Friday, February 20, 2015

Harry Potter Dog Training

This article appears in the October 2011 issue of Dogs Today.

I feel sorry for professional dog trainers.

You see, they are hired to train a dog, but the first thing they have to tell the client is that they are not going to train the dog – they are going train the client to train the dog.

When this is said, there is always a lot of smiling and nodding by the client, but there’s no real comprehension and probably not too much acceptance either.

Even the dog trainer doubts it can really be done.

You see, people are people, and they are difficult to change. When a dog or a dog trainer shows up in a person’s life, that person already has a schedule and it probably does not include 30 minutes, twice a day, of walking the dog.

Is a dog trainer going to be able to win that kind of time and exercise commitment from his or her new client?

Probably not.

Think about how many people start with a gym membership, and how few are still going to that gym two months later. Think how many people start a diet, and how many fall off the wagon.

When a dog trainer shows up at the door of a new client, honesty may be the best policy, but telling a client “you’re fat and lazy and so is the dog, and both of you need to walk two miles a day” may not be the best way to build up a referral dog training business!

Magic Wands

When people hire a dog trainer, they are not looking for a change in lifestyle or a change in values.

They are looking for a magic wand.

And why not?

We live in an age of miracle diets, miracle bras, and five minute workouts to lift and tone the body.

We have instant answers from Google, satellite mapping systems in our cars, and one-minute rice on the stove.

Surely there’s a 10-minute cure for any and every canine problem?

Come on now: What would Hermione do?

Of course in the world of Harry Potter, it was not Hermione that had a way with creatures, it was the game keeper Hagrid, who was never seen to wave a magic wand.

Instead, Hagrid’s magic was of a more down-to-earth kind. He knew that the secret to training animals, from dogs to dragons, was exercise, consistency, earned affection, and simple corrections and rewards.

The House as Prison Planet

And what do we Muggles offer up to our canine charges instead?

Tell the truth now. What really happens when we come home from work?

Too often we are both exhausted and distracted. We plop down in front of an electronic screen of some sort – a television set, a computer, or a cell phone. It’s been a mad day, and we just want to unwind between telephone calls and emails that demand a reply.

What about the dog?

He’s fine we tell ourselves.

After all, we buy it the best dog food, we spend a tidy sum on veterinary care, and the dog has a basket full of chew toys. We even put in a flap door so the dog can exit to the yard whenever it wants – no need to even ask.

But, of course, if the dog could talk, it might tell a different story!

Imagine, for a moment, that you and your dog have exchanged roles.

Instead of a dog living in your house, you are a small child that has come to live in a cave inhabited by four or five dogs. You are an only child, and the cave is attached to a small yard. You were brought to live in this cave when you were only two years old, and ever since that time you have only been able to communicate with other humans on those brief occasions when you have been allowed out on a short leash.

Now here’s a question: Would you be happy? Would you be fit? Would you know the language of humans? Would your mind be fully developed? What kind of adult would you be if you were raised in these same conditions?

Do you see the parallel? The wonder is not that some dogs are discipline problems, but that almost all of them are not as crazy as bed bugs!

When dogs deprived of exercise, socialization and instruction act out and are brought to a trainer for remedial work, their owners are almost never looking to be part of a drawn-out process that will cost a lot of money and extend over many weeks or months. Instead, the average owner is looking for an event; a quick incantation or party trick that can be repeated in two or three sessions, after which order and calm will be restored.

The Magic Starts With You

But are there really such tricks in the world of dog training?

Yes and no.

Yes, there are specific solutions for narrow and specific problems.

That said, the most important part of dog training has never been a secret any more than eating less and exercising more has been “the secret” to losing weight.

The most important part of dog training is active, consistent and focused participation by the owner in the education of his or her own dog.

The magic does not start when you hire a trainer. The magic starts:

  • When you exercise the dog every day.
  • When you pay close attention to your dog and communicate consistently with it through well-timed rewards and signals.

This is not to say that there aren’t tools, and that many of them aren’t great.

Every dog catalog and magazine is packed with ads offering up various types of collars, halters, and leashes. Every bookstore is packed with dog training guides promoting clickers, hand signals, e-collars, food rewards, ball rewards, scent-training, and every kind of freshly-potted canine philosophy.

But no device or method matters if the owner does not have the self-discipline to show up everyday to actively work with his or her own dog.

This is Hagrid’s secret, and it’s not one you can buy in the magic shops in Diagon Alley.

Illustration by Kevin Brockbank for Dogs Today.

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