Waiting to Train – A Slippery Slope
Waiting to train is not a good idea, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a dog trainer. This is a highly common occurrence in which everyone loses. Let’s talk some truths about the real costs of waiting to train.
The following stories are about dog owners who have contacted me and I have tons of variations on these throughout my time as a trainer. Names and other identifiers, such as breed have been changed for owner privacy.
Starbuck - Therapy Dog Candidate
Starbuck was a giant breed puppy that needed help. At 6 months old she began to display concerning behaviors, being fearful, anxious, and reactive around children, which for her owner was a big problem. Starbuck’s owner wanted her puppy to eventually become a therapy dog and that meant that having nervousness and being unpredictable especially around children, would end her therapy career before it got a chance to begin.
For whatever reason, Starbuck’s owner did not pull the trigger to get help with Starbuck. At 6 months old there is a whole lot we can do to help a dog develop more confidence and a lot we can do to rehabilitate and reteach the dog about the world. As time passes the results that we get begin to change, which is why it’s so critical to get training help as soon as unwanted behaviors are noticed.
Six months later I get a call from Starbuck’s owner and Starbuck’s behavior has taken a turn for the worse. Starbuck was now powerful enough to yank her owner off of their feet and the reactivity had escalated. There is a really good reason why I often call reactivity behavioral cancer, it spreads and grows like one and will not go away without professional treatment.
Starbuck’s owner now had several large problems to contend with. Starbuck was no longer a dog who could be safely considered a candidate for therapy work, even after training, because of how ingrained the patterns of distress were. Starbuck now also had a lunging and pulling problem, which was dangerous because of her giant size.
And lastly but definitely not least, Starbuck and her owner were stuck in a relationship death spiral. Her owner’s life was a constant stress mess of how to handle Starbuck, how to keep others safe from this huge dog, and ultimately that meant confinement to her owner’s home. Which then created destructive behaviors. Starbuck was quite literally tearing up the home and going stir crazy.
The root of all of this was Starbuck’s problems at 6 months. Those behaviors caused an inevitable cascading effect on her and her owner’s life, resulting in a cycle that would only get worse without an intervention. Starbuck’s owner’s dreams to have a therapy dog to help with children were long gone, and instead it was all a giant mess.
Harvey - The Family Pet
Harvey was a two year old rescue mutt who was purchased by his family in the hopes that he would be an emotional support dog for one of the family’s children. In the beginning everything was going well. The first few months were peaceful as that honeymoon phase often is.
Then things started changing. Harvey began to have issues with other dogs in the home. His leash walking skills out of the home were never great, but they began to really go downhill. He began to become more barky both in and out of the home. His family knew that he needed training, but were waiting to train because they did not believe his issues were really “that bad”.
They were living on borrowed time as Harvey’s behavior continued to escalate and he bit a guest. Harvey was put on the dangerous dog list, Animal Services was involved, and his life had to change drastically. His family no longer had choice in the matter and Harvey was now classified as a dangerous dog.
The only thing a dog needs to do to be classified as a “Class A” dangerous dog is bite a human. That’s it. Here are the restrictions that come with that:
- The dog shall be restricted by a physical device or structure that prevents the dog from reaching any public right-of-way or adjoining property whenever the dog is outside the owner’s home and not on a leash off the owner’s property.
- The owner shall confine the dog within a secure enclosure whenever the dog is not on a leash off the owner’s property or inside the home of the owner and shall also post warning signs, purchased from Lane County, on the property where the dog is kept.
- If the dog has engaged in Class A violation dangerous behavior pursuant to LC 7.005.130C.2, the owner shall meet the requirements of LC 7.005.135B and LC 7.005.135C above and shall, additionally, not permit the dog to be off the owner’s property unless the dog is muzzled and restrained by an adequate leash and under the control of a capable person over the age of 18.
- To ensure correct identification, all dogs that have engaged in dangerous behavior described in LC 7.005.130 shall be marked with a permanent identifying mark. The dog will also be required to wear an identifying collar and ID tag.
- Any dog that has been found to have engaged in Class A violation dangerous behavior pursuant to LC 7.005.130C.3 through LC 7.005.130C.5 may be euthanized. Any dog that has been found to have engaged in Class A violation dangerous behavior pursuant to LC 7.005.130C.5 shall be euthanized. In addition, the hearings officer has the authority to suspend, for a period of time, the dog owner’s right to be the owner of any dog in Lane County, including dogs currently owned by that person.
To sum that all up, outside kennel/secure fencing is required, there is no off leash freedom, no leaving the home without a muzzle, no walks by anyone under 18, ID tattoo required, any more bites at all and the dog is euthanized, AND there’s a possibility of other dogs to be taken from the owner and the right of dog ownership to be suspended. Of course, there are also fees. All of this information can be accessed by the public here.
It is not a good day when these things happen and it’s not worth it to be waiting to train a dog. Training could have absolutely given Harvey’s family the tools and information to recognize and prevent a bite from occurring, and this could have been avoided entirely. We as owners have a duty to help our dogs live harmoniously in our modern world and to help them when they are struggling.
Sparkles the Puppy
Sparkles was an 11 month old mixed breed super mutt. Her family was a very busy family with many children; always on the go with a ton of activity. Sparkles behavior started to change when she was around 7 months old, and she began to bark at strangers, as well as when the children in the home got rowdy. Her owners didn’t know what to do and ended up making a pretty common mistake. They bought the wrong tool and began to use it without training involved.
Sparkles was outfitted with a e-collar in an attempt to help curb the barking, and she also had a regular bark collar that was being used when her owners were not home to operate the e-collar. Her behavior quickly escalated and become so much worse. Her owners were at a complete loss.
You see Sparkles was barking because the busy environment made her feel agitated and uncomfortable. Strangers were also scary. With the pain caused by the corrective collars Sparkles now had a very legitimate reason to be even more agitated and uncomfortable. The tools were not helping her cope or feel better, and they didn’t actually help with the barking, they just caused her to panic and continue frantically.
Bark collars and e-collars should not be the first tool that owners grab to try to “fix” a problem behavior. Far from it. To use these tools properly you have to have a very high level of knowledge when it comes to dog behavior, and it is not as simple as just strapping one on the dog. They also are tools that are rarely needed in the first place.
Instead what we do with training is address the underlying problems that are causing the behavior. With training Sparkles would have been taught how to cope with the stress she felt around strangers as well as the issues with busy environments and we would have been able to address things before Sparkles escalated her behavior and became a total stress mess.
Sparkles behavior was too much for her family to rehabilitate even with my help due to the additional traumas that had occurred with the use of the punitive collars. She needed a completely thorough training plan and structure that they just couldn’t do because of their lifestyle constraints (kids, long work hours, etc). Before her trauma with the collars occurred it would have been a much more manageable situation, but that wasn’t a possibility.
It wasn’t her owner’s fault. They were only doing the best they could with what they knew. The problem was that they didn’t have enough knowledge to properly use the tools and recognize that their issues did not warrant tool use at all in the first place. Because of this ultimately they decided to rehome Sparkles.
I don’t really think I need to say it but waiting to train really bit Sparkles and her family in the butt. I have never met an owner that wants to go through the pain of rehoming, or who gets a dog with the plans to rehome them. Most of the owners I speak to have nothing but the best intentions, and have big plans for their dogs, but they are waiting to train, and they pay the price for that hesitation.
There is zero advantage to waiting to get training help and more drawbacks than I can put in a simple post.