Updated: Jan 22, 2021
I recently posted on Facebook about my morning at the park with Sierra. I’d had her off leash in a semi-remote area we often frequent, when she suddenly stopped running and went into predatory stalk mode. She crouched low and remained stock still. I thought the German Shepherd who sometimes patrols behind a chain link fence we were coming up on might be visible, but he wasn’t. Regardless, I knew she saw something, and that her next step would be bursting into motion and running toward whatever had caught her attention. I called her to me. Guess what—she didn’t come. I then whipped out the Mom Voice, and she came running in record time. I leashed her, and gave her a piece of hot dog and praise. When I looked up again, I saw a coyote standing less than 50 feet from us, staring directly at us. He must have been there the entire time, watching us. Having my camera with me, I held Sierra tightly on leash, took a few photos, and then moved on.
I was surprised by the comments on the post thanking me for being truthful about Sierra not coming the first time. Then I thought about it. We don’t often hear professional trainers talk about how something didn’t work out perfectly, or how training failed. You might be surprised to know that many professionals, some quite well known, have dogs who every now and then do things like jump up on the dining room table with all four feet, jump on visitors, and worse. Sometimes those dogs had issues that were there when they were adopted—many trainers end up adopting the worst behaved dogs—and the issues aren’t fixed yet; and sometimes it’s a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. But I have heard some of my favorite trainers and lecturers admit to being less than perfect, and I respect them all the more for being open and honest. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many more who portray themselves as infallible. The thing is, we’re human, dogs are dogs, and s*#& happens. To everyone.
It’s like those trainers who guarantee they can fix any dog’s issues, regardless of the problem or severity. Those claims never seem to take into consideration things like genetic predisposition, how intense the behavior is or how long it’s been going on, the dog’s age, health, or a multitude of other factors. There’s even one company that guarantees to fix your dog’s behavior in one session! If that doesn’t happen, there’s a lifetime guarantee, meaning the trainer will come out as many times as necessary. But why make such an unrealistic claim in the first place, not to mention that if the trainer really doesn’t know how to address the issue, how is having him/her return endlessly going to help?
I don’t know about you, but I make mistakes. My dogs make mistakes. Of course I train them and expect them to comply. Who wants a trainer with poorly behaved dogs? But instinct is incredibly strong, particularly in dogs like Sierra who are a bit on the wild side. I would never be so pompous to claim that because I’m such an amazing trainer, my dogs never do anything they shouldn’t. (Have you read Hit by a Flying Wolf? Hah!) Or, that I have superhuman powers that allow my training to trump instinct every single time. Yes, I can call my dogs off squirrels, another dog, and, as evidenced this morning, a coyote. But I won’t say it’s easy or that it works 100% of the time. Humility, paired with caution, goes a long way toward keeping everyone safe.
We should absolutely strive to train our dogs to the highest level of compliance, practice, proof, and practice some more. But professionals do a disservice to owners and to other trainers when they represent themselves as infallible. I’ve had many people comment about how relieved they are that something I shared in a blog post, “could happen to a professional.” The truth is, it does happen. To all of us. So let’s train, train, train—but let’s be honest as well.
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