Features July 2016 Issue

How Much Training Does Your Dog Really Need?

Life is too short to stress your dog out over achieving perfect obedience. Prioritize the cues you want to teach your dog and start one at a time, but remember teaching your dog should always be fun!

Raise your hand if you have a perfectly trained dog. Anyone? Anyone? If you raised your hand, good for you! – both of you! For the rest of us whose hands didn’t budge, the reality is a little different. Many of us have a long laundry list of dog behaviors we’d like to work on, eventually.

The list of dog training goals may be quirky little things, ranging from stealing tissues out of the bathroom garbage bin to barking at the sound of a doorbell on TV, digging up the vegetable garden, and snacking from the cat’s litter box. 

Your list of dog training goals might also include more serious issues, like your dog behaving aggressively toward strangers, slipping through any door left open and making a run for it, or displaying fearful behaviors when left at home alone. These types of canine behavior problems absolutely deserve our attention and should be addressed sooner rather than later for the safety of others, as well as for the safety and well being of the dog.

But what about those other issues? Is it okay to ignore them? I mean, if it’s not a problem for you, then is it a problem at all?

dog rolling in grass

Once author/trainer Nancy Tucker stopped trying to improve her dog’s behavior each and every day, their relationship deepened – and Tucker began to appreciate Chili’s sweet, humorous, expressive self even more.

Establish Training Goals for Your Dog

Recently I celebrated the fifth anniversary of my dog Chili’s adoption. I originally brought her into my home as a foster, because she had been a resident of the local shelter for a while; I planned to work on some of her behavior issues in order to increase her chances of adoption. Chili exhibited a host of behaviors that would be problematic for most families: she knew how to perform zero behaviors on cue, had never learned to walk on a leash, she guarded her food and bones, barked and lunged against the windows when riding in the car, and barked and lunged at the TV when a dog barked on screen – to name just a few.

After a couple of weeks, and once I realized the scope of her behavior problems, I went ahead and signed the adoption papers just to avoid sending Chili back to the shelter when my previously agreed-upon two weeks of fostering were up. I was still going to try to find her a suitable home while we worked on her behavior, however; she wasn’t actually going to stay with us forever.

Weeks turned into months, and by then, my family had grown so attached to Chili that we had no intention of letting her go live elsewhere. She had become a member of our family, as imperfect as she was. And despite nearly nonstop training for more than a year, she really was imperfect. Every day had been, in my eyes, an opportunity to work on at least one of her issues, a chance to improve her behavior, an obligation to turn her into a “good family dog.” Even though I aim to make training as much fun as possible for any dog I’m working with, the fact remains that for Chili, school was always in session. There had been no holidays, no summer break.

After 15 months of this, and during a time of mourning as we dealt with the unexpected loss of our other very special family dog to a sudden illness, it finally dawned on me that a dog’s life is much too short for me to be worrying about achieving perfect behavior. Why was I so concerned? What was I trying to prove, exactly, by constantly evaluating, managing, and tweaking Chili’s behavior?

I thought about it long and hard and came to the conclusion that my motivation to keep training Chili was rooted in pressure – pressure I put on myself, and pressure I imagined coming from other sources. Expectations had grown from the fact that I was a professional trainer, and yet my dog was not perfect. The social pressure – whether real or imagined – that I felt when I was out and about with my imperfect dog was weighing heavily on me.

Focus on Your Dog's Good Behavior to Achieve Better Behavior

At that very moment, I stopped the daily training and the endless micromanagement of Chili’s every move and social contact. I pledged to her that I would instead focus on making what’s left of her unfairly short canine life the most fabulous time she had ever known. Expectations and judgment from others be damned, I was going to let Chili be Chili.

Whole Dog Journal

By most dog owners’ standards, Chili’s behavior is not perfect. But Chili is perfect at being herself! And her behavior is good enough.

This approach has allowed us to relax and grow even closer. By taking a step back and getting to know her true personality, I have also come to realize there are a lot of things that Chili does well. I had spent so much time focusing on what was wrong, that I hadn’t really noticed what was right: She has never gone shopping in any garbage bins. She doesn’t bark when someone rings the doorbell or knocks at the door. She greets visitors with charm and class. She has always done her business in a far corner of the yard, without any coaching from me. . . . It turns out she’s a pretty awesome family dog, just the way she is!

This was such a defining moment for me that I now spend a lot of time helping clients to also see the good in their dog at a time when they might feel frustrated about a particular behavior problem.

Teaching a dog new behaviors can be lots of fun, and there are tons of people and dogs who thoroughly enjoy daily training and engaging in various canine sports or activities. However, it’s equally important to give yourself permission to take the pressure off of yourself and your dog if frequent training isn’t your thing.

If there are behavior issues that you simply can’t live with, then of course you should teach your dog to behave differently, or find a trainer who can show you how to make training fun for both you and your dog.

But if you feel you need to work on a behavior just because you think that’s what is expected of your dog, when really you could just as happily leave it alone, then by all means let it be and carry on as you were! It’s far more important that you and your dog enjoy the time you spend together.

The truth is, there is no such thing as a perfect dog, and there is no official rule book that states exactly how every dog should behave. We get to make up most of those rules based on what works for us and our own dogs. Outside of competitive dog sports or dog shows, there is no prize for perfect dog behavior. If your dog is good enough for you, and you’re able to make the most out of those dog years, then you’re already winners.

Nancy Tucker, CPDT-KA, is a full-time trainer, behavior consultant, and seminar presenter in Quebec, Canada. She has written numerous articles on dog behavior focusing on life with the imperfect family dog.

Comments (13)

Nayla was scheduled to be euthanized at a shelter down south when she was rescued. She lived in a foster home for a year and a half with several other dogs when she came to live with me. She had many issues (among them alleged food aggression for which she was on Prozac) and had to be trained, like, NOW, because my 80 year old mother was my dog sitter and I couldn't have my mom traipsing through the neighborhood trying to catch an out of control Pittie after she jumped the fence. Nayla went to a board and train for 2 weeks (all positive reinforcement) and was a much better dog when she came home. It turned out she didn't have food aggression and I weaned her off the Prozac. Two years later she still has a few undesirable behaviors, but like the article says, my mom and I focus on her good traits: she doesn't chew on things that are not toys or bones, will do just about any trick for a treat, is not a barker, does not have separation anxiety, rides in the car pretty well, does a decent half hour on the treadmill without complaint, is housetrained, loves people and is generally a very sweet dog. Her antics give my mom and me hours of enjoyment. However, she's not great with other dogs (she just throws herself at them with joyful abandon which of course is very off putting) chases my cats (fortunately not prey driven), at times eats her own feces, and still steals food off the counters. But these behaviors are easily remedied: when we see another dog on our walks, we just go the other way. There is a gate on the cats' room. I pick up her excrement every time she goes. And of course I don't leave food on the counters. When I see other people out with their perfectly balanced, obedient dogs, of course I'm a little jealous. But I wouldn't trade my Nayla and her little quirks for all the well behaved dogs in the world, because sometimes there's perfection in imperfection.

Posted by: IrishGirl | February 2, 2019 8:24 AM    Report this comment

WHile our dog is not perfect she has an attitude that clearly shows she wants to please us. She knows when she has done something that makes us unhappy. And we don't yell at her or hit her in any way. You can just see it in her eyes. I've never seen it in any dog before. We are very lucky.

Posted by: Steve823 | January 20, 2019 8:35 PM    Report this comment

This article brought tears to my eyes. I adopted Snow and her sister at the age of 12 weeks. While her sister was an angel and learned polite behaviors right away, but Snow was a hellion. In our classes, even the trainers couldn't do anything with her. If she couldn't get what she wanted, she would throw a hissy fit and tear at my lower arms with her claws. I have the scars to show for it. I eventually did train her to drop to the floor when she wanted something. That was the one behavior that had to be in place. She is 14 years old now. Her sister is gone. She still soils in the house when she's frustrated and barks incessantly when I don't pay attention to her. But I need to give her credit where it's due: She has never snapped at another person or dog. She is gentle with babies and small children and loves to let them pet her. She never runs away, even if the door or gate is wide open. She is a perfect hostess when guests come and knows not to jump on them. She knows to sit and wait to be told when she can eat. She even comes when she's called. I apologize for rambling on, but it was a joyous moment when I read the article and realized for the first time that I'm lucky to have such a sweet girl

Posted by: muriel33 | January 20, 2019 7:56 PM    Report this comment

For the past 30 years, I have adopted elderly abused, starved, sick dogs, the main reason being that no one else wanted them. I knew I could make a different. I never had any training with dogs, only horses, but the same principles apply to both. Usually I took the dog to a basic obedience class to see what the dog already knew and evaluate temperament. Once we were even kicked out of a class because the dog I had focused on a separate dog each class and decided to kill that dog. So, I took her home, worked on her for a few months and she won an obedience class six months later. My first job with these dogs was to improve their health. Next, try to make them comfortable. Often they have been from home to home, just left outside on a chain too heavy for them and left to themselves. All I ever wanted from my dogs was basic good behaviour with as little aggression as possible so he was not a danger to us so I went with the flow and temperament of each dog. With one,it took me two weeks to get near her. Most of the dogs had fear aggression. All I wanted was don't pee in the house (some had been outside all their lives and needed house training), sit, come (not just when you feel like it), down, walk reasonably well when on a leash, don't pull me over or down, don't attack me while I put down your bowl and be polite. If I achieved more than that, great, if not, it didn't matter. Every dog achieved his CGC. My only real goal was that they become healthier, be happy, learn to trust, know you will always be loved here and that we will never hurt you or send you away. One dog took 13 months to finally know she was HOME.
I have noticed that most people who have little dogs just don't train them at all and think it is really cute when the little dog charges into the face of a big one who could take them out in one bite. Do they not realize how dangerous that is particularly if the other dog has a high prey drive. I HATE THAT! They pull their dogs wherever they want them to go, don't pay attention to them and let them yap, yap, yap. End of my rant.

Posted by: Holly 1 | January 13, 2019 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Nancy, thank you for sharing your feelings and insights. I'm sure I am one of many trainers who can relate to much of what you described about the social pressure to have a dog that doesn't show any problem behaviors. This article is a keeper.

Posted by: Holly's Den | January 12, 2019 9:17 PM    Report this comment

I think I posted something similar before but, when we came home with our chocolate lab puppy almost 15 years ago, I had visions of a perfectly trained labrador who would obey my every wish and command. It didn't happen like that (his breeder said he was her favorite because he was the bad one, and he stood out in puppy classes for his entertaining antics) and it took me a while to realize he had a different temperament/personality that I could either work with or constantly battle with neither of us happy. I decided I didn't want a beaten down robo dog, I worked with him. There were certain house rules I enforced, but I gave him leeway in other areas that were not crucial. He learned my "I am serious" voice, and listened when there was any danger involved. We developed such a strong, trusting bond after that that I can't begin to describe.
Fast forward to one year ago when I adopted a 1-2 year old chocolate lab. He was awful! Steals food, runs away, jumps on visitors... I have been working with him for this past year and he is improving in a lot of areas, but it is a bit like a foster child. He came with some issues and I first and foremost wanted to gain his trust, because he was definitely abused before. The past month or so I noticed he has really started to respond. He is far from perfect, but he is incredibly sweet and has had a horrible beginning in life, he deserves a second chance
There is a lot of pressure to have a perfect dog. I felt it with my last one and I feel it now again with this one. People think it's insane I won't go on vacation right now because I don't have the heart to put him in a kennel (after his experience I'm afraid he will think he is being dumped there)and I don't think he's ready to stay at anyone else's house.
We are getting there, slowly but surely , on OUR terms.

Posted by: Krista April | January 12, 2019 8:29 PM    Report this comment

My dogs are perfect for me :-)
Over training creates more problems that it solves. So I work on the principle of if you cannot solve a problem with training, then use management OR change your expectations.

Posted by: Jenny H | January 12, 2019 7:26 PM    Report this comment

One of the many charms of life with dogs: finding the balance between celebrating and promoting their authentic energies, and reigning in/redirecting their unbearably obnoxious quirks!

Posted by: Fleabag | January 12, 2019 3:05 PM    Report this comment

I took in an abandoned GSD 9 years ago. He was a large, long haired, intact adult male (about 2 years old). Totally untrained, pulled me off my feet, stalked my chickens, knocked food bowl out of my hands and was a serial barker. But he was gentle around all other dogs and cats, great with kids and people, super affectionate and very smart. With patience and training he turned out to be a fabulous dog (except the barking-he got better but was always a problem). Dec 5, 2018 was 9 years to the day when we brought him here. That night he escaped out the gate and was hit by a car and killed. RIP my sweet Nacho.

Posted by: chicken lady | January 12, 2019 1:20 PM    Report this comment

Six months after losing the world's most perfect dog - and the love of my life- I brought in a rescue with serious anxiety and fear issues. We have addressed many of them successfully but still has some behaviors that baffle me and I don't know how to fix. But she is basically a happy, affectionate, though shy, sweet dog that enjoys other dogs that meet her criteria of low key and enjoys people when she gets to know them. I'm wondering if my frustration in not being able to improve her "defects" is maybe my desire, unconsciously to remake her into the guy I lost. Your article has made me rethink things. Thank you.

Posted by: sastanze@gmail.com | January 12, 2019 1:18 PM    Report this comment

We adopted two dogs from Tennessee last year. One was in foster care for eight months because he does not present well. He is very submissive and simultaneously barks aggressively at strangers. He is super with other dogs (his foster mom, who has a continual stream of dogs at her house misses him because he got along with all dogs), but was obviously beaten and is fearful of human beings (for good reason). We had one training session with a professional then got overwhelmed with an accident, etc, and mostly focus on keeping him behind a fence or on a leash. I just see patience and management as our best tools because we don't have a lot of strangers coming to our house.

On the micromanagement question, we adopted a dog at age nine from her guardian who had had her since she was a puppy (guardian could no longer "handle" her, a perfectly tractable dog). She was never allowed to be a real dog but her every movement was managed and she had terrible anxiety. First thing I did was wean her off anti-anxiety meds. She cried constantly for two years whenever she was in a vehicle, and I just said, "It's okay, it's okay," and she eventually realized it was okay. She supposedly didn't get along with other dogs, but she got along fine with every one she met while we had her, and adored our dog Gunnar who taught her how to eat marrow bones, be a dog, have fun, relax, etc. The trick that absolutely ended the anxiety was WHEY powder. She licked some off the floor, we started giving it to her regularly, and her anxiety absolutely disappeared. Micromanagement belongs in the trash can.

Posted by: Dogtowner | January 12, 2019 10:26 AM    Report this comment

While I agree with everything in this article, the problem I generally see is just the opposite. People don't train their dogs AT ALL. Especially small dogs...they can pull their owners around the block without a problem, and no one seems to care if they yap ferociously. I would rather see an article encouraging people to train. It can be a lot of fun and I really believe dogs need a challenge. They're intelligent and to waste it hanging around on the couch isn't fair to them. I'm not saying strict competition obedience, just good manners. There's the CGC and the new Trick Dogs title which are made for people who aren't into the "serious" stuff. An article like this tends to let people say, "See, I knew he didn't need training." And at the extreme, the dog pees in the house and ends up back at the shelter because of it. As if dogs are supposed to come knowing that kind of thing.

Posted by: GiftofGalway | January 12, 2019 10:15 AM    Report this comment

Great article. I too live with a dog who is imperfect. She doesn't want dog friends and could do without a lot of people friends too. Her list of insecurities is long but so are her virtues. She doesn't want dogs in her space but has no issue walking by them, being in class with them or ignoring them if they are barking or snarling at her. She'll never compete in an agility trial but she loves class and has the best sit-stay of any dog I've ever lived with. I could go on, but that's not the point. Thanks for reminding me!

Posted by: ME8418 | June 24, 2016 8:58 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In