As a professional dog trainer, I sometimes have to deliver news that clients aren’t eager to hear. One of the most difficult things to impress upon some people is that training is a process, and sometimes it’s a long one. We live in a world of instant access to information, sound bites and instant gratification. We’re increasingly expected to accomplish more tasks more quickly at work, sometimes all at the same time. We’re all busy. It’s no wonder that so many people want their dogs to master basic obedience immediately, or want behavior modification to happen overnight.
To set realistic goals and expectations for doggy behavior, it’s important to understand that training is a process and behavior doesn’t change overnight. After all, much of what humans call “problem behavior” is normal dog behavior like chewing, digging, barking, and jumping up. Training dogs not to do those things and to do something else instead goes against dogs’ natural essence, which is highly impulsive and opportunistic.
Without this understanding folks become frustrated and upset with their animals, their relationships with their pets suffer, and often, so do the pets. The rowdy adolescent dog is banished to a yard or basement. The avid barker gets a shock collar. The anxious submissive urinator is given to a shelter.
Believe me, I empathize with how exasperating it can be to live with a pet who has an ongoing behavioral issue. For the past two years, my home has been divided into feline and canine zones separated by baby gates. Ever since we adopted Vinnie at the age of 4 months, in true herding dog style he’s been compelled to chase my cat, Ted. Ted, always a nervous skittish guy, has been compelled to run from Vinnie. You see the dilemma? A dog who simply must chase a fleeing critter. A cat who simply must flee from the dog. Definitely not an ideal combination.
It’s been a challenge preventing Vinnie from having opportunities to chase Ted, supervising closely whenever we allow them to be in the same room together, and making sure Ted’s quality of life continues to be good now that he no longer has free run of the house. A certain undercurrent of tension stems from having to negotiate and manage all the pets’ interactions with each other.
It’s been a long-term project to train Vinnie to focus on and come to me when he sees Ted instead of chasing him. Very often it’s felt like one step forward and two steps back. However, more and more often these days I’m reminded that though training is sometimes a long process, if you stick with it, it’s a process that yields positive results. Behaviors can indeed be modified. Some behaviors just take longer to change than others.
I’ll never forget the night that a once-seemingly unbelievable scene first unfolded before my eyes. Picture this: me sitting on the floor of my living room. To my right was Ted, rolling around with his favorite catnip mouse. Not six feet away lay Vinnie happily playing with his blanket. I looked back and forth at each of them, unable to completely take it in.
Was I dreaming? Could it be possible that I was sitting there with both of my pets in the same room just a few feet apart, and we were all basically. . . FINE?
Sure, both animals were keeping an eye on each other. But they weren’t focused on each other. They were relaxed. There was no conflict. There was no chase. I was overjoyed.
Even now as I write about that night, I get chills. For all the times we had setbacks, for all the times it felt like we’d reached a stalemate, for all the times I was ready to give up on training and resign myself to living permanently in a Cold War-like home, we’d been making progress. It was incremental, it was slow, but the overall trend was upward and positive.
That first night was no fluke. My critters co-exist tolerantly more and more of the time. Vinnie and Ted may never be friends. But they’re well on their way to becoming peaceful housemates thanks to the training process.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in www.InCirclePets.com.