“Mommy, can I have some candy?” the child asked politely as his tiny hand grabbed for some Peanut Butter cups.
“Not today, honey” the mom responded without even thinking.
And then it began.
The child, sensing his mother’s distraction and lack of conviction to her “no” began to escalate.
“PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE!!!!” he said.
“I said not today,” she said.
“BUT I WANT CANDY!!!” he said.
The mom then glanced around the store, feeling the impending doom of a full meltdown, and changed her tune.
“Okay honey. Since you were good in the store.”
This scene is something we’ve all either been a part of – whether as the parent, the kid, or a bystander thinking about we’re happy we don’t have kids or how much better we would handle the situation if we did have kids ( was the latter before I had kids myself and gained a massive amount of empathy for parents put in that situation).
What I’ve learned as a parent, and as a dog parent, is that these moments are everything. And while we’re flawed human beings that can’t expect perfection, the weight of these moments adds up quickly and builds and builds until the relationships we have are unfulfilling, out of balance, and out of control.
And in case you haven’t realized, while I’m recalling a story about a mother and her human child, this is also the story of almost every dog owner that has a dog with behavior patterns. Except with dogs, it’s even worse because we tend to have higher behavior standards for our kids than our dogs.
The truth about dog training is that often when dog training is sought, it isn’t training the dog that is needed – certainly not exclusively. It’s a lifestyle change. It’s an energy change. It’s getting your life in order so that you can provide a safe and stable environment for a dog that is anxiously trying to bring order and stability to their human pack (they of course don’t have the tools to do that even though they will try).
Of course, people don’t always expect that conversation with their dog trainer. They just want us to do our magic where we make the dog stop barking, or attacking, or running away, or whatever it is that might be causing stress at home. And of course, we can do that. Sometimes in minutes. Maybe as soon as you leave.
What I do, and what other high-quality dog trainers do, is show a dog what life is like when their handler is cool, calm, and in control. What life is like when their handler has high expectations and will follow through on those expectations. We pattern this behavior for as long as we have them so they can feel the joy of a world with minimal stress.
But to really be successful I need to get YOU to do the same thing when the dog goes home. As a dog trainer, my true goal is to shift the perspective of owners so that you know how to train your dog, but mostly so you learn what your dog needs and how important those in-between moments – the moments when you’re not “training” – truly are. After all, that’s 99 percent of your life with your dog.
Returning to the mom from the store I referenced at the beginning of this post, I have no idea of how her kid turned out. Maybe she sent him to the finest schools where he got A+s and his teachers all bragged about how well he listened and how he never got in trouble. Even if that were the case, if that brief, throw-away moment in the grocery store line was indicative of their day-to-day life, I would bet good money that that child, even at 30 years old, knows exactly how to push mom’s buttons, to use outbursts to control her, etc.
If you want true success with your dog, pay attention to these little moments. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. When you commit to saying something like sit, follow through until it happens. When your dog is nudging you with his nose or jumping on your lap while you are busy, what ends up happening? If your dog barks when you put him in his crate do you let him out? Do you let your dog pull you around on the walk while you check your work e-mail only to be surprised when he drags you towards other dogs?
These are just some of the small, seemingly insignificant moments that will define the relationship between you and your dogs.
We trainers can work miracles with your dog, but the true magic comes when you start leading in the big moments. And, more importantly, the little ones.