This time of year, families everywhere are getting ready for the season of gift giving. Gifts of all kinds are being plotted, planned, and carefully prepared for family, friends, and community members. Many of us even buy gifts for our animals—the cat gets a new toy, the dog gets a new sweater. But what would happen if more folks thought of training for their dogs as a gift? So many people tend to view training as a sort of afterthought. Something to do once they experience some kind of challenge or unwanted behavior. Perhaps it’s the word “training” that’s the problem. Maybe we should call it teaching. Training is teaching. Maybe too many people hear the word training and think that their dog doesn’t need it. The trouble is that training is, and can be, so much more for your dog. It’s not just something to take up once you have a problem—though a problem is certainly a valid reason to begin training.
Training is also not something to skip because you don’t have any behavior problems. Training is how we communicate with our dogs. It’s how we live and interact with our dogs. It’s a lifestyle choice. Training together improves our relationship with our dogs. So many families that come to see me have dogs that are confused in human interactions due to lack of clear communication. So many dogs have pent-up energy due to lack of adequate exercise. No matter what the story is, training is typically the solution. It facilitates better communication and physical activity. I’ve seen lots of dogs whose eyes very visibly light up once the communication finally becomes clear through training. For dogs, it’s a game— one that enriches, challenges, and satisfies them. Training is learning for our dogs, and it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give.
Mental Health and Shelter Dogs
During my time as the Behavior and Enrichment Specialist at the Palm Springs Animal Shelter, I saw firsthand how powerfully training opportunities could positively impact a shelter dog’s quality of life while living there. While in my position, my job was to develop and oversee the staff and volunteer dog team programs. The goal was to improve quality of life for the population of dogs and create systems of operation that would ensure their quality of life did actually improve. A huge part of this was the implementation of training opportunities for every shelter dog. Because these dogs were not all going to be adopted by a staff or volunteer member, we had to create generalized handling protocols that would achieve a perception, in the dog’s eyes, that all humans they encountered were potentially good people.
Training is learning for our dogs, and it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
We saw that these protocols allowed for a dramatic increase in their willingness to bond with more and more new people, even when overwhelmed by the shelter environment. We saw that these training opportunities made more dogs open to coming to the front of their kennel. They became calmer and more relaxed when people approached. They performed basic positions like sit and down. All of this made them more adoptable in the eyes of a family looking for a new dog to take home. What were these training opportunities? More than you might think! Yes, we introduced obedience training activities, but the programs went far beyond that. Dogs were provided opportunities to leave their enclosures and just sit with someone quietly, they were read to, they did playgroups with other dogs, they played basic nosework games, they were taught tricks, they learned leash skills, they were taught how to go in and out of crates, and so much more.
These activities were instrumental in improving the mental health of dogs in the shelter’s care. They felt better while they lived with us. That resulted in dogs showing better and getting adopted faster. Our mission was to prove that mental and behavioral health were equally as important as medical health. This area deserves the same amount of attention and resources. Instead of focusing on training solely to help mitigate difficult behavior, we also included a preventative perspective and overall care of each dog through training opportunities. This shift was a game changer for our dogs and for our staff and volunteers. Everyone benefited from these programs, and there were a lot of positive experiences with our dogs after seeing training this way.
Bonding With Your Dog: More Than Just an Afterthought
These lessons were crucial in the shelter, and they are equally valuable when you’re at home with your dog. It’s important to remember that training is our way of teaching our dogs how to navigate our human world. It is the relationship building and communication information they need to succeed with and around us. Teaching our dogs skills is a wonderful bonding experience. Not only can teaching them create positive experiences, but it will likely help prevent a lot of avoidable negative experiences. Providing our dogs the chance to learn from us is an incredibly enjoyable and kind gift to give them. That’s what having a dog at home should be about. It’s loving them enough to give them what they need, not just what feels good.
The crate is a great example of this. I’ve seen so many dogs decide very quickly that they love their crate. Through games and conditioning, we teach them that a crate is a positive experience. They learn to hang out there willingly. It becomes like their own little bedroom, somewhere that they prefer to be during down time or when they need some space. At this point, the crate becomes a very useful and functional exercise for pet parents. It is a safe and controlled space that becomes incredibly helpful in a lot of different, practical situations. In the process, so many dogs learn to love the exercise because it is a game they can play where they can predict reinforcement. Not only that, but it is yet another opportunity to spend time and have fun with each other.
Just think about the similarities with children. It would be strange to think that we don’t work to educate them until there is some kind of problem or undesirable behavior. We are constantly communicating with and teaching our children. It’s something that happens naturally; it’s a given, and it’s automatic. It’s how we raise them to be a part of and contribute to the world eventually. The first thing we do is talk to our children while we love them. We talk to them all the time. And then before we know it, they are speaking back to us. Think about how happy you were when they spoke that first word or figured out that first phrase. It was so memorable and gratifying. This is how we should approach training our dogs. Teaching happens first. It happens immediately. It is necessary to do, because we love them and want them to have the best shot at living a happy life. Along the way, you feel good and your dog feels good, because you are learning together.
I get so much joy when my five-year-old son Lee figures out a problem with just a little bit of help. Help from skills that, hopefully, I had been working to instill in him well before that problem occurred. Here’s an example: For the longest time, once he knew and could speak his name, we’ve tried to teach him to introduce himself politely to people. Whether they be adults or other kids. He says, “Hi! I’m Lee!” And he does it with kindness. Now, when he’s nervous or unsure he’s more able to remember that he can introduce himself and that often breaks the ice. Then boom! He’s more at ease and comfortable. We wouldn’t have gotten him to this point if we hadn’t been teaching him this concept beforehand. It for this very reason that I feel so strongly that we should view training our dogs as an enhancement of our relationship together. It helps us grow and live together in better harmony. With a confidence boost for our dogs while we’re at it.
Something You Can Do This Season
As we near the end of the year, not only are families looking for ways to make their loved ones feel special with a gift—many are also thinking hard about what their New Year’s resolutions will be. I have a request for you, the reader. Consider this: Training is an amazing learning experience for you and your dog. It is an education that you and your dog can work through together that will help to better both your relationship with each other and your dog’s experience as your pet. This year, when you’re putting together (1) your holiday plans for gifting and (2) your personal plans for a New Year’s resolution, please keep your dog in mind. Give your dog the gift of training by making them the focus of one of your New Year’s resolutions—and maybe even start before the old year ends! Right now is absolutely the best time to begin this journey with your dog.
Read a training book, watch training content online, take a class, hire a trainer to do private sessions. Do something new! In the same way that we prioritize our children’s learning, I’m asking you to prioritize your dog’s learning. Love them, teach them, play with them, cuddle them. See it as all an integral part of TRAINING YOUR DOG. Training is important for your dog’s quality of life, and so is starting it from the very moment they come home. I’m confident you’ll see that your dogs will be over-the-moon happy about spending that training time with you. Remember: Dog Training is for The Whole Family. This means that teaching your dog should definitely be a family activity. Any human your dog will have regular exposure to should be involved in the process. Invite your friend, your roommate, your kids, and your family members to participate in enriching your dog’s life by giving them the gift of learning how to learn. May that be your resolution as we head into 2022. Cheers!