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Dog training is essential for happy pets and their owners, but not enough of us seek help with unruly pups

It’s a glorious Saturday afternoon and my husband and I are standing awkwardly on our local common. We should be yomping along with our ball-obsessed dog, but a playful spaniel has hurtled over, swiped our dog Chester’s ball and is refusing to give up its drool-coated treasure.

He looks to us to sort it out, eyebrows twitching in full pleading mode. The owners of the thieving spaniel appear and engage in what can only be described as a lengthy discourse with their dog. It lends a new spin to the meaning of “pet therapy” and I’m expecting them to ask their dog if attachment issues with its mother de ella is causing it to be unwilling to part with the ball.

“Why are they trying to reason with it like a toddler and why don’t they use the “drop it” command?” I mutter to my husband through clenched teeth.

As our lives ebb away, the issue is resolved with the owners desperately raising apart their dog’s vice-like jaws to release the prize. No-one is particularly happy except for our dog, reunited at last.

This small incident speaks to a larger concern which can have serious consequences. Have we lost sight of the importance of training our dogs? Not to mention that there are more In the first year of the pandemic, the number of dogs in the increased by two million, to make up a population of 12 million hounds, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association.

A survey of 2,000 dog owners in 2021 by national pet charity Blue Cross, found that only 8 per cent of people sought advice from qualified behaviourists, and that 22 per cent admitted that they had relied on YouTube and TV programmes.

Emma Reed’s dog, Chester, is a very good boy (Photo: Emma Reed)

I admit that my daughter and I have worked our way through countless episodes of Channel 5’s Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly, although not for training purposes. It makes us feel like our dog is a canine saint (he’s very far from it).

However, you don’t have to be the show’s expert trainer Graeme Hall to work out that a chihuahua who travels in a motorized toy car along with a wardrobe to rival Kim Kardashian may have issues. Similarly, a Siberian husky, bred to pull sleds across frozen expanses, struggling in a small house with moderate exercise.

Programs like these show extremes. After all, stopping your dog from licking the dishwasher does not make great TV. However, many dog ​​trainers are concerned that these programs can be counterproductive.

“It’s vital that owners avoid using the internet, YouTube or TikTok to self-diagnose behavior problems,” warns Claire Haynes, a behaviourist with charity Blue Cross.

“There is currently no way of regulating who puts out advice on behaviour. TV programs often only depict a very small part of the process, meaning that people picking up a few tips might use ineffective or inappropriate methods for their individual pet. Ultimately there is no quick fix.”

Zoe Willingham works with many different kinds of dogs (Photo: Zoe Willingham)

As I stand in a queue for coffee behind a Pomeranian dressed in a camo puffer with a faux-fur hood around its luxuriant actual fur, I wonder how we got to this. Have we forgotten that it’s more important that they have excellent recall off the lead or will drop on command some vile substance they’ve retrieved from a hedge rather than shoehorning them into a fleece in this year’s Pantone shade?

Zoe Willingham runs Best Behavior Dog Training based in Suffolk. With 17 rescue dogs of her own, she has a wealth of experience when it comes to behavioral issues. She’s noticed that training often seems an afterthought when it comes to ownership and that some used the pandemic as an excuse not to train their dogs owing to the closure of in-person classes. Like so many, Willingham offered online classes so that people wouldn’t miss out.

“I feel that people will spend a few thousand pounds on a dog and hundreds of pounds on nice bedding and accessories and the really important thing they forget to do is to train their dog properly. It’s seen as an optional extra rather than a necessity. However, we know that dogs who attend training are less easily distracted and easier to live with, and training provides mental stimulation for them.”

Willingham finds that for many owners, training seems to stop on completion of a six-week puppy course. As with humans, behavioral issues often occur during adolescence. For dogs, unwanted behaviors that become embedded at this stage are much harder to unravel at a later date. This is why she offers a 44-week training program so that support is available during the first year of the dog’s life.

“We don’t send a child to primary school and expect them to go straight to work,” she says. This is echoed by Petrina Firth of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). “People should see the six-week puppy course they attend as like sending a child to nursery. You still have years before they are considered educated and it’s the same for dogs.”

Willingham also notes that “second-dog syndrome” is common, where owners feel there’s no need to properly train an additional dog. They aren’t trained by default and will have different needs to the existing dog. Training is just as essential for subsequent dogs.

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At the core of this is that it’s the owners who need to be trained. It’s something that Emma Tyler has focused on, educating families to ensure training is consistent. She sees many owners unwittingly reward unwanted behavior – such as fussing over a dog when it seems fearful – and reinforcing a message that it is right to be worried.

As with children, we often forget to praise them when they are doing something right, often focusing on the things we don’t want them to do. “There’s no excuse not to train and it is for the rest of the dog’s life.” Both Firth of the APDT and Haynes of Blue Cross emphasize caution in finding a trainer, as anyone can say they are a trainer or a behaviourist whether they have a Masters degree in animal behavior or no experience or academic training at all.

Haynes advises looking for an accredited behaviourist through the Animal Behavior and Training Council who will be “suitably qualified and using the most up to date welfare-focused training methods”.

We’re risking a tsunami of pandemic pooches whose only training is posing for social media and who won’t play ball (or steal my dog’s). If you want a dog that’s happy, easy to live with and isn’t the scourge of the local dog-owning Facebook group, you’re going to have to play the long game. But it will be worth it.

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