When humans are 5 years old, we begin to learn the basics of dealing with other humans, reacting to social situations, and surviving in the world. Most of us continue honing these skills at varying speeds and success rates for the next 12 years. Some of us opt to be gluttons for punishment and continue our education for 4 or more years, and the truly motivated decide we want more letters behind our name and continue even further. When all is said and done, we look back and see we’ve spent 12 to 20 years learning how to be an adult and succeed in the world. This is what we consider “normal.”
Imagine the parent of a newborn saying, “I expect my child to become an adult and move out of the house at the age of 15.” Most of us would laugh at this. Some may shed a tear for the kid, knowing they’re in for a frustrating childhood. Others would brush it off, knowing how ridiculous that statement sounds, because it places an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation on the child. This expectation sounds rare, but I see it almost everyday — with owners and their dogs.
One of the first things I teach my group classes is managing our own expectations. Most people who enroll in classes do so because they want their pup to be cooperative. This is an understandable desire. We want our dogs to make “the right decisions” in the heat of the moment, no matter their level of stimulation or distraction at the time. But in a culture where humans can obtain things almost instantly, we get frustrated when we set high expectations and our pups can’t meet those expectations right away.
Let’s look at this in terms of “dog years,” as the American Kennel Club would calculate it. When your dog has lived for 1 human year, it is 15 years old. He is a teenager. He is still growing, becoming more socially understanding, and starting to establish his “world view”. He doesn’t always have the most self control, even in the best circumstances. When he feels threatened, he puffs his chest to let the threat know what may happen if it gets too close. When he sees something he wants, he can’t let go and accept the face that he can’t have it. Whatever is in his “bubble” is the only thing that exists. His biggest influence in life are his parents. Sound familiar?
So why is it that by the time our dogs are 15 (one human year) we expect them to act mature and as a grown adult? If it was an unreasonable expectation for a human 15-year-old, isn’t it an unreasonable expectation for a dog when he’s 15? If taught and socialized properly, dogs should know some boundaries and have some ability to predict consequences, but they simply lack the maturity to be as perfect as you’d like. If you think your dog “doesn’t listen” or is “stubborn,” it’s actually more likely that at least one of two things is missing: understanding and incentive. Both are things that only you can provide.
I believe training is most effective when there is consistency. It’s up to you to make sure you have all the tools necessary to help you and your dog understand each each other, and how to supply your dog with the correct incentives so they can grow and learn in effective, efficient and rewarding ways. If you don’t know where to find those tools, or how to use them, find the right resource to help you. Like children, it starts at home. You know you’re on the right path when your dog communicates with you through a desired action. The right training can help your pup grow into an independent but cooperative 20-something, a mature 30-something, and most importantly, live their entire life to the fullest as a happy member of your family.