“We can train your dog to be reliable all the time!” Since I first started dog training in 1982 and began my path towards becoming a trainer, I have heard many variations of this. However is 100% reliability a reality?
Decades ago my early mentors insisted we could get 100% reliability with animals if we trained hard and long enough. I was young and watching these dogs early on made me want to believe my mentors. However the more I was training with them I realized 100% reliability is a myth. The longer I watched competitions, the more I saw their dogs making mistakes and not qualifying. Years later I attended a lecture weekend put on by a guide dog organization. One of the speakers discussed how even highly trained dogs could fail in their work as service dogs. It was an eye-opening lecture. It mirrored what I had been seeing in the competition ring. I was seeing this in pet dogs coming from other programs. Owners were upset they had gone through all these classes or sent the dog off to be trained yet the dog still ran off or bit someone or jumped on an elderly relative, etc. They assumed sessions would make a dog 100% reliably trained.
I have friends who are horse people. They know practice and refreshers are needed. Zoos are always reinforcing the behaviors needed in their animals. I love watching handlers at good zoos working with animals, refreshing training, etc. Even with all the work they do I have yet to speak to a horse person or zoo keeper who will state their animals are 100% reliable 100% of the time.
When my son was doing therapeutic riding he was paired with a pony used for many children with special needs. My son had ridden her numerous times, groomed her and helped get her tack on. He was being led around the ring and the pony wanted a roll in the dust. So the pony rolled. Before she even hit the dirt the staff had my son off the pony. He was right back on shortly after. The staff was apologetic but I knew from years of working with animals that things can and will happen. Therapeutic riding is safer with good animals and good staff but not 100% risk-free. People seem to understand this with horses and other animals yet insist 100% reliability will happen with dogs. When people believe this they may become complacent.
Sadly I have seen dog owners with well-trained dogs begin ignoring basic safety. I had a client who had an extremely dog-fearful dog. After months of work he was able to walk around well-behaved, leashed dogs without trying to attack. This dog was doing wonderfully in situations where other dogs around him were controlled. He was happier and relaxed. I said never assume his level of training would override his fears in all situations. He could never be trusted at dog parks or in group play sessions. However the behaviors achieved made one of the humans in his life complacent. Over time both began to assume since the dog was not reacting when around other dogs on walks that he was now friendly with other dogs. My lessons to the humans were forgotten and the dog taken to a dog park. The dog mauled another dog who was behaving in what should have been a non-threatening manner – play bows and puppy games.
Another dog I knew who was HIGHLY trained had a momentary lapse. Now this was a dog who was out often for refreshers. He was a competition dog. He was often placing high in his classes and had many titles. He was also an older dog owned by an experienced handler with decades of experience. Sadly the dog had that momentary lapse. He was doing something he often did with his handler out in a field. No one knows what triggered the lapse in years of training and practice. All his handler knows is the dog decided to ignore his training that one day. The dog ran off and was tragically killed.
Animals are not robots. They are creatures with thought processes. Animals learn, they forget, they decide to follow training or not to follow. It is our job to practice, refresh and even retrain if needed. Be reasonable. Do not knowingly put your animals in harm’s way and hope their training will override all their emotions. Remember these are animals and at any point could respond as an animal. The hope is between good training and observation we reduce the risks of training lapses and incidents happening.
Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training