We know a lot about good training these days. We know about errorless learning, setting up environments to foster success, and using our knowledge of total circumstances to change behavior in ways that are both kind and effective for the learner.
We know how to create training plans, track our progress, find the holes in our training and take responsibility for the success of the learner.
We know so much!
And it appears that as we know more, there has been a concurrent rise in our levels of guilt when we are unable to provide for the dog at the level that we have been taught. When our own emotions or needs come to the fore. Or when we just get tired of trying so hard to get it right. It’s true that when you know better you can do better. Or you can be too tired to do better, and just feel bad about the whole thing.
The dog is barking so we yelled at the dog. We got too close to a trigger and the dog responded badly. We forgot to work on cooperative care, and the dog backslid on their nail trims. Hell, we forgot to teach cooperative care at all and now our dog has a serious illness and spends a lot of very unhappy time at the vet.
Woulda coulda shoulda. And it’s always our fault. Always! Because that is the belief structure of a positive reinforcement trainer; we take responsibility for what happens, for what we did and did not train. Which is fine. I happen to believe that too. But it leads to another problem, which is how we view ourselves when we fail to succeed when we “knew” better.
Dogs have managed for thousands of years to live with humans. Most of them, the majority, figured stuff out even with the most ignorant of owners. Look at the world around you! Most dogs get no formal training at all, and the ones who do get some formal training often receive one round of mediocre instruction at best.
Dogs deal with the fact that people yell, throw things at them and make some pretty god-awful bad training decisions on a regular basis, from the moment they arrive and right through their “sensitive” periods. Forget discussions of antecedent, behavior, and consequences; how about just trying to get people not to rub their dog’s nose in their poo when they have an accident in the house?
And those people? The ones who know nothing, and allow the dog to take full responsibility for everything? They have no guilt. They have basic expectations of a dog as a dog, and they rely on the fact that dogs seem to manage in spite of all of our worst decisions – often successfully!
And those of us who know a lot? Well educated? Cutting edge and current on the best possible practices for raising, training, socializing, and interacting with our dogs, and taking full responsibility for their emotional, physical, and mental well-being? Enriching their environments? Training them on everything that we can possibly predict they might need at some point in their lives, from canine cooperative care, to calm greetings of other dogs?
We often take on dogs that are challenging rather than typical and then we have chronic guilt. We made a mistake! We yelled at a dog and we know better! We left our dog with separation anxiety alone and set ourselves back a month! And that leads to…guilt. We knew better. We failed the dog. We failed ourselves.
Is this what we signed up for? Is this dog ownership?
I see this as a rising trend, this tendency towards guilt when we are unable to do exactly the right things at all times, in particular with dogs that are NOT typical – dogs that would not have been kept alive even twenty years ago, never mind attempting to rehabilitate the dog to the point of being able to compete or engage in public outings.
So here is my thought on the matter. Let’s start by understanding that the average dog manages in spite of it all. In spite of absolutely ignorant raising and terrible training, the average dog is successful. That means that if your dog is not successful with average training, then your dog is outside of the norm. Congratulations for going above and beyond and working to help your dog!
Now, at every step of the way, you need to remember that you didn’t get average. You got challenging. And the fact that you are working on it? You should be proud of every single effort and opportunity that you take to make things better for your dog, because not so long ago? That dog wouldn’t have made it at all.
When we talk to other people, we need to keep this first and foremost in our minds. Yes, we can diagram out behavior plans for people to follow, and we should do so because we are dog trainers! But we must never forget that most dogs don’t require those behavior plans; those are not typical dogs. And so the owners are going to be frustrated and resentful. And they’re going to make a lot of errors. And what we should focus on is the fact that they are doing it at all; that they are taking on a dog that is not typical and they are doing their best – a typical dog would have figured it out for them.
And if you are the owner of the dog that’s not typical? You need to recognize that – your dog is not easy; not average – you are not the problem here; you are offering a solution! Let go of the guilt. Do your best when you can, and when you can’t then that is okay too because you matter just as much as the dog.
Every time you try – you train and follow the plan and do your best – kudos to you! You have gone above and beyond. That is what you need to remember.