Are We Expecting Too Much Of Our Dogs?


Article by: Jill Breitner

The dog training world has gone through some fantastic changes over the past 40 years, since I’ve been training dogs. We have learned so much about the psychology of dogs and how they learn, yet I think we have gone too far, in what we are expecting from them.

The science of dog training is not new. I studied it as a Psychology major and am thrilled to see the dog training culture embrace it. It’s based on the psychology of how all animals learn and it’s been around since the Pavlov and Skinner times, the early 1900’s. It’s based on classical and operant conditioning.

What I see happening now, is that the dog training community is teaching much more to dogs than we’ve ever done in the past and what I see, are a lot more robotic dogs who have less and less time to be dogs… do what dogs do. They are competing in sports and there are more dog sports than ever before and while all of this is absolutely fantastic, are we considering if it’s best for the dog? Anything we can do to interact with dogs is important because dogs love to be involved in our lives. In fact, most dogs thrive on having a job and being part of everything we do, but we must pay close attention to and consider which job is best for each dog? Is it agility, herding, parkour, obedience, sports, Therapy work; or is a good hike every day, playing with their best buddies and hanging out with you, all that your dog needs? Is the dog-loving it and thriving? Would you know? Are you fluent enough in dog to know if he’s, indeed, thriving?

Has this gone too far? I tend to think so. Like most things, change takes time and often times when change occurs, we go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and this is what I’ve noticed in the past 40 years in the dog training world. We have gone from dogs are just dogs without feelings and they can just live outside, (never part of my thoughts, by the way); to dogs have feelings and we should never ever do anything to stress them out and control their every move and breath to keep them safe. They are dogs. They are not humans. Some stress is good and necessary, building confidence and character. I am, however, confident that we will find a balance in all this and come around to loving dogs for dogs with fewer expectations.

Many factors go into this high expectation phase.

Trainers and dog guardians are teaching more, which often times translates to controlling dogs to a point of negative impact on dogs because it deprives them of their very nature of what it means to be a dog. Training is an integral part of raising dogs but how much and what kind?

There are more dog trainers than ever before because of the population growth in humans and dogs. We see the benefits of having dogs in our lives, yet we aren’t able to meet there needs because we have less and less time to do so, hence the need for a trainer.

We are a two income family, when in the past, mom was home to raise the kids and the dogs.

Families and kids spent more time outdoors than in today’s techy culture, leaving dogs behind and why we feel the need to come up with ways to entertain them.

We know more about how to train but doing more, may not be best for dogs.

The internet plays a huge part in the training options and ways to keep dogs busy but is busy what dogs need? There’s a group on Facebook for everything under the sun. Dogs have needs but I’m afraid we’re putting our needs onto them and doing so with very high and unreal expectations. They need real human interaction, in the ways dogs like to interact. Isn’t this why we want dogs, in our lives?

There are more toys and games for dogs than ever before. While I am a fan of enrichment for dogs, I’m not a fan of keeping them busy every waking moment of their lives at the expense of allowing them to be dogs, do what dogs do.

In becoming a high tech culture, there are remote training devices that pop treats out for dogs when we’re not home. There’s even dogtv to occupy them. It’s disturbing to me how we have become a culture who is putting human values onto our dogs.

There is also a trend, that was around when I was raising children 40 years ago, that parents should never say ‘no’ to a child. I never understood that and I don’t understand not teaching ‘no’ to a dog as a cue, not as a punishment. ‘No’ used as a cue is the same as ‘leave it’ or ‘drop it’ or that’s enough’. We know punishment that causes pain and fear doesn’t work, isn’t necessary, and causes emotional and physical trauma, but does this mean that we can’t teach a dog that ‘no’ or ‘leave it’ means to stop or leave something alone? If we can teach dogs so much, why is it wrong to teach the word ‘no’ as a cue like any other cue? By the way, I did teach my children the word ‘no’ and I do teach my dogs the word ‘no’. That trend ended after a few years and I hope that this one ends too, with dogs.

Dogs love to play with each other but do they need to be overwhelmed by having to go to day care centers, where there are way to many personalities to tend with? There are very few dogs, who like to play with more than one or two dogs at a time. Why would we expect dogs to like being in a confined space, forced to interact with other dogs for hours on end? Could this be a by product of too busy, guilt and convenience?

I think dogs would be much happier doing what dogs love to do, instead of what we want them to love to do? Finding that balance in our lives to meet their needs without too much expectation will go a long way in decreasing the amount of behavioral problems, afflicting so many dogs today. This is the number one cause for relinquishment to shelters.

I sure hope the pendulum swings back a little bit more, so we can enjoy the balance it will bring, in bringing us closer to our dogs in a more natural doggie-like way.

The author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. It’s available in iTunes and Google play. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. She also does online dog training, worldwide. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page