Wrong End of the Leash
(or Why Lassie Ain’t Trained Yet)    
-By Roger Hild

One of my greatest pleasures as a dog trainer, comes from seeing dog owners succeed in the training of their canine companions.  Over the many years spent studying, working on, and improving my craft, I have read hundreds of books, attended countless dog training seminars and learned from some of the best teachers in dog training.  Because I am good at what I do, most who come here for training will succeed.  There is, however, a small percentage of people who will not achieve their dog training goals.  I can confirm these very same facts with other good trainers - the ratio of those who succeed to those who don’t may vary somewhat but the fact remains that a portion of people who “try” to train their dog will fail. 

Even if we set aside those who make no effort and focus only on those who do try, we are still left with the question, “Why do so many ordinary dog owners fall short of their stated training goals?”  Why don’t they achieve similar results to those from whom they get their instructions?  After all, it seems logical to assume that if one were to follow the technique as described - follow the recipe, they should get the same results.  Why are there so many different methods and why do so many people continue to search for “the method,” which will work for them?  While searching for dog training methods and techniques to “make” all my students successful (and failing to find the “magic bullet”) I slowly began to realize that there were times that I was studying the wrong end of the leash.  

We humans are a very interesting species.  There is a  legion of reasons why we may not succeed in many of our endeavors and I couldn’t list them all here even if I knew what they all were.  My goal is to simply foster a greater awareness of what dynamics might possibly be interfering with the process.  Very often there is a wide gulf between what we “want” and what we are ready, willing or able to do in order to get what we want.  The amount of success we will realize is often directly influenced by our degree of commitment to our goal.   Examples abound of wants not realized.  We want life partners and good marriages but half of those will fail.  We want to be slim and healthy but over 90% of dieters will put the weight back on and following a healthy lifestyle is something most of us acknowledge as something we should be doing but, for some reason, can’t seem to get started.  The “self-help” section in any book-store is one of the busiest in the whole shop with new titles cropping up every day; many (not all) who buy will read and then continue on as always, changing nothing.  This too is our client; this is the occupant on the other end of the leash.

It has been suggested that if a million dollars were given to someone living in poverty, the odds are that within a year the person would once again be poor.  Over the years I have seen people repeat the same patterns over and over, this has been the case in many areas e.g. relationships, finances and missed opportunities.  And dogs?  Some examples that come to mind:

-The person who has had two, three or four previous dogs they had to get rid of for specific behavior problems and now their latest is showing the same behavior.  Coincidence?

-The person who pays someone to train their dog for them.  The dog performs perfectly.  It is tested with several different people and passes all tests.  The owner gets the dog back home and within a month the dog has reverted to almost all of the “old behaviors.”

-The trainer finds a piece of equipment that works especially well for the dog in question, demonstrates its use and ensures the client knows how to use it properly.  On the next and any subsequent meetings the owner somehow manages to misplace, forget, break or somehow misuse said equipment.  How many times must this happen before considering that something other than coincidence is at work here?

There is an expression that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  I believe that a corollary to that statement would be, “The teacher will appear and continue to reappear; IF AND WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY, they will learn the lesson.”  Sometimes there is no shortcutting the real lessons to be learned and sometimes the teachers are tough.  Sometimes the poverty, obesity, failed relationship or the dog that won’t mind is the teacher and one is left trying to figure out what is the lesson. 

All is not negative however; we do have a lot going for us.  Humans and dogs share a relationship that goes back to a very early point in our history, many thousands of years ago.  Training our dogs and raising our children has (for the most part) been successfully accomplished for more generations than we can count.  The application of scientific principles to the process and the emergence of “the experts,” presumably to understand and improve on the results, is a relatively new phenomena.  

Today, unlike any other time in history, we have more experts telling us how to raise and educate our dogs and kids.  For our children, we have at our disposal a plethora of child psychologists, child development experts, early childhood teaching experts, etc. – the list is too long to mention.  For our dogs, we also have a list of “experts” that, while maybe not quite as long, is very similar.  Yet it can be argued that despite all the expertise, in some cases we really are no better off.  Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, the experts also focus on the “wrong end of the leash.”

As I cogitate on some of the dog/owner combinations that cross my path, I am impressed with the realization that dog won’t change until owner does.  In a recent class, one of the participants who has been trying very hard, expressed the frustration that the power struggles with the dog have not improved.  She agreed to stay behind after class and showed me the bruises and scrapes on her arms (covered by long sleeves).  It seems every day when she’d begin working with this six month old Newf cross pup, he’d take the opportunity to grab the leash and her arms.  Her attempts to correct were ineffective (to say the least).  I realized, from talking to her, that she is quite timid, does not handle confrontation well and deals with everything in a very non-assertive manner.  The dog will behave for the husband, the trainer - hell even for the student sitting next to her - but not for her.  She knows she needs to be more self-assertive but it requires a tremendous amount of effort on her part to “act” assertive.  She can stick with this dog and hopefully learn the lesson she needs to learn or she can get rid of this dog and will likely then have to face another teacher who has the same lesson to teach her. 


Training is essentially a special kind of conversation.  The conversation involves getting to know each other, letting each other know what is needed and/or expected from the other, and what limits will define the emerging relationship.  One does not have a conversation with a “method,” one uses a method to converse.  A conversation is a very personal thing.  I believe one must look past “the method,” to the people in the equation; this is where I believe the answers lie.  Even though the author of any given method does his best to describe in exact detail what steps to take to achieve the desired result, the formula will be incomplete.  Every trainer has within their method, something intangible - a bit of themself.  They get the best results using their own method because they understand “the conversation” they are having and this conversation is consistent with everything else the dog has come to know about them.

In order to effectively train their dog, one needs to learn how to have this conversation.  This conversation needs to contain all the important pieces of information so that you can be clear about what you want and what you don’t want or will not accept.  I believe that a failure to communicate is responsible for most of the problems we have both in our relationship with our dogs and in the relationships we have with other people.  Effective communicators do not withhold information nor do they only say or do what they think the other wants to hear.  They don’t make empty threats but are honest about consequences.  With them, you know exactly where you stand.  They do not fear saying something because they worry about being liked or accepted. 

Those who may not recognize the importance of this conversation and the role it plays in the personal relationship between dog and owner, may be tempted to substitute “conditioning” for training.  Used in conjunction with other training tools, conditioning can contribute favorably to the overall outcome as it is one of many tools which can be used in a good program.  A program which depends exclusively on conditioning however, will be lacking in some essential elements.  “Conditioning” is the theory that all one needs to do is find the right “motivation,” combine it with the right “schedule of reenforcement,” and provide it often enough until the desired behavior is simply a conditioned response.  Among some, the oft times touted idea of “100% hands off, touch free training,” has a certain appeal, however, I personally view this development with a degree of sadness.  These are all external events - training includes more - I view training as including a shift in “mind.”  

You will never sell me on, ‘laboratory type training’ (which I find remote and distant).  To me training your dog, learning the conversation, is a hands on intimate experience and not a hands off, cold, clinical experience.  If you are looking for a means to understand each other and from there go on to develop a sound reliable and solid relationship with your dog, read on.

Part of the reason that I believe there is such confusion is that the concept of “motivation” is so poorly understood.  Largely as the result of “Behaviorism,” motivation has come to be generally viewed as something external that the animal will work for, rather than the internal process which I believe it to be. “Behaviorism” came in vogue under B. F. Skinner as a theory to explain and modify behavior.  Part of this theory holds that all behavior is caused/shaped by it’s consequences and that external events were all that need be studied or understood.  The motivation or motivator was simply seen as that “something” that caused the behavior to be repeated.  In training with treats (for example) the food is seen as supplying the motivation for the behavior.  One of the problems with this is that our dogs are not simply some rat in a laboratory maze.  Animals that live in severely restricted environments with very little stimulation or opportunity for healthy relationships, might view the tidbit or “motivator” as the highlight of their day.  Their choices are limited, their social contact is very restricted and their behavior patterns are not normal - hardly good subjects for studying learning theory.  

With this in mind, I believe that motivation is nothing more than information and is an internal event.  Cookies contain calories and leashes are made from material, neither of them contain motivation!!  It is what the cookie or leash come to represent (the recognition of the object and the memory it elicits) that provides the motivation!!  Both recognition and memory are cognitive events and are used in the formation of decisions.  A teaching history that contains all the necessary information, including what consequences to expect (both positive and negative) serves as motivation for all future decisions.  In life, there is a continuous interplay between internal and external events, between cognitive and behavioral.  It would seem that any approach that balances both will have the best chance of success.

The training conversation begins in the mind of the trainer and it will continue “any” time you and your dog are together.  Something in the trainer sparks a question:“How can I...?,”  “Why does this happen?,”  “Is it possible...?”  Questions provide the motivation to look for answers and in the process, beliefs and possibilities are entertained.  Once one believes something is in fact possible, more questions are generated as one starts to consider what they want to converse about.  As a picture begins to emerge, purposeful action can be started to make it happen.  The trainer must now find the way to share this picture with his dog.
The trainer will now need to employ certain mental attributes which, when combined with the training exercises, will lead to much greater results.  Those attributes will include, Attitudes, Focus, Energy, Priority setting and Outcome evaluation.

Attitude - The best attitude to maintain is a positive mental attitude.  A firm belief that is shared with the dog and which conveys, “We can do this,” will carry you through the times when misunderstandings may temporarily cloud the picture.  The ability to notice and appreciate each small gain will contribute to the completion of the overall picture.  When you do feel negative (and we all do sometimes), leave your dog alone and get yourself back on track first.  A negative attitude can spoil your dogs attitude.

Focus is closely related to attitude.  Keep your eye on the goal and don’t allow minor distractions to derail you.  As an example, suppose you are training your dog how to meet and greet people.  You set up a number of scenarios and arrange for friends to help you.  In the process of meeting one of your friends you havn’t seen for awhile, you get caught up in a conversation with him and loose track of what your dog is doing.  You’d be better off to keep your eye on the dog, say a brief hello to your friend and arrange to meet later for that long overdue chat.  You want your dog to learn how to deal with distractions - show him.  Each goal that was focused on and achieved becomes its’ own reward.

Enthusiastic, focused energy yields positive results.  When you and your dog combine your energies in pursuit of a common goal, it will have a synergistic effect.  Often far more can be accomplished than was ever imagined and this will help re-energize the both of you.  This will happen because the interplay between you becomes enjoyable and rewarding causing you both to look forward to further activity and the energy seems contagious.

Once you know what you want, you need to decide where to begin.  The expression is to plan your work and then work your plan.  Set priorities starting with anything urgent.  Work on one goal at a time.  Work with focus and attention.  Your reward will be a predictable and satisfying result.

The results you are achieving together must be constantly evaluated to assess the direction you are going together.  If the conversation has stopped, if either (or both) of you are getting distracted, take a look at where you might have gotten sidetracked and reset your goals.  Self evaluation allows you to acknowledge your gains as well as ensuring you are still on track.

As you and your dog converse, you will teach your dog many new things, in the process you WILL also learn a lot about yourself.

Roger Hild, Member and founding member CAPPDT, 
Tsuro Dog Training 
Real Training for Real Dogs 
Check us out at http://www.tsurodogtraining.com