The Right Tool at the Right Time

Not every canine behavior needs to be changed through training; sometimes, simple managment is more effective.

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Few dogs behave in ways that please us all day every day – especially puppies, adolescent dogs, or newly adopted adult dogs who have little experience living closely with humans. “Training” is what we usually call our formal efforts to teach dogs how to behave in ways that please us more – and most frequently, dog owners use that term to describe what is needed to prevent their dogs from causing chaos in or destruction to their homes, or upsetting or harming other members of the household (whether human, canine, feline, or anything else). But when discussing behaviors that we’d like to prevent our dogs from practicing, many trainers would likely say that what’s needed in many of those vexing situations is better canine management, not training!

dog trying to escape door

What’s the difference?  “Management” generally means using simple tools – such as leashes, fences, doors, and gates – to prevent the dog from practicing behaviors we don’t want him to do (such as wandering away from home, chasing your cat through the house, chewing your sofa cushions, helping himself to food from the kitchen garbage or on the counter, or jumping on visitors).

In contrast, “training” usually refers to situations where we are teaching the dog what to do.

Both management and training are highly effective in modifying our dogs’ behavior so that they can share our lives and homes more peacefully and pleasingly – but it’s helpful to be aware of the difference between the approaches, and use each to its best advantage, in order to most effectively and efficiently (and humanely) get our dogs to behave the way we’d like them to.

I’m a trainer, and believe me, I love training, and am fascinated by any pain- and fear-free method that can be used to teach dogs to perform behaviors that are helpful or just plain enjoyable to us. But there are many instances when training is not the most efficient or effective way to change a dog’s behavior!

“Counter-surfing” is a perfect example. When a dog has learned to help himself to food that’s on the kitchen counter, some people will set up elaborate traps that are meant to scare the dog and teach him not to jump on the counters any more, or spend time teaching him “off” or “leave it.”

However, dogs who are highly motivated by food may find the prospect of finding food so rewarding that they gladly run the risk of whatever traps their owners devise (or learn to identify the traps and detect any time the traps haven’t been “set”). And expecting a dog to perform a behavior in the many hours you are absent is unrealistic; why would you expect him to “leave it” for hours when you would never expect him to, say, hold a “down/stay” for the same period of time?

In this case, managing the dog’s behavior – by preventing him from being able to do it at all, by, say, using a baby gate to keep him out of the kitchen altogether – is a far simpler solution than training.

In contrast, there are also instances when we can use a tool to manage the dog’s unwanted behavior, but it would be even more helpful if he learned to do something that we like better. That’s when training is indicated.

leash training a dog

Complementary Dog Training Techniques

Here’s an example: If you have a dog who is prone to chasing your cat in the house, you can manage his behavior by keeping him on a tether at all times, or using gates that your cat can jump over, go through, or run under to evade your dog’s pursuit. This is a good, first-line-of-defense strategy that will protect your cat, especially when you are not present. But teaching your dog to look at you or come to you when he sees the cat will be a better long-term solution, one that may eventually result in the animals’ peaceful co-existence.

I have lived this example for the past 10 years, ever since my husband and I adopted a young Cardigan Welsh Corgi from a shelter. Lucy spent six months’ worth of evenings on a leash next to me on the sofa so I could prevent her from leaping after Barney, our black-and-white tuxedo cat, when he bounced into the living room. That was management.

But while I managed Lucy’s cat-chasing behavior, I also worked to convince her that cats appearing in the living room makes treats appear for her to enjoy. That was training – and it pays off to this day, almost 10 years later. Just this evening, as I sat on the living-room sofa, fingers on my laptop keyboard and one eye on the television, I noticed Barney waltz into the room. Next to me, Lucy sparked alert.

I watched and waited. A second later, her head swiveled toward me. Ah! Good girl! I usually reward her with a treat; I almost always have some in a pocket or on a nearby table. Sometimes her reward for a behavior that I like – such as looking at me – is a few moments of petting and praise, or a chance to chase a toy.  

The Right Time for the Right Dog Training Tool

When does it make the most sense to manage your dog’s unwanted behavior and when should you work to train him to do something you like more? It’s almost always most effective to immediately manage the dog’s environment to prevent him from practicing (and being reinforced for) the unwanted behavior. In some cases, that’s all that’s needed – especially when a simple management tool replaces unrealistic training expectations. For example, if you really don’t want your dog to snooze on your sofa while you are at work all day, it would be far easier and more effective to simply block her access to the room with the sofa than it would be to devise, set up, and monitor some sort of remote surveillance and training system to teach her to stay off the sofa when you aren’t there.

In other cases, it makes sense to manage the dog’s environment (again, to prevent your dog from practicing the unwanted behavior) for just as long as it takes you to teach the dog a new, more appropriate behavior. For example, you may want to use a head halter or front-clip harness to prevent your large dog from pulling you off your feet when you take him on pottying walks, while you also take a class or work with a trainer to teach him to walk politely with just a flat collar in slowly increasingly distracting environments. This will set him up for eventual success, while (we hope) preventing him from ever experiencing the thrill of pulling the leash out of your hand in order to bolt after a squirrel on the sidewalk across the street.

Caveat: Behavior Management Failure Factors

I’m a big fan of management – good management tools and practices can often salvage a previously frustrating dog/owner relationship – but management does have a bad name in some training circles. “Management always fails,” some will pontificate, meaning that there may be a high price to pay if you rely solely on a gate or leash to control your dog’s behavior, and someone forgets to latch the gate or the leash breaks. I try to avoid saying “always” or “never” to my clients, though. I prefer to say, “Management has a high likelihood of failure, so if you plan to manage a behavior, be aware of the potential for failure and what the risks are if management fails, and make training and management decisions accordingly.” It’s not as snappy a sound bite, for sure, but it is far more accurate.

When you do decide to employ management – whether as an alternative or a complement to training – it pays to be thoroughly aware of its potential for failure and the potential risks of any possible failures.  What do I mean by this? Let me flesh out one of the examples above. Say you have adopted a large dog who hasn’t yet been trained to walk nicely on a leash, and who is reactive to other dogs. You are taking a group class with a good trainer, and working hard to improve his social and on-leash skills, but his behavior is much better if he gets a lot of exercise. So, even though it’s challenging to take him on walks, you use a front-clip harness (management tool) to help control him on walks, which you take very early in the morning (management technique, to try to avoid seeing many other dog walkers).

There are many risks of this approach: The harness or leash could break; the dog could pull the leash out of your hand with a strong bolt; he could pull you over (if there is a size/strength disparity between the two of you); or someone else’s dog could get loose and come after your dog and you might be unable to pull or summon your dog away. If your dog got loose in one of these ways, he might run off and get hit by a car, or initiate a fight with another dog.

Then there are the mitigating factors: you bought good equipment; you check it frequently to make sure it’s not chewed or frayed and that the leash snap is not cracked and its mechanism is working properly; and you keep your cell phone in your pocket and stay attentive to the appearance of any other dogs on the horizon, so that you are ready to execute a quick turn in the other direction. All of these things will minimize the risk of your temporary management strategies.

Potential for Behavior Management Failure and Failure Risk

When considering management, short- or long-term, as an option for dealing with a behavior, it’s important that you make a realistic assessment of the potential for and risk of management failure.

Factors that contribute the likelihood that management will fail include but are not limited to:

  • Poor-quality equipment (such as frayed or chewed leashes, doors that don’t latch properly, inadequately installed gates, fences in poor repair)

  • Children in the home

  • Lots of activity/traffic in and out of the house

  • Multiple residents in the home (especially if some aren’t conscientious about management protocols)

  • Lack of commitment to or inability to implement management protocols

  • Creative, persistent, determined, and/or anxious dogs

  • Intensity of behavior

  • Predictability of behavior (either extreme)

Consider, too, the potential risks (to your dog or other family members, or other people or animals) if your management techniques or tools fail. What is the most serious or tragic thing that is likely to happen if your management does fail? 

Management is not an appropriate option if the likely consequences are very serious, such as someone (a human or animal) being badly bitten or even killed, animal-control action being taken against you, someone filing a lawsuit against you (and possible loss of homeowner’s insurance), or significant damage to valuable possessions.

Remember, every behavior and training scenario invites you to make choices about how much to manage and how much to train. Choose wisely – your dog’s well-being depends on it.


Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog-training classes and courses for trainers. 

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

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