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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dog Training - Why?

I ran into a mountain neighbor the other day. I know her from when her dog and K were puppies, and they'd play together. My neighbor, of course, wanted to know all about Shyla. After expounding on how wonderful Shyla is, I started talking about our training and all the hard work we're doing. Her question was: Why?

I was momentarily flummoxed. It's so natural to me that I'd train and socialize Shyla so that she can go anywhere and do almost anything with me that I didn't have an answer on the tip of my tongue.
While I paused, my neighbor pointed out that her dog is happy just living at their mountain home, rarely riding in the car, going to town only for vet visits, and knowing only how to "sit" (but no other fancy commands or tricks). I have to agree with her - her dog appears to be very happy, even joyful, when I see them on the trails together.

After we parted ways, I kept mulling over her question. I realized that the Runner and I ask a lot of our dogs. We ask them to be partners in our family for all sorts of activities. We do long trips to the deserts and the mountains of the west, living out of our camping van and adapting to whatever conditions we find. In total, we spend about 6-8 weeks per year living that way.

We take our dogs to our friends' and family's houses in the big city, Denver, and we want them to be comfortable in the urban environment that clashes so completely with our everyday life. Most years, we take our dogs trick-or-treating with our nephews. The dogs walk the streets with the hordes of kids in costumes without blinking an eye at the outrageous scene. (We're going to wait a year before asking Shyla to try that one - but we hope that she'll adapt to kids and other crazy stuff enough to be able to do it next year).

In addition, on a daily basis, we are out in the woods, often at sunrise and sunset, and we expect our dogs to resist the temptation of chasing animals. We expect them to come when called even if they're in the midst of a squirrel convention, an elk herd, or a coyote gathering. Of course, the dogs are never perfect because they are living beings... but as long as they can stay out of danger, we are happy.

So, we expect a lot of our dogs. To do all those things, they need to know a very large vocabulary of "commands", and they need to be able to deal with novel situations easily. So far, with tons of hard work, all of our Labs have been able to do it.

I guess that our lifestyle explains why I am working so hard with Shyla that I am actually exhausted (more so than Shyla, I think). We work on "commands" every single day. Today, I had her sit, down, and stand in one spot, depending on which one I asked for, while I stood about 30' away by a trail. The main idea is that she learns to listen to me and follow cues from a distance, since that's key to good off-leash behavior.

I had her do her sits, downs, and stands on a boulder so that she wouldn't inch toward me when she switched from one position to another. That's a common mistake that young dogs make.
We did 10 recalls from varying distances during our hike. Shyla is getting so good at recalls that I try to do them when she's distracted by something in the forest.
I asked Shyla to "leave" a pile of treats that I'd put on the trail, until I gave her permission to eat them. Then, in the midst of all that training and hiking, we met a friend on a new horse, a novel situation for Shyla and the new horse. We hung out with them to let Shyla get used to the horse and vice-versa. Finally, when we arrived home, I ran the vacuum cleaner for a little while, not because the house needed to be cleaned, but because we're gradually helping Shyla become comfortable with its sound and other odd noises.

I work on "stays" with Shyla daily. I even practice going out of her sight while she's in a stay (although I'm often peeking at her without her knowing it). I use stays frequently in daily life, when we're in town or on the trails. For example, I ask her to "stay" while I pick up her poop next to a sidewalk in town or while I take a photo in the woods. Today, she practiced a stay in the pine forest.
She also did a stay while I took this photo of a bright rose hip.
And, she did a stay while I took this sunset photo two days ago.
Another major part of my motivation is my absolute awe at how smart dogs are and at the amazing fact that two different species can communicate so well. I would be sad if I didn't use the incredible intelligence of dogs to expand their (and our) horizons. Indeed, I adore watching them learn - and seeing the light in their eyes when they have that "ah ha!" moment when they understand what I'm asking them to do. It's a joy to train Shyla because she is so smart and eager to please.

Moreover, the bond between people and dogs grows even stronger through the shared experience of training. I love training dogs... unlike a lot of other people. I think that a big reason why K and I had such a strong bond was all the training that we did together - we did so much together that words were no longer needed for us to communicate by the end of her life. I'm quite sure that a dog can be happy without all the training that we do... but I couldn't be!

So, Shyla and I will keep pecking away at our list of things to learn and to experience. And, we'll have fun in the process - I have no doubt about that. She's leaping with joy!


  1. VERY well said!! People have asked why I train Nola "she's such a little dog, why bother?". It's insane! She's perfectly able and willing to learn, so why not take advantage of that?
    Nola's Mom

  2. This is wonderful, and an inspiration for me as I begin a CGC [Canine Good Citizen] class with my yearling Jasper. He knows a heap of tricks, reliable stay, not-so-reliable "leave it," and darts behind me when I say "follow me" [a command I used in place of "heel" to keep my working border collies close by, down on the farm]. He's tack-sharp and learns so quickly. But I've failed to work on lots of other stuff. Socialization, for instance: Jasper's a confident, friendly dog, but goes wild with excitement over new things in general and other dogs in particular. Now it's a catch-up game to develop a more calm and relaxed boy.

    Thanks for this report and all the others! I'm so happy to see your posts on Shyla's progress [not to mention bears, lions, snow, landscapes -- I love them all].


  3. Great blog post! I was sort of struggling with this question last year when I stopped training a dog whose family never took him off the property. He was happy before I worked him. He was hesitant at first in training but grew to LOVE it. When I stopped working with him, he was a pain for his family because he was used to a lot more mental stimulation than they give him. I was left asking, was it worth it? Would it be better if he didn't know what he was missing? Is ignorance really bliss?

    I agree with you that a trained dog leads a much richer, fuller life with more unique experiences. The bond between a trained dog and his handler is something most people don't ever know. I don't want to simply co-exist with my dog, I want him to be my teammate.

  4. I think that dogs (and children) want to learn and to please. Training and expectations build confidence. Like you, I always enjoyed training my dogs (and teaching children). I can see in Shyla's eyes and body language that this "work" you're doing is fun for her. I have a chocolate lab lying at my feet as I write this. I'm spending a few days in Evergreen babysitting the Fab Four. Love the photos KB!

  5. Well said KB! Tho I wish that I had worked on training Lily & Muffin more as pup's, it's never too late to learn.

    Now if I could just train Muffin to go on walks.... (instead of her putting on the brakes and going nope!)


  6. Mom is about to ship you my Lily for training. Awesome..
    Benny & Lily

  7. MOM and I agree with you whole heartedly. Even at my age MOM still tries to teach and I still try to learn.
    Your photos of Shyla this time are especially beautiful.

  8. MOM and I agree with you whole heartedly. Even at my age MOM still tries to teach and I still try to learn.
    Your photos of Shyla this time are especially beautiful.

  9. First off, that last picture is fabulous! Of course you need well trained dogs with your life style and the adventures in your life that they are a part of. Look at how many times your recall has been needed with all the wildlife that surrounds you. I envy you and how well trained your dogs are and you can tell they just love to learn! With each picture you share you can see how they beam with pride that they are so smart! My other favs, Shyla practicing her down on the boulder and her stay in the pine forest. Beautiful. What a good girl!:)

  10. I would argue that both you and your neighbor train your respective dogs. It just that you know what to do to elicit a certain behavior. Your neighbor gets a behavior because the dog has picked up on some cue (like hanging out near dinner time).

    Both dogs probably are happy, but Shyla has far more options in life because she is so well trained.

  11. I think training is important, but especially so for your babies. You live where there are many other animals and they need to learn to come to you when called and to stay with you in the beautiful and vast area you live in. I think as long as the dogs are happy and healthy, each to their own on training.

    Anne and Sasha

  12. What an exceptional post. KB, you have no idea howyou affect the way I am with bert and I daresay how many of the other members of blogville are with their k-9 spirits. You inspire me to work more with Bert, this post especially has given us a boost on our training plans.
    Thank you seems so simple. But Thank you

  13. Howdy KB, I think it's a bit like raising kids. Everyone has their way of doing it and not everyone will think the same. I admire the things your dogs can do, especially when you are 'in the wild'. I do believe it creates a fabulous bond with your dog when you train together. Enjoy your weekend friend. No worries, and love, Carol (and Stella and Rory)

  14. What a fantastic post! We train our dogs for a variety of reasons, too. Just like yours, our dogs encounter a variety of experiences in everyday life. They travel with us, go shopping, enjoy some family events, and go to nursing homes and schools. Tonight we were at the nursing home and the residents had ice cream for dessert. Bunny LOVES ice cream. She would leap through hoops of fire for it, and tonight there were several people who were waving it right under her nose. I told her to "leave it" and she did. She wasn't happy about it, and I got a seriously hairy eyeball, but she did it. What she doesn't know is that a lot of times the residents have medication in that ice cream and that's not a good thing for little hounds. That's a risk I am not willing to take!

  15. Great pictures (as always!)

    My grandparents, when Elka was about half grown, would ask me things like "well is she trained?" They meant potty trained, because that was the extent of it, in their experience (note: we are not a doggy family). I'm pretty sure I'm going to be teaching Elka to do things for many years to come.

  16. Another benefit of Shyla's training is her obvious increased confidence - just in the short time you've had her. It shines through in the pictures of her!

  17. We 100% agree with you, KB! Mom says that pups who act like hooligans embarrass her and themselves and they stay at home! Nuff said.

    Love ya lots,
    Mitch and Molly

  18. I am in awe of what you accomplish with your dogs. I dropped the ball there, and my three are happy, healthy - and horrible! They dig, jump on people, beg, bark, and generally act like nuts. Do you believe it's true that "it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks", lol? They are 12, 11 and 6 years old...

  19. Thanks for this is vital(I believe) for safety whether for the dog or for the environment. I have learned some new techniques from you..and guess what Sophie's going to be learning them starting today. Have you ever thought of posting training techniques? Every Friday or something like that....I think you'd make a lot of people happY!

  20. Your neighbor is probably right. Dogs are happy just being dogs. BUT I agree with you about the bonding. I will never forget when Calhoun FINALLY got his AKC CGC. I was literally crying tears of joy. I'm sure people thought I was nuts but he was a "difficult" student! It meant so much that he was willing to work so hard for me. Great bonding experience. Also basic training is important for safety. And what's wrong with enriching the lives of your dogs with challenges? I think training is important on so many levels. At the same time, don't forget to let your dog be a dog and roll in something gross or whatever their big doggie hearts desire!

    Mamma Heartbeat

  21. Most excellent points - I cannot imagine NOT training my dog. Recently we have slacked in our training and giving Indy a bit of people food. That little slip up resulted in Indy wanting more people food when we had company for dinner - not cool! Down stays are so important. We do them at meal time, treat time, and just in general. You use those commands in so many situations!!!

  22. You are doing dogs RIGHT. I'm a pet sitter, and I see a LOT of dogs that are timid and afraid of SO. MANY. THINGS that they're just miserable outside their home. Some of them are so untrained and ill-behaved that it's hard to put a leash on them.

    You enrich BOTH your lives by training and working with your dog. Your friend is missing out on that.

    Well done, you!

  23. If one who asks that question would really stop and think about it....a little training can mean the difference between life and death. And what can be more important than keeping your dog safe!

  24. Ann..from...Outer Banks of NC.. said ... Many lifestyles are is a good thing certain situations...where the bond will be so much stronger... you never know when the training will be needed my opinion ...well done KB...let your heart be your guide.....I know I can speak for everyone here....We all just love your pups so much....HUGS

  25. Lots and Lots of reasons to train Shyla and you are committed to having your pets with you no matter what. That involves training and mostly for safety and then your enjoyment.

    I am inspired for all the training you and your dogs do. Inspired but rarely off the couch...hahah just kidding.

    great pix as always and love the below post pix too. What fun you have in the mountains!


  26. Shyla is safer because you are taking time to cement these lessons into her. Plus, we all live longer with a little mental stimulus!


  27. EXCELLENT post!

    And LOVE LOVE that last photo!

  28. I have had similar conversations with people believe the exact same thing as your neighbour, that there is no need to either socialise a dog or take him or her anywhere with you. I believe, as you do, that it should be possible to take one's dog(s) anywhere and everywhere. This being France, Tommy even comes with me to restaurants! All this seems perfectly normal to me...

  29. Well said! Well said! I honestly believe that well-trained dogs are happier. They know what you expect of them. Every owner is responsible for the safety of his/her dogs and you can't have safety without rules and limits.

    Training is so natural that it extends to packs of wild dogs. They have an order and rules with discipline. We owe our pets no less.

  30. I heartily agree! If you want to have a safe and enjoyable time with your dog [horse, too] they do need training. And that photo of Shayla practicing "stay" in the pine woods is gorgeous!

  31. I agree with what you say about training and have extreme dog envy every time I see someone with an unleashed dog that completely ignores me and my dogs going by or the squirrel running across the grass.

    I just seem to be unable to get my dogs past sit, down, and shake. There's a couple seconds of heeling on leash here and there. There's complete chaos if someone wants to pet the dogs or if another dog is out walking. And they are like two rowdy, wrestlers in the house. Classes have never helped.

    I'll keep working on the problems but am at a loss on how to progress.

  32. Great post! I hope you don't mind, but I'm sharing this one. What always gets to me is the people who meet Merlin and me for the first time and say, "You are SO LUCKY to have such a good dog!" I usually answer, "Luck has nothing to do with it."

  33. Dogs and children both need training, if for nothing else than to know what their limits are. Okay, with children we call it "discipline," but it's the same thing. I've never seen it more clearly than a kid my daughter met in high school over 20 years ago -- he still calls me Mom and when he gets a traffic ticket, for example, I'm the one he calls because he knows I'll give him a maternal chewing out; his own mother can't be bothered.

    It's the same with dogs -- yes, they CAN function untrained; but how much richer are their lives when they learn what the limits of their world are and yet have an opportunity to do so much WITHIN those limits? Humans and dogs can both live in a comfortable rut, without mental stimulation; but I for one believe that we all need to constantly stretch our minds so we can really get the most out of life.

    Your training is a perfect example of how much richer your dogs' lives are than that of stay-at-home couch potatoes!

  34. Hi Y'all,

    Did you know that Chessie Rescue wants all adopters to enter into training classes with their adoptee because it encourages bonding. (of course you didn't, you don't have a Chessie)

    It's always fun to learn new stuff. My Human and I spend at least 15 mins every day practicing old stuff or learning new stuff. It's easy to "forget" how to "stay" or "come" if you don't practice frequently.

    Yep, to have us behave and stay out of trouble off lead we need lots of practice, even when we are middle aged.

    Yep, don't understand your neighbor...

    Y'all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

    P.S. Did you know humans who are muscians or dancers practice all the time? Same thing, if you're going to do something well you learn it then practice, practice!

  35. Y'all do an excellent job with your dogs! I know I need mental as well as physical stimulation. And the more I listen to my pawrents, the more I get to do with them. I think training is a very very good and important thing! :)

    Waggin at ya,

  36. You have a wonderful talent for training--it's obvious from the responses you get from your dogs and their happy expressions when they're responding to your cues. I can't imagine how anyone who has seen your dogs in action would even think to ask "why?" Shyla has made so much progress, and I know all your hard work together has made her much more confident, happy, and well-adjusted.

    Susan T and Wrigs in AZ


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