Puppy classes often consist of 6 weekly sessions which cover the basics like loose lead walking, sit and stay. To have a puppy that can do each of these simple tasks owners also need to practice with their dogs between classes resulting in a considerable time commitment. Studies show that even after attending puppy classes more than 80% of owners said their puppy still pulled on the lead, suggesting that 6 weeks worth of classes was not adequate to reliably train the behaviour of loose lead walking.
One to one training sessions and behavioural consultations are usually requested for dogs that are displaying undesirable behaviours such as aggression towards people or dogs, resource guarding or a non existent recall in working breeds due to high drive. Despite these problems being more complex and often well practised by the dog over months or even years, some owners hope that a one hour long consultation will ‘fix’ all the problems.
Dogs who display anxiety, fear or aggression have an emotional response to certain situations, an emotional response requires a long period of rehabilitation to change the dogs emotions from negative to positive. If you are scared or heights or spiders you would not expect one hours worth of counselling to relieve you of your fear. Many of our dogs problems are fear based including aggressive displays towards unfamiliar humans or dogs and destructive behaviours when left alone.
These undesirable behaviours can also be inadvertently reinforced by owners or the environment so that the dog has learnt that the behaviour ‘works’. For example if your dog is scared of other dogs and on seeing one begins to bark and lunge, you may sensibly move your dog away, likewise the owner of the other dog may avoid you and your angry looking dog. Therefore your dog’s behaviour got the scary dog to move further away and your dog began to feel better. From your dog’s point of view their behaviour is successful, from an owners point of view that behaviour can be stressful and embarrassing. Because your dog has practised this routine over and over, perhaps daily, they are not suddenly going to abandon a ‘successful’ strategy for an alternative one suggested by a trainer. The new strategy needs to be taught, reinforced and practised for at least as long as the old one.
I know from struggling with my own dogs behaviour that there are no quick fixes and that behaviour modification takes time and patience. It is something that owners need to make a commitment to and take part in. If a dog trainer suggests they can fix your dog in one session and charge you an extortionate amount for the privilege, I would suggest that no trainer has a magic wand with which to achieve this, no matter how much you pay. Those that use punishment based methods also tend to think they can achieve results faster, but although these unkind methods may supress the unwanted behaviour, they do not solve the underlying cause and as a result can cause further behavioural issues in the long term.
When contacting a trainer it is important to discuss their methods as well as your expectations so that they can advise on whether your goals are achievable. We may have a vision of our ideal dog in our minds and want to turn the dog we have at home into that ideal, but every dog is different and they have their needs as much as we have ours. As an owner of a ‘reactive’ dog I have had to alter my expectations for what his and our life will be like, but he has taught me so much and because of my willingness to understand his needs he is now a different dog with a much happier life and our walks and outings are a pleasant experience rather than the chaotic stressful episodes they were before I learnt how to understand what he was trying to tell me with his ‘bad’ behaviour.