When Training a Shelter Dog, You Get What You Give

Dogs aren’t born obedient, they require time, effort and dedication on your part.

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“My dog isn’t coming to me,” complained a successful client of mine. Mind you, the client did not participate in even one session with me and his amazing dog. His dog responds to me like magic. He comes to me even when he’s in the midst of his favorite wrestling game with his doggie brother.

It’s not that the dog isn’t obedient. It’s because the dog responds to the person who gives him pleasure, who connects with him, who sees him and “gets” him — not the person who legally owns him. That makes sense, right? But try to explain that to people who are either lazy or used to throwing money at problems.

A dog is like a garden; the more you put into it, the more you will reap in return. If you don’t water or fertilize a garden, it’s futile to be upset when it doesn’t gift you with fruits and veggies.

Most homeless dogs have done nothing wrong other than being unlucky enough to have owners who wanted to have the best dog without having to put any effort into him.

Some even hired trainers like me and expected us to “just fix the dog.” They didn’t realize you can’t outsource your relationship with your dog and expect him to love you. Would you give nothing of yourself to your spouse and expect him to love, adore and understand you? That mentality might explain why more than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.

Gaze into the mirror

Learning how to connect with a dog is like learning how to show up in any relationship — whether it’s as a friend, a romantic partner, a parent or CEO. In a way, dogs help us to become the best versions of ourselves. It takes courage and humility to look at ourselves and to see how we can change.

It sucks to be blamed for not having good and committed owners or parents. I know how it feels. My parents tried to throw me away until my grandfather intervened. I was their first child, and they were immature. They had their dream of what it would be like to have a baby, and when I was born, I was a sickly little one. I required work, and they resented it and me because it didn’t fit their dream of what it would be like having a baby.

In three decades of coaching dogs and their owners, I have found that the discipline — to be a good coach, owner and communicator — needs to come from the owner and not on the dog.

It doesn’t matter if we get the “perfect” breed of dog (such a thing doesn’t exist). In the end, we have to ask ourselves: Did I ask what my dog could give me, or did I ask what I could do to help my dog realize his potential?

Before you adopt, be sure you are disciplined to invest in the relationship. Be dedicated to learn his love language (what makes him feel loved and eager to learn), and follow through for his whole life.

That dog who wouldn’t go to his owner loves to play with toys and loves to eat. That’s the dog’s love language. What does his owner use as a reward when his dog comes to him? Nothing — not even praise. He just commands him to Sit! No wonder the dog doesn’t come when he calls.

Tamar Geller

Tamar Geller

Tamar Geller is a famed canine coach and author of The Loved Dog: The Playful, Non-Aggressive Way to Teach Your Dog Good Behavior (Gallery Books, 2008) and 30 Days to a Well-Mannered Dog (Simon and Schuster, 2011). Her nonprofit Operation Heroes & Hounds pairs shelter dogs with injured military veterans who train the dogs to get them ready for forever homes.

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