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A holistic approach to dog training (part 1)

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Dog training is about so much more than you training the dog

Forty years ago this month I had just turned 17 and my parents finally agreed to let me have a dog. I brought home a little black fluff of fur with no real idea of what to do other than to love and feed her. Neither the pet store where I bought Trivia, nor the veterinarian who examined her, suggested she have any level of training; in fact, they didn't even mention house training. Nor did they suggest I learn anything about what it's like to be a dog.

Somehow Trivia and I survived, but as I look back I know that the relationship we had - and more importantly Trivia's quality of life - could have been so much better if I had just taken the time to learn more about her, train her and prepare her for living in my world. Trivia was a social butterfly, but because I had never socialized her or taught her any manners she was a bit of a 'wild child' when people were around. As a result, for the first several years of her life she wasn't taken places and when people did come over she was exiled to her pen outside or her room in the basement. She was basically denied the social interaction she craved. Every time I think of Trivia, it saddens me to know how much better her life could have been.

Seventeen years later I was married, and Paula and I got our first dog as a family. Since we wanted to do everything right, we immediately signed Gus up for a puppy class. We were introduced to a very heavy-handed method of training which was popular at the time, but we weren't encouraged to think beyond 'training the dog.' There was little or no emphasis on our learning anything about canine behavior, how dogs learn, how dogs communicate and express themselves, what motivates a dog, the role of health and wellness in learning , or a dog's physical, mental and emotional needs. All we were taught was, 'This is how you train your dog to do X, and this is what you do if he does not comply. Non-compliance is NOT an option.' If it weren't for my innate need to understand the 'why' of everything, coupled with Gus's medical and behavioral quirks, we probably would have just muddled on and Gus would have had a life similar to that of Trivia. Gus was with us for 13 years and had a pretty nice life; after moving here, he even became a therapy dog. He was also the biggest reason we pushed ourselves to learn everything we could about dogs and was a major factor in our getting into the pet services industry.

Sadly, in many ways the general public's attitudes towards dogs and training has not changed much in 40 years. According to the 2011-2012 American Pet Product Association National Pet Owners Survey, only 4 percent of the dogs in the US are taken to a dog training class. While this number is trending up (it was only 2 percent in 1998), it is infinitesimally small. While some families do manage to train their dogs without going to a class, many dogs still remain untrained, under trained or totally unprepared for living in the human world.

I believe that these statistics provide an answer to why so many dogs are surrendered to a shelter or rescue because of behavior problems. Proper socialization often makes the difference between a well-adjusted dog and one that develops behavioral issues.

I see dogs for behavioral consultations. These dogs are brought to us because of aggression, reactivity or some type of anxiety, and often they have had little or no training. Typically they were not well socialized or were socialized inappropriately. Many dogs that develop behavioral issues end up being surrendered or routinely spend their lives tied up in the yard or relegated to staying at home, often confined to a small area of the house, for the majority of their lives.

I believe that there are five fundamental reasons that people choose not to work with a professional when it comes to learning about their dog and training their dog. First, many people are under the misguided impression that dog training is only for dogs that have problems or for dogs that compete in dog shows or sports. The reality is that most dog training programs are created with the average pet dog in mind and focus on the basics such as not jumping on the guests and walking nicely on a leash. Additionally, people often underestimate the value of training to both themselves and their dogs. A well trained dog is more welcome in public places. Because of their exemplary behavior, owners with well-trained dogs often find it easier to find rental housing or insurance and may even qualify for discounts at the veterinarians, groomers, boarding kennel and daycare. Another barrier to dog training is misinformation about dog training and canine behavior, much of which is outdated and obsolete. Examples of these myths are things such as suggesting that a dog needs all its shots before it can start training, that some breeds are too stubborn to be trained, that you can't train a dog until it's 'X' months old, that a dog will learn all it needs to know from other dogs, that you just need to dominate your dog and make them mind, etc. Our knowledge about dogs, their behavior and the most humane and efficient ways to train them has changed radically in the last 10 years, but often it's only the professional trainers that are aware of this new information.

A lack of resources is a further reason that people often use for not pursuing training with their pet. The reality is that compared to the purchase price of a dog, veterinary care and a year's worth of food, training is a bargain! If the resource one finds lacking is time, then you really need to question whether you really have time to have a dog. Working with a knowledgeable, experienced professional will actually save you time. Finally, there often seems to be a cultural lack of emphasis on the importance and benefits of training by breeders, rescues, shelters, veterinarians, boarding kennels and daycares, groomers, and yes, even dog trainers at times.

Next month I'll go into details on what I consider to be a holistic approach to dog training and will discuss the many benefits of training your dog and yourself with this approach.

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor and the 2014 Association of Professional Dog Trainers Dr. Ian Dunbar Member of the Year. He is a Bach Foundation registered animal practitioner, certified dog behavior consultant, and certified professional dog trainer. He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, 'The Woof Meow Show,'heard on The Voice of Maine (103.9FM, 101.3FM, 1450AM & woofmeowshow.com) every Saturday at 7:30 a.m. and Sunday at 8:30 p.m.

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