Heavy Petting

Train in Vain

Why dog training fails.

Sam was distressed. His West Highland terrier, aptly named Lightning, was constantly darting out of doors and dashing into busy suburban Connecticut streets. Sam owned three acres behind his house, and he was afraid to let the dog roam any of it.

“I don’t know what to do. When I tell him to come, he just runs away from me. I run after him, yelling, ‘Come.’ I stomp my feet to get his attention and yell to show him who’s boss, like I’ve been told. Nothing works.”

I had a different idea: chopping up some hot dogs, one of Lightning’s favorite snacks. When the dog took off, Sam should run—but in the opposite direction, with the hot dogs evident. Lightning would reverse himself and follow—food-loving dogs invariably will. I thought the franks and praise might prove more effective than Sam’s yelling. So it was.

This was, to me, a telling example of the sorry plight of dog training in America. Sam is a thoughtful, well-educated man who loves his dog. He’d read a number of training books; he had attended an obedience class. Sam had gotten plenty of advice about training. Use food. Never use food. Use shock collars. Never shock your dog; it’s cruel. Be positive, all the time. No, show the dog who’s boss. Use clickers and whistles. Use your hands and body. Use a happy, chirpy voice for training. No, whisper. Study the dog’s tail and ear positions for clues to its thinking. Tug and jerk. Never tug.

Never praise a dog, one trainer told Sam. “Your secretary faxes things for you all day. Do you praise her every time?” And no treats: The dog should perform for you, not for food.

Is it any wonder that most dog owners struggle with even elemental training tasks? They have little time and less experience, and training is one of the many things they have to fit in to their lives, not a primary passion. So they get a dog, realize they have problems communicating successfully, and seek out other people’s wisdom, then find theories too complex, rigid, or impersonal. They may end up trying several approaches and then—feeling worse than when they started, and with dogs that still won’t sit or stay, give up. I’ve seen it (and done it) so often I call it the Quitting Point.

The results of this failure are everywhere: Neurotic and compulsive dog behaviors like barking, biting, chasing cars, and chewing furniture—sometimes severe enough to warrant antidepressants—are growing. Lesser training problems—an inability to sit, stop begging, come, or stay—are epidemic.

For thousands of years, humans have been training dogs to be hunters, herders, searchers, guards, and companions. Why are we doing so badly? The problem may lie more with our methods than with us.

One of the principal reasons is that the distance between a laboratory or training facility and a family’s split-level can be daunting. Training theories seem like sermons from the Mount, related not to what works for most dog owners, but to what makes sense to theorists. Pack theory, for example, asks us to behave like dogs in order to communicate with them. This works better if you have a tail. Studies on how to read a dog’s behavior (watch those tail and ear positions) are fascinating, yet most people are too harried to do it reliably. The theories aren’t bogus or useless; on the contrary, almost all of them work for some animals some of the time. But they’re not useful or effective for everyone all the time.

My own training approach is an amalgam of ideas and methods, tailored to fit my work, environment, and dogs. (I’m calling it the Rational Theory.) It asks that we understand ourselves, as well as our dogs. It can incorporate elements of any other theory that works for me. I live on a 43-acre farm, for example, which provides sheep for my border collies, a stream and woods for the yellow Lab, and plenty of room to roam, exercise, and train in safety. There are few dogs and little traffic, human or motorized. I’m around all day to correct errant behavior and celebrate and reinforce good. I’m lucky, but hardly typical, so I have to be cautious about dispending advice: What works for my dog might be inapplicable on a cul-de-sac in Framingham, Mass.

The truth is, training is difficult, something very few people understand when they get a dog. I’ve spent four years working every day to calm down one of my dogs—a rescued border collie I adopted when he was two. It is so much better, but we are not there yet.

There’s nothing approaching consensus about who or what a good trainer is or which training theory people ought to embrace. Yet the underlying premise of most obedience classes is that a dog can be trained and socialized in just a few hours. This is almost never true, and it’s the kind of expectation that leads people to feel like they’ve failed when it’s more likely they’ve been misled.

It requires an estimated 2,000 repetitions, behaviorists say, before most dogs can fully learn a behavior. If you’ve told Ellie to “sit” 1,000 times, and she complies half the time, you haven’t failed, and neither has she. You’re both halfway there.

Training also requires that we understand the animal nature of dogs, their love of rules, ritual, food, and reinforcement. Let dogs be dogs—it’s an honorable thing to be. Because many owners prefer to view their pets as soul mates, therapists, ethereal beings, even mind-readers, we give them too much credit, make them too complex, muddying our communications.

Seeing dogs as piteous, abused, and pathetic creatures doesn’t help either. Many dogs are mistreated, including my elder border collie. But I never refer to Orson as an abused dog. I don’t want to see him that way, and when it comes to training, it doesn’t really matter. I treat him well, love him wildly, train him carefully, and have high expectations. We will work until we get there; he deserves no less. If one more well-meaning owner tries to explain that his dog is biting my ankle or attacking my dog because “he was terribly abused,” I might go buy some mace. And not for the dog.

What is a well-behaved dog anyway? One who sits and stays and rolls over? To me, training is an idea that goes far beyond obedience. It’s not about what you can make a dog do, but what you do with your dog, the cornerstone and foundation of your communication, your relationship. Training is a moral responsibility involving stewardship for another species; it asks as much of us as it does of them. There is no one simple or universal method or guru.

I don’t really care if my dogs sit or stay on command. I do want them to live safely, calmly, and peacefully in the world; to respect my work and privacy; to behave appropriately with people—especially children—and other animals; to live in a world that wasn’t built for dogs and makes increasingly fewer allowances for them. This isn’t something that can be achieved in four hours of home visits, or a six-week obedience class.