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A Dog Trainer's Commencement Speech

Graduation day at dog training school—the learning never ends.

When I hand out the diplomas at my group dog training graduations, I always feel a mix of pride and melancholy. Over the years, I’ve shared joy and frustration with hundreds of clients and watched as their puppies and dogs learned to be calm, well-behaved members of the family.

Many of my clients return to continue their dog’s education or to take agility training or pet therapy, but after I hand out the final certificate and watch the last dog jump into the back of the family car, I get a little wistful. Just wait until my kids leave for college. Oh boy.

This season’s commencement speech included lessons for all dog lovers, and I’ll share the high points with you.

Think of your dog like a child in a fur suit. Like children, dogs are interacting, learning and communicating all the time. Dogs depend on people to help them organize and interpret their world. Teaching positive commands gives dogs a sense of direction and stability.

The communication never ends. Your dog will never stop learning or looking to you. He’ll welcome every opportunity to interact and will always be eager to learn something new when it’s presented with enthusiasm, treats and/or toys. The greatest joy to a dog—to all of us really—is to feel included and welcomed. A well-educated dog is a pleasure to everyone.

Interpreting bad behavior. Usually, dogs misbehave because they just don’t know what to do. Dogs need to be shown how to act and interact in all situations—from where to go during mealtimes and how to greet strangers, to how to behave on a leash or in a new environment.

Teach English as a second language. While dogs use body language to communicate, they can learn to understand directions if the words are paired with consistent routines. Like a foreigner, dogs learn English as a second language.

Dogs are ever mindful of eye contact. Nobody likes to be stared at, dogs included. When training a dog use familiar directions as well as toys or rewards to lure her through the activity.   

When introducing your puppy to new people, discourage staring. Engage people in conversation so they don’t stare at your dog–it’s very unnerving to be approached by a staring stranger! Encourage admirers to give your dog a treat or toy and remind your dog to “stay.”

Redirect your dog if she stares at anyone or anything too long: she is trying to read the situation or person and if allowed will react in one of three ways:

  • Manic: This dog is hyper and prone to jumping and nipping when she’s undirected.
  • Defensive: This dog is rigid and will often raise her hackles, stare, and may growl or bark when confused, over-stimulated or undirected.
  • Fearful: This dog may hide or rush back and forth in confusion.

If your dog is staring, use a familiar direction like “back” or “stay” and encourage her to look to you. You wouldn’t want a two-year old to make independent decisions and you don’t want your dog making choices, either!

The hardest thing to control? Is your frustration level, not your dog or puppy. When he misbehaves or ignores a command, you may feel angry and aggravated. Ground yourself. Human anger confuses dogs and communicates a lack of control. Instead of relying on you for direction and reassurance, your dog will grow wary of you. 

Think of your commands as anchors. Dogs often don’t know where to go or what to do with themselves when life is unpredictable or boring. Teach your dog to identify words like “upstairs,” “car” and “outside,” and favorite toys or games, so that in addition to the basic directions you can talk your dog throughout the day.

theresa locher September 05, 2011 at 08:04 PM
What can be done for a very angry pitbull who lives next door? He got out and went for our sweet Lab mix I m very scared
Sarah Hodgson September 06, 2011 at 12:06 AM
That is terrifying. It would be like asking how to sooth the neighbor's child. You must protect your dog, as well as yourself/your family. If you're unable to come up with a solution within your neighborhood call the police. That is what they're there for...
Sarah Hodgson September 19, 2011 at 12:13 AM
Theresa Locher- If you get this please read my article "Bullying Dog in the Neighborhood" 9/18. I dedicated to your plight. Sarah
theresa locher September 19, 2011 at 01:54 AM
I m sorry I couldn t find your article on 'Bullying Dog in the Neighborhood ' I will keep in touch and keep an eye out for it, thank you Theresa
Lisa Buchman September 19, 2011 at 11:44 AM
Hi Theresa, that article is actually on our home page right now, but here is the link: http://bedford.patch.com/articles/a-bullying-dog-in-the-neighborhood. Also, if you ever want to find a story previously published, we have a robust search engine on the site—just type some key words in the search box on the upper left. Thanks!

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