Thursday, January 31, 2013

January is Train (and Socialize) Your Dog Month

Coming in under the wire! Better late than never! Just made it in time! Etc., etc.

January is Train Your Dog Month, and I'm finally going to talk about it. I will be blunt, maybe even a little rude. And I will tell you that it doesn't need to be January for you to care about dog training. And I will also tell you this ain't just about obedience training.

Properly, safely, humanely training and socializing your dog is so very important--for dogs of all ages, all through their lives. If you're not going to put the effort into training and socializing your dog, please do not get a dog.

You don't have to become the next Canine Good Citizen or therapy dog team, but there exists a basic set of manners and common-sense behavior that should be addressed.

Has my experience as an Animal Behavior College dog training student influenced this post? Absolutely. So has Desmond.

Yup. That crazy guy.

A word or two about socialization: 

Do not blow this opportunity. The time period when a puppy is most open to and best able to learn about the great big world of dogs and humans and other dogs and trucks and more dogs and vacuum cleaners, and other animals, etc., is short--just 3-16 weeks. If you miss this period, you are going to have a hell of a time with socialization. Individual dogs are different, of course, but in general you want to accomplish providing a positive socialization experience by the time the puppy is 16 weeks old.

Did you just freak out about vaccinations? Did you just think, "Oh hell no, I am not going to risk my puppy getting parvo!"

Well, for one, you should consider looking into a new vet, because he or she should know better and have given you tips about socialization that explained why it's not only OK but also very important to not hide your new puppy in your living room for months on end.

For two, you should start a slow-going, positive socialization experience as early as 3 weeks of age. There is a ton of information online and in books, but I highly recommend taking your pup to a well-run puppy socialization class.

You should do a little research on trainers in your area prior to committing to a class, of course--research which you may think you don't have time for now that you're in a rush to socialize your puppy. But let me tell you something else: you should have done a whole lot of research about puppies and dogs prior to committing to, well, getting a dog.

"Gee, I wish my first family would have done that." Me, too, Des. Seeing as how all the research we did was rendered nearly useless by your shenanigans. Me, too.

A word or two about training:

Training is not just for puppies, and training is not a one-time thing.

Training is necessary for the lifespan of your dog. Once your dog learns a cue, it's stored in his brain on a "use it or lose it" basis. You cannot take your dog to a group class series or two and expect him to just be trained forever.

If you don't do the work to maintain what your dog has learned, he will unlearn it. Or, rather, he will learn something else in its place (which is often more fun for him and less fun for you).

Take a look at the article I wrote on for last year's event. It's a super-simplified introduction to the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning. I know that sounds very professional dog trainer-y, but trust me. Understanding this information is a great foundation for any additional dog training methods you pick up. It will help you get a little bit inside your dog's head.

Then think about the type of dog you would love to have in your life... Do you want a high-energy agility dog? A dog you can travel with anywhere? A dog who will go hiking with you? A dog who will lounge quietly in the corner during your bustling summer BBQs? A dog who will sit calmly with you at an outdoor cafe? A dog you can let off-leash at the dog park who will come bounding back to you anytime you call him? A dog who can perform all sorts of cool tricks?

And now realize that you will have to help make that a reality.

Is training work? Yes. But it's also fun. It can--and should--be fun for you and for your dog. When done properly, you'll find that you both look forward to training time together. You'll learn new things, you'll bond, you'll have a blast.

Will you face challenges and frustrations? Absolutely. It's all part of the process, and those challenges can actually help you better understand your furry friend.

If you don't feel up to the task yourself, don't hesitate to get in touch with a positive-reinforcement-loving, rewards-based trainer (you know I won't promote any other methods, right?). Group classes will be more affordable than private lessons, and most of the folks at those classes are in the same boat as you--wanting a great dog but facing some uncertainties. Plus, you can benefit from the questions other people have that you didn't realize you also had.

Never be afraid to ask for training help--it can make a huge difference in the relationship you have with your dog.

Again, I say all of these things about training and socialization not just as an ABC student but as someone who has seen firsthand both the amazing benefits of doing these things and the unfortunate, frustrating side effects of not doing these things. (I'd link you to an example of "unfortunate, frustrating side effects" but it's not actually possible to link, in one fell swoop, to every single post about what can happen with an unsocialized and poorly/inhumanely trained dog. Oh wait, yes it is: Life With Desmond)

Let's bring this all home with a great graphic you may have seen before from pet365 that touches on both training and socialization:

Dog Training Facts & Figures Dog Training graphic created by Matt Beswick for Pet365. Click below to see the full-size version.
Dog Training Stats Infographic

What about you? What do you wish you knew about socialization and training before jumping into the world of caring for a dog? What training challenges are you still facing?
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