More often than not when we tell people we are working with a trainer for Cooper, or doing drills, we hear some version of, "But she's already so good! Why do you need a trainer?"
The truth is if we had done nothing with Cooper's training, we'd likely have a very different dog today. She might not be a bad dog, or a mean dog, but she certainly wouldn't be as calm or reliable. She would know "sit" and "paw", maybe she'd still rollover for a tasty treat, but our lifestyle and relationship with her would be much different.
We don't train Cooper because she's a bad dog, we train her because she's a good dog and she deserves training.
Regardless of what we're working on any given week, everything we do has one common reason: we want to have a good, healthy relationship with our dog. We want to be able to bring her with us everywhere we possibly can, and have it be enjoyable for her and for us. Funny enough, human & dog relationships need the same things human & human relationships need to thrive and be happy.
We train our dog so that we have a better, clearer way to communicate with her.
The first thing we noticed when we started one-on-one lessons with our trainer Jason Cohen was that, despite what we thought, Cooper did not know her name. We had done basic group classes and thought Cooper had aced "Sit", "Down", and "Come", so how was it possible we had to say - with increasing volume - "Cooper. Cooper. COOPER!" before she so much as turned her head towards us? We'd spent 6 months living with this creature and she didn't even really know what she was called. Clearly we were speaking different languages.
We learned how to teach Cooper what words meant- that her name was, in fact, "Cooper" and not "Dinner" or "NO STOP!" or "Treat", all of which she responded to better than Cooper at the time. We expanded that language to our Transitional Leash to teach her what pressure meant and how to turn it off, which meant more enjoyable walks for all of us, and more of them. And then we began to use that same language to start conditioning her to remote collar (more on that later) so we could communicate with her even without a leash.
With practice and consistency, we began to see the results. When we were clear with what we said and how we approached our communication with Cooper, she responded better. When we always said "Down" rather than "Lay Down", we got better results. When we taught recall with a leash connected to help her understand what "Come" meant, she came when called more often. Half of training our dog was actually training ourselves how to talk to her. I like to think of it as visiting another country and not knowing the language - once you begin to learn it and catch on, you have a better, relaxed connection to the people who live there.
We train our dog so she knows what's expected from her.
Once we found the right way to communicate with Cooper, we could start teaching her what was expected of her. Just like in human interpersonal relationships, clear expectations help reduce friction and create a calmer, clearer partnership. After a lot of practice and hard work, Cooper knows that she is expected to sit before walking through doorways. She knows she is expected to go to "place" before she gets fed, or when we are preparing and eating dinner so she is out of the way and calm. She also is, more and more every day, understanding she is expected to come to us when we call her name, regardless of how exciting something else is.
This isn't us being mean, or strict, or cruel. It's us preparing Cooper for real life. When we go to our family's homes for holidays it is a relief to know that I can expect Cooper to lay in "place" instead of counter surfing for my dad's famous lasagne, or barking at a family member for food. Because we've set clear expectations in our every day life, for the most part Cooper does as she's told. The most recent moment I realized this was working- and worth it- was a busy morning at the dog park when Cooper decided a dog pile was more exciting than her Chuck-It Ball and dove to play with one of her puppy friends. As she was sprinting over full speed, I called out "Cooper, Come!" in my most excited voice, and watched with equal parts pride and shock as she turned around on a dime and came right back my way, stopping in a sit in front of me. A fellow dog parent turned to me and went "Wow, my dog would never listen like that". And to be honest- if we hadn't practiced recall drills every day for the last few months, Cooper wouldn't have either.
The best thing about this is that we can include Cooper in so much of what we do. Whether it's going to the bar next door in the summer, or taking her to work with us Cooper knows the rules (and if she doesn't, we work hard on teaching them!). This has been the most important item in us being able to foster. As I'm typing this, Cooper is clam in place while a 8lb Chihuahua is short circuiting through my apartment with a toy. I can't imaging bringing in new, unpredictable dogs without a strong sense of how my own dog would react. It's been infinitely helpful when we have over-eager puppies or aloof seniors who want none of Cooper's enthusiasm to be able to have Cooper go to her place when asked to give everyone space.
We train our dog because we love her, and want to spend every second we can with her.
Training with Cooper is how we bond. It brings us closer as a family, and Cooper LOVES it. For all she knows when we train, we're playing. She gets tasty treats, lots of praise, and gets to spend time with her humans. Everyone wins.
Before we started training Cooper, I DREADED taking her on walks. I knew she would just pancake in the middle of the road, or dart after a skateboard and the idea was exhausting. Leaving her home was just as gut-wrenching knowing she would cry endlessly the moment we shut the door to her crate. She was getting into scraps at the dog park and, honestly, flat out ignoring us at times. Something had to change. I won't sit here and tell you that Cooper's perfect and listens to us 100% of the time, but she is able to really enjoy life with us. Isn't that why we get dogs in the first place? To be companions?
There are weekends now where we almost never leave Cooper home because she can go on a 2 mile long walk with us in a loose leash heel as I carry coffee, wait patiently as we run errands, or hold a down-stay outside during brunch. She can ride calmly in the car with us to the beach, or our parents' homes and relax there . Our goal this summer is to have her enjoy off leash adventures with us, knowing she'll be reliably called back to us. And when we're not doing that, I know I can have her go to her crate, or place, and relax.
All of this is a long way of saying, training is for every dog, not just bad ones. If you want to bring more life to your potty walks or park trips, give it a shot with your dog. It doesn't have to be an hour of your day- it can be 5 minutes. Do some 180 turns on leash. Practice recall with treats. Teach them "Look" so you can get some great instagram photos. Do anything with a command and a reward, and see how your dog likes it. You might be surprised at how excited they get to make you happy!