Friday, September 25, 2009

One Size Does Not Fit All

Many dog training web sites, books and trainers seem to take a “one size fits all” approach to training and behavior counseling. In my experience, focusing on a single method or approach is limiting because the same approach doesn’t always work for all dogs. It would certainly be easier to say, “I always do this,” or “I always do that,” when it comes to training, but the reality is often more complex.

For example, I might talk in a different tone to a sassy, willful dog than I would to a dog that’s shy or fearful. If a dog lacks confidence, I might start by putting the dog in different settings using slow, baby steps, before he becomes fearful of that setting, while giving lots of positive rewards for being calm and relaxed.

For more confident dogs that tend to be “full of themselves,” more structure and leadership is often needed. For example, you dog might like to jump up on you as soon as you sit down on the couch or a chair. Instead of just letting her fly up in your face and then punishing with a verbal correction, you can ask your dog to sit first. Be sure to time the command BEFORE she jumps. Keep her at a distance from the couch or chair, wait for a bit, then invite her to come up. This adds structure in a positive way, without punishment or much correction.

This technique may or may not be effective with your particular dog. Sometimes you have to try a few different approaches before you find one that works for your particular dog. At Our Pack, we often work with shelter dogs and dogs that come from abuse cases, and sometimes we have to think outside the box or we may not be able to help them. We may need to be firmer and stricter with one dog, while another might require a more lenient approach. Whatever approach you use, it’s always better to set the dog up to behave appropriately and reward that behavior than it is to wait for the dog to do it wrong and then try to correct it.

A particular technique should be used as long as it works, increases confidence and continues to build a bond, not after it stops working or breaks the bond between the dog and his person. For example, we had a fight bust dog who came to Our Pack very shut down and worried about everything around her—people, sounds, objects, you name it. We were able to bring her around using confidence-building techniques, including a soft, reassuring voice and gradual introductions to the stimuli that made her nervous. Within a short time, she became very confident and even somewhat sassy! At that point, she needed firmer direction and more structure.

Leo, the dog who came to us from the Michael Vick case, presented a different challenge. He was initially like a bull in a china shop when it came to manners. “A couch? What’s that? You mean I can't just land in your lap at anytime? Huh?” He didn’t have a confidence problem, he had a manners problem. “Give me a kiss!” Splam!

Leo sharing his toys.

There are so many dogs out there to save and they all have different circumstances, backgrounds and experiences that have shaped their behavior. To expect each one of them to respond alike to a single training approach just doesn’t work. (Of course, we would never condone using physical pain, force or any method that creates fear in a dog, as that is just abuse.) I like to solicit the willingness of the dog to work with me.

Each of these dogs are individuals, and each has taught me so much, especially about resiliency. Dogs are truly amazing creatures, and one of the wonderful traits I see in Pit Bulls is how resilient and forgiving these dogs can be. They have given me what amounts to a college education, not only in training but in the way I look at life. If you treat your dog as an individual, and adjust your training to his or her behavior, you will both get more out of it and you’ll have a lot more fun learning from each other!

Marthina McClay, CPDT


  1. OH that's awesome: "a college education"! Too true. I've always said that 90% of everything I've learned about dog training and dog behavior came from the dogs!!

    (and thanks for your previous post advice/response to my question!)

  2. Yes, the academics often help to put the "labels" on it all! :))

  3. I so agree that there is not a one size fits all! I read all I can get my hands on about training and take bits and pieces that I like and DO NOT like from everything. Both of my dogs are so different that what works for one hardly ever works for the other.