior. The things learned can quickly be “forgotten” if the owners don’t know how to use the skills taught. This is why it is so crucial for owners to also learn how to communicate with their dog. The dog could revert back to old behaviors if owners haven’t a knowledge and understanding of how to reinforce the dog’s new behaviors.

Knowledge, experience and time are all crucial elements in the training of a reliable, enjoyable canine companion. A trainer can be a valuable asset to assist in one or more of these areas, but an owner must also gain enough understanding to help the changes from that training to last. In the end, the only way to create lasting change in your dog is to create change in yourself.