What Dog Training Really Is

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

A trainer friend, Ginger Alpine, said this years ago, and it’s stuck with me. “Training isn’t something we do to our dogs. It’s something we do with them.” I love Ginger’s wisdom. And, I love how clearly and succinctly these two sentences define training as a process in which we and our dogs are full and equal participants. It’s not me versus him; it’s both of us working together.

Training–Teaching–Learning. It “isn’t something we do to our dogs” Here’s what else I love about this saying. There’s no time limit implied. We don’t do it and we’re done. It frees us from the finality of time-based questions about dog training. How long does it take? How much time will I have to spend? When will it end? These are not the kinds of questions we ask about other things we enjoy, like hiking or dancing or playing a musical instrument. I, for example, enjoy running (I know not everyone does). How long does it take? Well, as long as I want, a long time if I’m lucky and long into my old age if I’m really lucky and take care of myself.

Dog training, specifically reinforcement-based training, is how we learn to communicate with our dogs. Strip the goals away for now. Sit, down, jump through a hoop. Yes, all that will come. But look with me for a moment at this as “something we do with” our dogs. When we are training, we are in partnership, connected, and engaged with each other in problem solving and task building. We get to stop everything else and keenly observe our dog, see what it is she is actually about, what she actually does in this world. We guide her and provide feedback. And guess what? She’s observing us, paying attention to nothing else, noticing our moves, adjusting hers in kind, and giving us feedback as well. Give and take. It’s a process. It’s what we do with our dogs.

If we love our dogs, how can we not love doing things with them? I’m still grappling with that question, and may my whole life. Maybe it’s the “something we do to them” part that gets in our way. Maybe when we frame training as a chore that needs to get done, we freeze up. I can assure you, I’m no fan of chores either. And what if we can’t get the chore completed? How frustrating is that? I wonder what would happen if we kept stripping away the goals and set aside the are-we-done-yet part. What if training was like play, hiking, dancing or making music? What if we could think of this time with our dog not as a chore but as a fun conversation with her? I love a good chat, sometimes spirited, occasionally challenging, often just relaxed.

What if that’s what training is? What if it’s the time we get to spend with our dogs, not the time we have to spend? What if the goal isn’t the thing? What if the thing itself is the thing, the process, that conversation between two species? What if we’ve been missing the point all along? Yes, we will get our sits, and downs, and she’ll jump that hoop. But next time you join your dog in training (today I hope), watch how she moves. Look at her expression. My guess is you’ll see joy. And my further guess is that the joy has little to do with accomplishing goals. She’s happy to see you. She’s happy to be with you. She’s happy to have this time with you.

What are we doing? That doggy grin. What are we learning today? That full-butt tail wag. What does it matter? This is the best part of my day, the best part of my tomorrow and every day with you. Let’s do this.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX