Training versus management–which is the right way for you and your dog?

“You can either train the dog, or you can manage the dog.”

This sentiment is common amongst dog trainers, but it isn’t completely true. Dog ownership in today’s world is much a melding of training and management, and neither should be considered as “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on what you desire in your canine companion, and how much work you are willing to put into that relationship. For my money, the best bet is always a well-trained dog that needs only a bit of management.

All dogs need training-–from the smallest Chihuahua to the largest Irish Wolfhound. Basing your dog’s training needs on whether he can physically pull you down the street when he is grown is not practical. Some of the worst terrors of the dog world are spoiled lap dogs who have never had any rules applied to their behavior! Very few owners of larger breeds would neglect to give them any rules at all, but small dog owners often feel like their precious Poopsies should not have to do things they don’t want to. When Ranger the German Shepherd mix bites, it’s a death sentence. When Poopsie the Papillon bites, “she was just being cranky.”

This double-standard is harming dogs, and even killing them. Dogs without structure and leadership in their lives often become neurotic biters, and biting dogs are anathema to civilized society. Since most aggression and “bad” behaviors can be prevented with good training, it simply doesn’t make sense not to give every dog a chance to be the best it can be.

“You can either train the dog, or you can manage the dog.”

What each dog needs training-wise depends on the type and age of dog, what his purpose is, and what the owner wants from the dog. Some people just want a dog to cuddle with; others want a licensed therapy dog; still others want a running companion or hunting companion, to name a few. But no matter what type or breed one owns, or what he wants it to do or ultimately be, most dog owners say they want, above all else, good off-leash reliability. For most dog owners, off-leash reliability is the pinnacle of good training .

OFF-LEASH RELIABILITY–is it possible? I think for a lot of folks, this simply means they want a dog who doesn’t bolt away from them as soon as he realizes he can; a dog who comes quickly when called, and a dog who actually listens when told to “get away from Mrs. Johnson’s azaleas/twins in a stroller/Chihuahua right now.” Honestly, for many dogs and owners, this isn’t rocket science to teach. Many breeds and mixes can become off-leash reliable with a bit of practice and a good foundation.

That said, here is the caveat: some breeds and individual dogs are not suited to off-leash situations, period. Though dog trainers on the whole believe every dog can be trained, we don’t necessarily agree that every dog can reach the same level of training or reliability. Dogs are individuals, and breeds have characteristics that cannot be swept under the rug. Examples:

–Sighthounds are bred to run, very fast, in pursuit of game–if you adopt a retired Greyhound and expect that he will NOT chase a moving object across the street, you are going to be in for a surprise. (Not only that, but, after living his whole life on the track, he isn’t used to the concept of avoiding traffic.)

–Scenthounds are bred to find the smell and follow it, period–expecting your Beagle or Bloodhound to ignore the plethora of juicy smells that inhabit his world is simply shortsighted, and on top of that, all hunting hounds are also bred to work independently, so they often appear not to have much use for a human when they are working. (I’ve always said that Beagles are 3 counties away before they realize they are gone. Not only that, but they develop really pernicious “selective hearing” when on the smell.) These things must be taken into account before and during training.

— Terriers also get very focused when working, which to them means finding and killing all small creatures (if digging is involved, all the better).

It can be extremely difficult to control these and some other breeds when they are off-leash (except with a remote electronic collar, which can be a wonderful tool for off-leash work but MUST be taught by a professional with experience–PLEASE!). That doesn’t mean individual dogs in those breeds won’t become reliable, but one must definitely weigh the pros and cons before beginning such training. Of course, the breeds mentioned above should NEVER be off leash in an unsecured area without specific off-leash training on board–really, NO DOG SHOULD. It only takes a few seconds to go from safe to sorry, believe me. It is made all the more heartbreaking when accidents happen because they are preventable. Keep your dog leashed until you are SURE. Leashing, besides being the law, is just good management.

Personally, I believe ALL dogs benefit from training. When you elect to just manage your dog, you are not allowing him to develop to his full potential. Training is mental stimulation for your dog, it is a bonding exercise for you and your dog (done right), and it provides your dog more freedom. Denying your dog training is not in his best interests.

Want to know if your dog is “off-leash reliable”? Here’s how to tell.

Let’s examine the differences between a trained dog and a managed dog.

TRAINED dog is one who responds to verbal commands the first time, every time. His focus is on what he is being asked to do, whether it be police work or tricks for the movies. When given a command or cue, he does it. A trained dog behaves a certain way because he has been thoroughly taught to do so. He doesn’t question the assignment, or backtalk, or try to reason out of it–he just does it. And if he’s been trained right, he does it happily, with gusto, every time (unless he is sick or injured). Some folks liken trained dogs to robots. They often seem to be on automatic pilot, especially if their training was harsh or if the tasks they are told to do are unpleasant, unnecessarily repetitious, or boring. But as more and more people become aware that it is entirely possible to train a dog and make it fun for both dog and owner, more often than not, the TRAINED dog is perfectly happy doing his work. A TRAINED dog is a wonderful, happy companion, because trained dogs get to accompany their owners more places (and because they are often getting to do the actual work they were bred for).

MANAGED dog is just not trained yet. MANAGING the dog is crucial until he reaches a higher level of training. Management is simply using tools such as leashes, training collars, fences, crates, and tethers to keep the dog from following his instincts without thinking. Though some of these tools can be used inhumanely, they are designed to make it easier for dog owners to keep their dogs, and keep them happy and safe. A tool is never inhumane–-it is all in the application. Of all of the millions of dogs relinquished to shelters every year, I know there would be many, many more languishing and dying were it not for crates, fences, leashes, and training collars. Most of these tools use the dog’s natural instincts, too, to make training easier. You MANAGE the dog while you are training so that he is not allowed to practice those instinctual or fun behaviors of his that you do not appreciate. Management saves dogs’ lives! It’s not wrong, or mean, or bad–-it’s vital. More inhumane than the proper use of a training collar is the unruly dog who ends up in the shelter time and again, simply because no one could walk him. (In fact, this is the fate of many dogs in shelters. They are there simply because no one followed through with the right training. They “don’t know what they don’t know,” and at some shelters, it will kill them.)

So, a MANAGED dog needs more training, and a TRAINED dog needs a lot less managing.

Management doesn’t take as much time or effort as training does. I think this is the main reason why many people in today’s busy world elect to simply train a little and then manage most of the time–it’s easier, frankly. It takes months (or more) of work to get a dog to be reliably trained, but management takes little more than snapping on a leash and going. One can have a good foundation and a dog with lots of potential, but simply not enough time or funds or knowledge to get past the management phase. So what? If you are happy with the dog, and he is happy, where’s the crime? Your county has leash laws anyway, so it’s not like you can just parade around with Fido unleashed. Do you really need to bother to train him to be reliable off-leash?

Well, I see the point about the leash laws, and I get it. But what about being prepared for accidents? If you drop the leash accidentally, or if Fido develops the horrible habit of door dashing, will you be able to get him back? If he’s trained, you most likely will (of course, a trained dog more than likely wouldn’t develop a door dashing habit, but leashes do fall from hands). If he’s not yet trained, maybe, maybe not. Do you want to take that chance? Sticking with management only can work, but when accidents happen, you will be on pins and needles, worrying about possible outcomes. Work harder, and train the dog.

Sound simplistic? It is. Even well-trained dogs get into accidents, believe it or not. You cannot train away instinct, no matter what anyone tells you. Dogs are not machines, and in moments of stress, euphoria, arousal, or confusion, even the best behaved make mistakes. I’ve heard this story more than once: A well-trained dog with multiple Obedience titles (a champion in many areas, even) is much loved and well cared-for by his owner, who takes him to competitions weekly and seems to live vicariously through the dog. She is the epitome of a “good dog owner,” and the dog lacks for nothing. He’s quite reliable off-leash, so when she arrives home one fateful day after a match, she opens the door and tells him to get out, fully expecting him to run, as he always does, up to the door and wait for her. But he doesn’t. He sees a flash of brown hurtling past him, and his instincts to chase kick in-–and he’s off before she can even see him, heading into the road and into the path of an oncoming car. He’s dead by the time she hears the brakes squeal.

It’s only an instant, but the heartbreak never heals. Did the fact that the dog was so predictable most other days cause the woman to let her guard down? Probably. Did the fact that the dog dashed after a rabbit mean he wasn’t really all that well-trained? No. Had she had time to see what was happening, she probably could have called him back easily. But she expected him to behave a certain way, and didn’t think that he might answer the call of instinct. Dogs are animals–we can often predict how they will behave in a given situation, but we cannot ever guarantee our prediction will be correct.

Having a dog means being alert and aware-–whether he is simply being managed or whether he’s what you would consider trained. Accidents happen, but for the most part, a trained dog lives a longer and happier life than a managed or untrained one does. Regardless, safety should be your priority, always.

Even if their pooch is a canine Einstein with the potential to be a champion, I never scoff at my client’s motives for why they slacked off on training and elected simply to manage the dog–a course of action that often drives dog trainers nuts. It’s my job to show you how to be happy with the dog you have, and to make sure you are meeting his needs as best you possibly can. Dogs are very adaptable, and I can guarantee you they don’t mope around wondering why they haven’t learned agility yet. I definitely don’t think you should purposely acquire a working dog for a sedentary life, but that is not the issue here. The issue is that you get the dog that you truly want. (Avoid ANY trainer who scoffs at you, period.)

Not only that, but training your beloved dog is fun, good exercise, and it will bring you closer together. Your friends will hail you as a wizard when they see how well-behaved your dog is. On walks, passerby will marvel at your calm, obedient pooch. Party guests will laugh and enjoy your dog’s prowess at parlor tricks (which are always a part of a good training regimen). Don’t delay.

"Dog training isn't expensive, it's priceless."

The Pooch Professor