Today I want to talk about the importance of relationships in dog training.
My rule of thumb, whenever I have a new dog in the house, is that it'll take me around three years to know the dog well. If the dog is a puppy, they need that time to grow up and mature. If the dog is an adult, they need the time to settle in and feel relaxed enough to be themselves. The other reason for looking at three years is that it gives me time without feeling pressured to build a relationship with my dog.
Dogs are excellent at recognising people as individuals and responding to each person differently. A while ago now, Roxy, my Staffie cross and I had a couple of one to one sessions with a gundog trainer recently a couple of times. Between our first and second sessions, I spent a lot of time on walks teaching Roxy to put her toy in my hand when she brought it to me rather than dropping it on the ground. Roxy was five years old when I first met her and she loved playing with sticks. The first time I met her, I witnessed her chasing a stick, picking it up, running around with it in her mouth for quite a long time. Eventually, she would bring it close to the man who was fostering her at the time and would drop it at his feet, spin around and then wait for him to pick it up and throw it. She did this repeatedly throughout that first meeting. I know sticks are dangerous so we don't use those as toys now – we use safestix which look enough like a stick for Roxy but aren't dangerous for her. Still, for Roxy, the idea of chasing a toy, bringing it straight back and putting it in a person's hand is quite a novel idea.
With the work I put in between our visits, she did learn pretty well to bring the toy and put it in my hand. That turned out to be key – MY hand. On our second trip to the trainer, I spent some time being coached by him on the things he was teaching me. Roxy did a lot of retrieving of her toy – she placed it in my hand at the end of almost all of the retrieves.
When the trainer would take her to show me a new thing for her to do, she would almost always drop the toy on the ground at his feet. It happened so often that he commented on her bringing it to his hand so much less often than she did with me.
Of course, the reason for that is the relationship I have with Roxy. I'd spent the time with her helping her to learn a new way to end a retrieve. She'd understood that with me, it was possible to do something different. With anybody else – including the trainer – she just did what she always did and dropped the toy at their feet.
The relationship matters – and it can often trump training skill. I am a good dog trainer and I've had some really impressive successes. I do not have the same skill level in teaching a dog to retrieve something to hand as somebody who is a professional gundog trainer.
During the second session, Roxy more often handed the toy to me than to the trainer because of our relationship – and the history we'd been able to build up of her doing that.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.