8 vital lessons to learn about dogs

Carol Price shares her experiences after decades of working with, breeding, and owning dogs.

They say that life is a series of learning curves, and with dogs this is certainly true. For we may all start with idealistic intentions or ambitions — in terms of how exquisitely behaved our future dogs will be — only to run slam dunk, at some point, into a series of buffers better known as reality. It is only then, however, that our real learning about dogs begins. For there really is nothing like experience, both the bad as well as the good, to teach you the most valuable things.

This feature is about some of the most valuable lessons I have learned about dogs, throughout decades of breeding, rearing, owning, and training them, and working with some of the more troubled or challenging dogs around. I hope that they will be enlightening or reassuring for some, or just ring an all-too-familiar chord for others.

1. Every dog is different

Very often I come across owners who will say: “Why can’t my dog be like other dogs?” — like the nice one up the road who is super friendly, and doesn’t trash the mail or rip the postman’s trousers through the bars of the front gate; or the clever clogs in the training class, who makes their owner look so good; and I say, because all dogs are different. There are many reasons for this, like their particular breed, plus all the things they have learned since they were puppies, including bad habits, which were often learned without you even realising or understanding why.

The only way to ever control what dogs become is to understand how and why they learn particular things, then try to ensure that they only ever learn what you want them to, through better training.

That said, there will always be a part of any dog’s behaviour that is rooted in his more individual genetic make-up. Sometimes these characteristics or impulses can be harder to change in dogs, but they can nearly always be better managed, through greater understanding.

2. Dogs don’t behave like they do in training manuals

Everywhere you go, there are books written about how you can have or rear the ‘perfect’ dog. The truth? Nobody has a perfect dog, or pup; in fact, as aspirational fantasies go, this one can hit the reality buffers with a louder thud than most, as you view the wasteland that was once your tidy home. Please do not feel a failure if your puppy or dog is not quite behaving like the dogs in the training manuals — very few ever do!

One of the luxuries of raising and owning a considerable number of dogs is that you learn to factor in a high degree of less than perfect — if not downright delinquent — behaviour, without getting too unduly concerned. You know there will be some nipping, digging, weeing, pooing, and advanced carpentry involved somewhere, plus some hairy little poltergeist charging off with your favourite designer sandals, because puppies are just born to be so brilliant at all this stuff.

And yet, amazingly, despite all this less-than-perfect behaviour, most still emerge as pretty sane adults in the end. The more dogs you raise and own, the less anxious you also get as a ‘parent’. You do not believe that every runny tummy your puppy gets will end in his imminent demise, or that because your puppy once growled at the cat or a plastic bottle on the floor he will turn into a devil dog who terrorises your whole street.

3. Dogs are such brilliant people trainers

Dogs aren’t given sufficient credit for how good they are at training people — and, of course, owners in particular. We keep calling it attention-seeking or being demanding, but it is not! Keep up; it is training. Why not just be honest and acknowledge their superior talents in this regard?

When it comes to dogs training humans to fulfil their wishes, or prevent them from doing things that they don’t want them to do, I have seen some utter masters at work — really I have, and the practice is actually quite widespread. If you have ever found yourself avoiding various events, experiences, or places because your dog ‘doesn’t like them’, you have been trained.

Of course, unlike people, dogs just have so many more hours in a day to experiment with, and hone, training techniques likely to deliver the most preferable responses and outcomes, which is just another reason why they become so good at it.

4. Not all dogs want to be ‘sociable’

Much is often made of the need to train dogs to be more ‘sociable’. Yet the shocking truth is, some dogs just don’t want to be sociable — at all — just like some people don’t, but others just won’t accept it.

Thus the non-sociable dog goes out, much like the non-drinker at a party who everyone keeps trying to foist a gin on. He keeps giving signals that he is quite happy, thank you, keeping himself to himself, and doesn’t really want his bottom sniffed or a paw in his face, or someone who is ‘really good with dogs’ crashing their big hands all over his head. But still no one gets the message! Until finally he snaps and has a good old growl or grumble, whereupon someone then comments: “He’s not very sociable, is he?”. I think if we all allowed dogs who don’t want to be sociable not to have to be sociable, we could spare ourselves a lot of grief that would not otherwise occur.

5. Not everybody takes responsibility for their dog’s behaviour

These are words that should be totally banished from the dog owner’s vocabulary forever: “He only wants to play”, and “He has never done that before” — because they are so rarely ever true! Then there’s the scenario where a totally out of control dog comes bounding up to yours and becomes a complete nuisance. When you and your dog(s) look less than pleased by this totally unwelcome intrusion, the owner then says: “Come away Buster, they don’t want to play.”

Did you see what they did there? Made you the problem, as opposed to them and their totally out of control dog that they can’t get back. This sort of more overt blame shifting, and people refusing to take better responsibility for the behaviour of their own dogs, happens too routinely in the canine world, and causes so much unnecessary offence to others, especially if some level of aggression is also involved, or injury caused by dogs being too rough with others in their apparent ‘play’.

I have also known many people sustain pretty serious injuries as a result of being knocked over by more boisterous or manic dogs. There is no shame at all in having a dog with more unruly or even aggressive tendencies. I spend an awful lot of time working with dogs like this, trying to help them both think and act differently. What is bad is not taking full responsibility for the problem, and just making it everyone else’s instead.

6. Dogs think differently to us – and have different priorities and agendas

People have a habit of transposing their own brains and thought systems on to dogs, and then constantly get disappointed with what results; dogs who never quite seem to think like they do, or behave as they would prefer them to behave.

In reality, dogs can have very different sensory and mental processes to us, as well as very different priorities as a species. This, in turn, is down to how they have evolved as animals. If a dog has a particularly strong instinct to do one thing or another, then nature originally put that instinct there to better ensure the dog’s survival. And only once we respect this can we also understand why the impulse in dogs to do certain things is so strong, even if we might not like it.

Thus if you are out on a walk and a dog smells the scent of a rabbit and takes off, despite you calling him back, it is because this initial survival impulse over-rode all other concerns in his brain, and compelled him to complete a particular course of action. And only after he has done this will you get his attention back.

Dogs can vary tremendously in terms of how well their more natural instincts and impulses can be curbed or controlled through training. But you still always have to start with an acknowledgement of how hard the dog, himself, may find it to stop doing things he is more instinctively compelled to do.

7. Respect your dog’s ‘supersense’

Dogs have one supreme supersense — and that is smell. It is hard to adequately explain, in terms of magnification, how much more superior a dog’s scent processing powers can be, compared to our own, as it can vary from breed to breed.

But, in the main, the difference is absolutely huge. Imagine for a moment that you could smell a dinner being cooked by one of your neighbours a good half-mile away. Not that you would particularly want to, but this is a sort of routine ability dogs have, and, similarly, the ability to track people’s scent for miles, following a specific vapour trail of shed sweat molecules and skin flakes, totally invisible to the naked eye.

Too many people will see their dog’s scenting powers as more of a nuisance than an asset — something that makes him stray or dawdle too long on walks, whereas I think it is an ability that should be far more celebrated and positively channelled.

I train all my dogs, for instance, to find my phone, car keys, hats, gloves, and their own leads via scent, should any of these ever go astray on a walk. And it has been a godsend so many times.

Increasingly today, people are also understanding the tremendous benefits dogs can get from more targeted or competitive scent work tasks, pushing their abilities to the limit, and providing excellent mental stimulation. This can particularly be the case in dogs who have greater social problems in other competitive environments, or even dogs who are blind or deaf.

8. Finally… believe in yourself and your dog

One thing I have progressively appreciated over time, is the ability of owners to know their dogs, particularly when it comes to some kind of problem they would like to improve or resolve in them.

It is important, as a behaviourist and trainer, to respect this knowledge and use it as the central framework for everything you then later try, or do, with the dog concerned. Too often, however, there are ‘experts’ who will dismiss this owner knowledge as less relevant or worthy of fuller consideration, and they will work, instead, from some more preferred personal interpretation of what is going on in a dog’s head, even if they don’t know the dog that well.

As a result they may use approaches or techniques wholly unsuited to the dog concerned. Always believe in your own ability to know your dog and what is best for him. Never be bullied into doing or trying things with him that you feel are not right for him, or may cause him harm, whatever any expert says.

A true expert, with greater respect for both owners and their dogs, would never ask you to do that.