Training is Not a Straight Road

As someone with extensive dog-sitting, dog walking and even some dog training experience, I had been a part of several dogs’ lives at one point or another. Through these experiences, I gained an insight into dog ownership by seeing snippets of a dog’s life and training them through different stages of development.

Of course, I never thought raising a dog is easy or that it will be straight forward, but it was difficult not to get sucked into the belief that certain dogs were impossible to recall, others had horrible chewing habits or lack of table manners. Not that they didn’t have these issues at the time, but instead of a holistic view of their development, I merely saw them in the light of their problems. I didn’t consider that they might be having a tough week or have just had a setback in their training for whatever reason.

So, when Cherry entered our life, I had a clear plan. I knew exactly where her training was at (zero), and set myself a rough timeline for when she should sit, when she should begin to ask to go outside to pee, when she should be ready to go on endless hours of off-leash hiking.

Well, this was naive of course. There is an adjustment period; once the dog settles in but does not yet feel safe, many people believe they scored the perfect dog, a little angel. Their dog doesn’t bark, walks perfectly on the lead, waits patiently for food and even learnt how to sit. Maybe the ‘sit’ can be attributed to their dog’s incredible intelligence, but more often than not, the rest of these angelic behaviours are due to the dog not feeling safe, not feeling he or she can express themselves.

After this honeymoon period, which can last weeks or months, the dogs begins to show their true side or maybe begin developing their own personality if they had lived shut down and terrified in their previous life. This is the time period when most dogs get returned to the shelter, when they are abandoned once again.

Yet surely, no one can argue this change (for the worse) is a negative thing or a reason to abandon your new family member. It might seem devastating, but note the word safe highlighted above. How can a behaviour be viewed as negative when it comes from a place of feeling content and secure? Surely, some of these behaviours that pop up during this period are inconvenient and can be worked on with behaviour shaping exercises, but that is for another day.

My point for now is that sometimes we have to recognise the importance of certain shifts in our dog’s behaviour and not take their actions literally. Them barking might mean, “I feel at home and I want to protect you because I love you.” Peeing on your bed might mean, “I’m terrified of everything but your scent makes me feel better so I feel safe to toilet here.” It’s important to battle this phase with positive reinforcement rather than punishment, as you might be punishing your dog for feeling safe and at home for the first time in their lives.

This is only one example of a phase of a rescue dog’s development where taking a week-long peek into their life might give you a totally different picture than you’d have had you known their background and previous behaviours.

Later, there will be times when you think finally your dog walks perfectly, they have mastered loose leash walking and BAM! something super inconvenient happens like a wild bunny crossing your path and your dog is back to square one. He will be pulling and praying that another rabbit will soon show up. This is where you pause and think:

While this is a bad walk and anyone seeing us right now might believe my dog has no manners, I know how far they have come and if I spend just one hour working on this we will be back to the level where we were at.

Never judge your dog based on a walk, a day or even a month. This is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learnt since Cherry arrived. Her training will never be consistent and without a doubt reliable. Maybe a dogsitter or a random observer might see my dog in that moment as one who barks and has no leash manners, but I must see my dog as one who has made huge improvements and in that moment is overwhelmed with the situation. There will be setbacks that you can’t and won’t expect but the bounce back is always faster than the one before.

Final thought: there is always a reason behind every behaviour, whether your dog is in physical pain or mentally unsound, anxious, depressed… Something is wrong because dogs don’t do things out of spite and it’s our job as their companion and only true advocate to figure out what it is and to help them.

3 thoughts on “Training is Not a Straight Road

    1. I believe everyone should rescue a dog rather than buy, but of course you have to evaluate your knowledge and willingness to put in the work and pick a dog according to that. There are many 8 week old puppies at shelters or great family dogs’ whose owners had no other choice but to give them up. A dog rescued from the street on the other hand, is definitely a bigger commitment than some others!

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