Source: Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash
Everyone has a story, and those stories are full of the people we’ve met, the places we’ve been, and the things that have happened to us. In just the same way, every dog has a past. We have to acknowledge and accept that to get anywhere together.
Your dog’s life experiences are the “nurture” side of the equation that defines who he is. Everything that’s happened since birth—and everything the dog learns from those experiences—impacts what he thinks and feels and how he learns.
Has your dog always been sheltered and well fed? Has he experienced neglect?
Has he been exposed to lots of people, places, animals, sounds, and smells? Has he had much training? Has he developed habits that make him difficult to live with? All those things come down to life experiences.
The good news here is that anything that’s been learned can be unlearned and it’s possible to teach any dog the 7 Common Commands as the foundation of a healthy owner-dog relationship. The bad news is some life experiences leave a deep impression that may take a real effort to undo—and the longer they’ve been going on, the harder you’re going to have to work to unravel them.
If you’ve adopted a dog later in his life, you may never know many of the experiences that helped shape his personality or create behavior problems. And it oesn’t do any good to spend much of your time dredging up the past or letting history dominate the present. Instead, know that when you bring a dog into your home, he becomes your responsibility to work out any issues that came with him.
The longer you let a problem fester, the more likely it’ll manifest into something bigger and harder to correct. So the minute you realize a bad habit is happening, that’s the time to deal with it.
I’ll give you a perfect example. I worked with the owner of a schipperke with a bad barking problem. At first, the owner thought it was cute because the dog was barking as a way of protecting her. After a while, though, the issue got out of control, with this dog barking incessantly and loudly, not willing to settle down for any command.
Now this owner got her dog when he was about a year old and finally sought help seven years later. The dog had been an adolescent with a preexisting problem in the beginning, but by the time we met, he was the canine equivalent of a fifty-year-old man with a very deep-seated bad habit. When was the last time you met a fifty-year-old man whose behavioral issues were an easy fix? I was able to help resolve that dog’s barking problem, but it took a whole lot more time and effort than it would have if I’d been able to deal with it years earlier.
The Blank-Board Theory
Here’s a helpful way to put your dog’s experiences into perspective as you turn your attention to training: Think of your dog’s past life as marks on a dry-erase board. In order to start a new training program, you want to get that board nice and clean. You’re not likely to start with a clean slate, but you want to help your dog deal with any big issues that might impact trust and training going forward.
If your dog has made a habit of burning pent-up energy by barking or chewing or digging holes in the yard, start by making sure a long walk is part of the daily routine. If your dog has been abandoned or had to get by on the streets, be steady and consistent and positive in all your interactions, proving each day that you are a reliable and safe person to be around.
Do what you can to clear away the past problems that may mar your dog’s experience board, but know that sometimes life marks us with permanent ink, and even after we scrub as hard as we can, a completely clean slate may not be possible. There may always be some ghostly residue of your dog’s past on his board, and that’s okay. It’s part of what makes your dog special, and over time you’ll learn how to train around those dark patches to help him add a wealth of healthy, trusting interactions to his life experiences. Sometimes that means making adjustments to accommodate your dog’s needs.
THE 7 COMMON COMMANDS
There are hundreds of commands you can teach your dog—everything from SIT and STAY to CRAWL, DANCE, and GIMME A HIGH FIVE. In my years of training, I’ve met dogs who crave more and greater obedience challenges and dogs who only grudgingly learn the basics, but every single dog I train has to learn my 7 Common Commands to be considered ready for a forever home.
If you’ve watched my show Lucky Dog, you’ve seen how consistently I teach these and emphasize them. Here are the 7 Common Commands:
Why just seven? To quote the great Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.” The same philosophy applies with dog training. It’s always better for a dog to be 100 percent reliable on a small number of key commands than hit-or-miss on a dozen or more. These 7 Common Commands are the ones we use most with our dogs on a daily basis, and they eliminate many commands that are basically the same. For example, NO and LEAVE IT are redundant, but many people teach their dogs both. Why ask your dog to learn another command when you don’t need to? Same with STAY and WAIT.
Now I’m not saying your dog isn’t smart enough to learn them both, but the more behaviors you teach, whether obedience commands or tricks, the more diluted your dog’s reliability will be. Obedience is necessary. Tricks are for kids.
One of the first lessons of Dog Training 101 is that obedience is not about the number of commands your dog knows, but about whether you’ve practiced, conditioning your dog to the point of perfection. Some of the best-trained dogs I know have only a few commands, but they’re perfect and quick with each.
If your dog is an achiever, that’s great; there’s always more to teach. But not every dog is meant to be an obedience champ, and not every owner has the time or energy to invest in extensive training. If this sounds like your dog or you, don’t sweat it.
The 7 Common Commands are really all you need for your dog to be polite, controlled, and safe.
The best example I can give you is my little one, Lulu. She’d obviously been physically abused when I got her. I believe she was kicked, because when I first adopted her I used to try petting her with my foot if she was lying on the floor.
When I made even the slightest contact, she’d cry out as if she were fighting for her life. She wasn’t so bad when I pet her with my hands. For months I worked on this issue and eventually hit a plateau—a place that was much better than where she had been before. I realized that might be all the progress Lulu could make, and it was my turn to make adjustments to accommodate her needs. I started talking to her in a reassuring voice before touching her with my foot to let her know everything was okay. To this day, she still has a residue of fear from her past, but her training and my adjustments have made the circumstances fine for both of us. When training alone isn’t enough to overcome your dog’s past experiences, this kind of compromise is a completely acceptable solution.
A Word About Where Your Dog Comes From
It’s possible to get a great dog from a breeder or a shelter. You know which one I feel strongly about. Your chances may be a tiny bit better of getting a wellsocialized dog from a good breeder, but we don’t always have that choice, or even want it. Many of us would rather save a life than marginally increase our odds of bringing home an easy-to-train dog.
There are times, though, when a rescue may come with some extra baggage—like abandonment issues, a history of abuse, or even the condition sometimes known as kennel stress, which I refer to as shelter shock. Shelter shock is PTSD for dogs, and every case is different. The way one dog copes with a bad experience may be completely different from that of another dog. One dog may live its first years in a warm, loving household, wind up in a cold shelter with time running out, and eventually walk out unscarred, as though nothing happened. Another may be so traumatized by the experience that it changes his personality forever.
Meet Chloe. I had a client about ten years ago who called me to train an Aussie shepherd. At the time, Chloe was about five months old, a perfect age to begin training. In the years that followed, I continued to work with her and watched her grow up to be a well-mannered, well-trained, beautiful dog. Later, the family fell on sudden and dramatic hard times. Without informing me, they turned Chloe over to a shelter. I just happened to be at that facility one day and stumbled across her. I knew Chloe right away. I knew this dog like the back of my hand—the look, the markings, and most importantly her unmistakable personality.
But there was something off about Chloe in the shelter. She’d always been calm, cool, and collected; she’d been stable and secure in her previous life. In the shelter, she was spinning in circles, biting her own tail, and panting so heavily it looked like she might have a heart attack. It seemed as if she knew her life was on the line. Her survival instincts had kicked in, but there was nothing she could do.
The day Chloe became available, I rushed to the shelter to adopt her. I already had a great family lined up. But when I got their daily reports on how she was doing, they described a dog much different from how I remembered Chloe to be. They said she was really rambunctious, stressed, and panting constantly. Weeks went by with little change, even though the normal stress a dog experiences in a new home typically subsides in a week or two.
Chloe was a classic example of a dog who was very susceptible to the harsh effects of the shelter, and she was going through shelter shock. Its effects had taken hold of her personality and changed it.
Chloe is much better and more comfortable today than she was then, but as the person who trained this dog from a puppy, I see that she’s not—and never will be—the same dog she once was. Her shelter experience left her with a permanent emotional scar.
life experience is the nurture. Your dog’s experiences are everything that’s happened to him and everything he’s learned since birth. Remember: DNA is hardwired, but any- thing learned can be unlearned.