If you do a quick Google search for ‘dog training’ you’ll get a whole heap of hits. Many of them will promise to fix your problem almost instantly! Here’s a very typical example: “How to quickly teach your adult dog or puppy to never mess inside – ever. Learn How To Toilet Train Your Dog In 7 Days.”
If you’ve been having all the fun of little parcels and puddles, that sounds really appealing, right? 7 days? Is that all? Wow, I can do that!
Toilet training isn’t the only problem that gets the ‘quick fix’ treatment. There are trainers who offer to stop your problem, no matter what, in just days or, even better, minutes! Can it be done? Well, yes; sort of. You might not like some of the emotional fallout though.
So what is a ‘quick fix’?
A quick fix is something that some trainers offer that implies one of the following: Almost instant resolution of your problem. Minimum effort from you; I totally get the appeal! Who wouldn’t want their problem to go away quickly and effortlessly? It’s human nature to be after a simple, quick, easy solution.
However, there’s usually stuff they’re not telling you. Two questions you need to ask:
How is ‘fixed’ defined?
Does this mean the dog stops displaying the yucky behaviour because they’re too darn scared to do much of anything anymore? Or does it mean that in very specific situations the dog won’t do the behaviour anymore? If so, what are those situations? Will it be a long-term solution or will ‘top-up training’ from the trainer be required to maintain it? (All behaviours need a level of maintenance training but it shouldn’t need the original trainer to come back and do the training repeatedly.)
What’re the methods that’ll be used?
If the answer involves the words ‘pack leader’, ‘alpha’, ‘firm handling’, ‘stim collar’, ‘e-collar’ or ‘we don’t use treats/toys’, run like stink in the opposite direction! This trainer may well remove your problem behaviour but the cost to your dog’s mental and physical wellbeing might be more than you want to pay.
That’s not to say there aren’t very effective trainers using these methods. It’s just that the phrase ‘quick ‘n’ dirty’ is very appropriate for many of these techniques.
Why no quick fix for reward-based training?
Learning takes time
The problem is, behaviour change takes time. Unless you’re going to use fear, pain or intimidation, usually learning just isn’t instant. How long does it take you to learn a new skill? More than a few minutes I bet! And if you change your routine, or try to break a ‘bad’ habit, or establish a new, ‘good’ one; how many times do you slip up? Who’s had the experience of changing vehicles – and repeatedly turning on the windscreen wipers every time you go to put the indicators on? How long did it take you to stop making that booboo? Your dog is no different. Unless you set up the environment to prevent errors and encourage different, more acceptable behaviours, they’ll continue to make mistakes for some time.
And then there’s biology.
For example, no sane person would expect a young pup to be housebroken in 7 days. Why? Because no matter how willing the pup is to be clean and go outside, until they’re mature enough to FULLY control bladder and bowels, mistakes will happen unless you provide 100% supervision – or appropriate facilities when you can’t supervise. A dog can easily be 6 months or older before they stop having ‘caught short’ moments. House training is a process: you can certainly make it errorless but it takes planning and effort – unless you’re lucky enough to live in a climate where you can leave the back door open at all times, or you provide a dog flap (and then you have to teach the dog how to use it).
So, we’re back to our question: define ‘fixed’, in this case, define ‘toilet trained’. My definition may not be the same as yours; yours might not be the same as that trainer advertising ‘toilet trained in 7 days’.
What are we really comparing?
What it boils down to is: Punishment (quick ‘n’ dirty) vs Positive Reinforcement (time and effort needed).
If we’re looking at getting behaviours like ‘not pulling on leash’, ‘coming when called’ or ‘offering polite greetings’, it’s pretty clear that we need to teach your dog something new and often quite complex. If your dog’s not a baby, then the problem behaviour will’ve become pretty established. And just to make matters even more challenging, your dog probably really enjoys doing it!
- Pulling = getting to stuff!
- Ignoring recalls = access to fun activities!
- Bouncing on people = attention!
Why on earth would your dog voluntarily change what they’re doing? So, we can either use punishment or we can prevent mistakes and train what we want. Punishment can be a very quick fix, but in order to work it needs to be strong enough to make the dog think twice about trying the offending behaviour again. But if you’re committed to reward-based training, methods that add pain, fear or intimidation are just off the table, no question.
Sure, you can try to remove the pay-off for the behaviour but sometimes it just feels darn good to do it; that’s out of your control. That leaves you with the slower road of preventing mistakes and building what you want instead. This take time, it takes planning and it takes effort. There’s no way round it! Sorry.
Management – the only ‘quick fix’ is an illusion.
Actually, I sorta lied there. Management is the perfect quick fix. What’s management? Using leads, tethers, crates, pens, barriers, head collars, harnesses, food distractors or any other method to physically prevent a dog behaving in an unwanted way. Management tools are usually pretty benign in that they don’t cause pain or fear when introduced to the dog correctly.
It’s totally okay to NEVER train your dog to behave in an ‘acceptable’ way if you avoid putting them in situations that lead to the ‘mis-behaviour’. For example, if you never walk your dog where leashes are required, then good leash manners are redundant. If you rarely have visitors, it doesn’t matter if your dog is prone to trying to sit on stranger’s heads as a way of greeting them.
But make no mistake, management is crucial for successful behaviour change! It allows you to replace an unwanted behaviour with another more acceptable one. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that management alone will ‘fix’ the problem. Once you remove the management, the problem behaviour will almost always pop right back up.
Be wary of those trainers offering a ‘quick and simple’ fix for any behaviour. Ask lots of questions! Find a trainer who will take you through the whole process of establishing, building and strengthening the behaviours you need. Be prepared for this to cost you time, effort and money; in many cases, quite a bit of all three!
A good reward-based trainer will clearly explain the process and methods they intend to use. They won’t make guarantees of successful resolution within a specified time – no-one can know exactly how long it’ll take for a given dog to learn a specific skill; they should be able to give you a reasonable estimate though. Above all, remember that with the longer, slower, kinder way, you pay in time and effort. For the ‘quick fix’ solution, your dog might be the one paying the price – in pain and fear.
– Sarah and the Gang
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