Have you ever picked up a magazine containing ads or fashion spreads where you appreciated the beauty of the female models? While many are pretty to begin with, for every "ooh" and "aah" there are ten behind-the-scenes manipulations that produced that image, from hair and makeup to lighting, and especially post-processing. By the same token, when you admire a very well-trained dog, many days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years have gone into the finished product.
I thought about this phenomenon recently when I was at the dog park with Sierra. As many of you know, we only frequent the park when there are either no other dogs present, or perhaps one that we know well. We were standing on the "small dogs" side since the "large dogs" side was occupied by two owners and their dogs. I knew one of the women well. She's got two German Shepherd mixes who are very sweet, but the male can be reactive and sometimes even aggressive with other dogs. The park sections are separated by a chain link fence, and he often barks and lunges at Sierra. Sierra, for her part, stands there with a "Talk to the paw!" look and seems to enjoy watching him bark himself into a lather. Because I enjoy speaking to the woman, and don't want to have to shout over all that barking, I call Sierra to me and keep her there, away from the fence. I have heard a few people comment about how well trained she is, and watching her instantly respond to a recall away from a dog who is barking in her face -- who she might not be impressed by but is certainly focused on -- certainly does look impressive.
The truth is that Sierra had no recall whatsoever when I got her. Training a solid recall takes time with any dog, but with Sierra it was even more challenging. She's got an incredibly high prey drive and a laser focus. She'll zone in on a dog approaching from such a distance that I haven't even spotted them yet. I can always tell when this has happened by her suddenly tense body and hard, focused eye. Now imagine trying to get a dog in that frame of mind to respond to a request to come when called. We began with no distractions, of course, and built up gradually over time. And I won't lie; it was a lot of work.
The thing is, having a well-trained dog doesn't happen overnight. But you don't have to drill your dog in obedience for hours a day; in fact, dogs learn better in shorter practice sessions. I'm as guilty as the next person of bemoaning the fact that I don't have time to train my dogs, or I'm too tired after a long day, or any number of excuses. But really, if you just put in a couple of minutes here and there, and build obedience exercises into the things you do anyway -- for example, practicing sits and stays during walks, or down-stays during television commercials -- you might be surprised at the difference it can make.
Nicole Wilde is a canine behavior specialist and author. Visit her website www.nicolewilde.com.
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