When Training Doesn’t Work
Reasons training and society may fail a dog
By: Brittney Frazier – Dog Trainer, CPDT-KA, APDT
The world of rescue and dog training is one of ambiguity and complexity. Each dog, owner and individual situation is unique and requires a great deal of patience to understand and properly analyze. Just like diet pills or fast food, we usually want something that is quick, easy, and requires very little upkeep. We are problem solvers and we want solutions.
What happens when a dog cannot be fixed? What happens when all avenues of training have been explored and there may not be a new way to approach an old problem anymore? We have often been in the presence of a dog and their owner, caretaker or rescuer evaluating and critiquing its training and looked into the eyes of a dog that I am unsure of whether or not I can achieve what is asked of us. Sometimes it is in the eyes of that dog that we can see where training has failed them and doubt the goals the dog is being asked to meet.
Some dog trainers will tell you with radiating confidence that they can “fix” any dog, regardless of past, personality or goals. That is beautiful rhetoric for a person at the end of their rope to hear. It is what brings the tears to people’s eyes when they see a future for a dog on the brink of euthanasia, re-homing or the meshing of a family torn apart by a dog bite. Throughout our experience, we have found that it takes an even more confident trainer to explain where past failure has defined part of a dog’s future and what the limitations for future training will be. Can every dog learn something new? Definitely, but it may not look exactly like what we imagine the end result to be. Sometimes we must change our expectations or take a different approach to creating more balance in the life of a dog. We must explore why training is not working, and what is most kind and humane for the animal.
Personality is everything.
In evaluating a dog for training, the personality of the dog, is the first place where we see the limitations or the ceiling for success. The age of the dog can reveal a dog’s malleability and ability to change. For example, a young and eager to please dog is a prime candidate for simple foundational obedience training, while an older dog with less motivation is more difficult to modify behavior in. In rescue, it is the older and more “set in their ways” dogs that we look for an owner that is understanding of dogs with limitations. Can an old dog learn new tricks? They sure can, but we need to know that it may take longer than we would like at times because of old habits and experiences.
Second, while we should always avoid stereotypes, the breed of the dog will usually give us a wealth of information regarding the dog’s motivators, fears and strengths. Pit bulls are a perfect example of a breed whose characteristics are often extremely difficult to categorize and evaluate from a first meeting, due to the large spectrum of personalities characterizing “Chicago mixes” found within our community. The key personality traits that would limit what a dog is capable of are the amount of drive, sociability with people or other animals, and amount of anxiety. In the realm of dog breeds you are likely to find a menagerie of combinations of all three of these characteristics. Then, the task(s) we are asking of the dog must be compared alongside the present characteristics. The most limited dog for a family setting would fall under a high drive, low sociability, and high anxiety category, while a police force might be looking specifically for these qualities in a dog. When examining the dog’s limits, we must ask ourselves if their personality lends easily for the goals expected of them and we can then begin to put the dog to the test within the situations they may need to experience while in training for a specific home or setting.
As touched on above, anxiety is a personality trait that may define a dog’s ability to be trained for a certain task or setting, although, in training both rescue and client dogs, we often see it as the main limiting factor in a dog’s progression. Anxiety, especially when it is present in the dog’s core personality, can be an ugly monster in the face of dog training where it is not welcomed. We often describe anxiety as an invisible “bubble” or “film” around the dog’s mind that may cloud their judgment and decision making skills. Anxiety is usually the biggest factor when it comes to helping an animal to generalize behavior, which would be a constant goal for any handler. A dog with low anxiety levels will adjust easily to new situations and require a very low period where they are unable to cope, and can be easily redirected by the handler. A dog with high anxiety is very difficult to redirect to a calm state when placed in an unfamiliar setting. Dogs with high anxiety will show signs of stress in different ways, such as whining or barking, and constant movement like pacing, panting, lip licking, or the “hallmark” single paw lifted off of the ground. Needless to say, if your dog goes into a “panic attack” when it is unsure of how to adjust to a new setting, it can be very difficult to bring them back down to a level of normalcy and obedience in public. Working with a dog harboring a great deal of anxiety is a constant game of threshold work, which encompasses a great deal of time, patience, and understanding. And even when a dog’s handler possesses all of these qualities, the dog still may be limited on the goals that can be achieved.
Who is leading the charge?
The personality, experiences, and handling ability of the person at the other end of the leash is almost more important than the overall capability of the dog being trained. There is a certain “meshing” that needs to happen between dog and handler within the relationship building process that is at the root of training that may not necessarily happen in the blink of an eye. We are so drawn to the “love at first sight” mantra that encompasses the search for our canine companions, but it is not always what we want that is best for our dogs.
The first thing we look for in matching dogs with owners is their confidence in guiding a dog through training without the assistance of a professional. If a first time dog owner was paired with the high drive, anti-social, and high anxiety dog described above, we would be setting both dog and owner up for a lot of frustration that may end up with the dog losing out on reaching their potential. This doesn’t mean it is not possible, just that a better match would be with a less challenging dog with a first time dog owner. A determined person can accomplish great things, but when limits of physical strength, patience and amount of time spent in multiple methods of training have been reached. What is best for a dog may be to find a new handler that is able to meet the required criteria for the particular dog in question.
The ability for a human and dog to create an emotional bond is why they have been affectionately dubbed “man’s best friend” and why we love them so much. But it is, at times, a double-edged sword when it comes to training. Dogs may become so emotionally connected to a particular human that the human begins to be ineffective in guiding the dog through new situations simply because they are sending the wrong signals to the dog unknowingly. We trainers like to think of the leash as an extension cord between dog and handler by which a special kind of electricity is passed. Dog and owner may become so hyper sensitive to each other in certain situations that their emotions are negatively playing off one another. Because dogs don’t experience emotions the same way as we do, this often turns into miscommunication that leads to chronic behavior problems including aggression, fear or anxiety.
And there is that ugly monster named anxiety again. Anxiety is one of the few experiences we have which is almost identical to our dogs in some cases, although large amounts in the training relationship on both ends of the leash usually leads to dire situations that become unmanageable very quickly. We often find ourselves as trainers saying things like, “Our dogs don’t speak the English language, so we cannot provide comfort to them the same way we might do with our friends and family, even though we like to think of them as such.” This is a very difficult concept for people to accept in training at times, but may be the main contributor to anxiety that is a constant behavioral issue. We love our dogs and want to comfort them, but if the anxiety is too great for either dog or handler to manage, then a new solution must be reached for both parties.
Other factors that limit what we can do.
There are many other factors, which may put a ceiling on the success of a dog’s training. If the personality of a dog gives us the most information on their ability to be trained for a certain goal, the environment is the goal we are evaluating their personality against. In dog training, the environment can include anything in the home or setting the dog is being trained within. In a home with a family, the dynamic within the family, other pets or dogs present, or the type of things being expected in the home may be too much or too little for a particular dog’s personality to flourish in. Sometimes, the training tools we are able to use can limit what a dog is capable of and may take more repetition or patience than the handler or family is happy with. If a certain piece of training equipment is not available or accepted in a particular setting, such as the use of a crate for anxiety, this may limit the amount of work that can be done for the dog.
In rescue, the environment that is usually discussed is that of a kennel around a variety of people and other dogs. There are times when a kennel environment is the perfect setting for a previously fearful or antisocial dog to learn new skills that will then carry over into the rest of its life. But, in the case of a dog with a high amount of anxiety or drive, the high amount of stimuli in a kennel can prove to be too much for their threshold level. Through the use of crates, skilled handlers and structure, a dog of this nature can sometimes be managed until the time of adoption, but they are certainly limited in what they can achieve in an environment where they are constantly in a state of panic.
Additionally, the issue of how a dog’s past affects their present and future is consistently brought up in both cases of rescue and client-owned dogs. Abuse or wrong methods of training used in a dog’s past are high on the list of why a dog cannot progress past a certain point. Pair abuse with a high level of anxiety in a dog’s personality and you may have a recipe for disaster with the wrong handler. A great majority of dogs do not harbor large amounts of recollection of their past, but for the ones that do, it may be a long road before the dog is able to trust or flourish. Abuse, neglect or wrong course of action in training can damage a dog’s psyche or create a very negative association with a particular situation. To clarify, it doesn’t mean that the dog cannot learn, it just means they may be limited on what they are able to withstand emotionally in their future. This is why it is so important for a rescue dog to be evaluated correctly and thoroughly in order to find the perfect setting for a dog to succeed within. When a dog with a complicated or rough past is properly placed where they are able to reach reasonable goals, it is the most humane solution and yields those happy smiles that speak wonders for rescue work.
Dogs are never broken.
We speak universally when we say that animal welfare hearts break when a dog is referred to as “broken.” Because difficult people are not thrown away due to the specific factors that may be affecting them, difficult dogs should be met with the same compassion. Whether it is anxiety, abuse or a lack of proper meshing of dog and owner, a dog can flourish in the right setting; it’s just a matter of finding a place for them to do so. We must let our heads speak for the logic behind placing a dog, but our hearts to speak for the patience it may take for the rehabilitation of a dog to adjust to that setting. The trial and error of placing a dog and then finding the method of management for a dog that has failed in training in the past may be a long road, but it is certainly a rewarding one when the dog is finally where they belong. Whether the solution is rehoming, large changes in environment, or a new focus in goals for a dog, there is usually a path less traveled that will suit almost every dog. We just have to find it within our hearts and minds to get there.
Found Chicago, NFP is a 501(c)3 no-kill, all-breed rescue that serves to rescue, rehabilitate and re-home the most medically and behaviorally challenged dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. Found Chicago Boarding & Training Center is a subsidiary of Found Chicago, NFP that provides services to the public to give dog owners the knowledge they need to better handle their dogs and improve the quality of the dog-human relationship. All proceeds from services offered through Found Chicago Boarding and Training Center wholly benefit the dogs we rescue, rehabilitate and re-home.
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