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The Harsh Truth About Your Dog’s Abilities

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Service dog performing a task

I could keep up with Dara Torres in a pool if I trained hard enough.  I could solve math problems like the one in the movie “Good Will Hunting” and probably even attend MIT if I studied more.  I’ve golfed a few times, and I’d like to take some lessons so I can compete in the Masters someday.

For many of you that don’t know me, those seem like pretty ridiculous and unrealistic statements.  For those of you that know me and may even love me, you may think I’m wonderful, or special (hopefully in a good way), but for the most part, I’m just a pretty average human.  Admittedly, with practice, hard work, discipline, and dedication, I could certainly vastly improve my skills in areas like swimming, golf, or math.  However, no matter hard I may try, I will always be limited by my abilities, talent (or lack of), aptitude, strength, and many other factors that mother nature dealt me.

So how does my harsh reality relate to your dog?  Media and the internet have given all of us access to learn about so many subjects.  We see police dogs taking down perpetrators under extreme conditions, service animals performing tasks that are amazing, and dogs participating in sports and activities that are so complex and advanced it’s fascinating.  The bottom line is that your pet dog probably will never have the abilities, talent, and aptitude to perform like dogs on television.  Many owners have profoundly unrealistic expectations about their dog’s abilities as well as the dedication it takes to work a dog in different disciplines.

Here are a few harsh truths that I have shared with clients that I would like to share with my readers:

* Your pet dog probably does not meet the criteria required to work with law enforcement.  Many police dog trainers use dogs selectively bred to be able to take harsh treatment from a perpetrator and have the aptitude to do police work.  So NO, the coercive and aversive methods and tools (like shock collars and prong collars) used by law enforcement are completely inappropriate for your pet dog.  And YES, these methods are likely to cause your dog to be fearful or aggressive or both.

* Your pet dog does not meet the criteria required to work with law enforcement and lives with your family.  Your pet dog is not a good candidate to be a protection dog.  Enlisting your dog in protection and bite work without a true commitment to controlling the dog and ensuring the dog is successful, is likely to result in a bite to a family member or guest.  So don’t do it.

* Your pet dog does not meet the criteria for complex service work.  Your pet dog that can’t even pass basic obedience and has lunged and snapped at strangers is not a good candidate to help your family member with tasks in public.

* Your pet dog is fearful and snappy with anyone that is not a member of your immediate family.  Your pet dog will not allow a stranger to touch his paws without biting them.  You can work with a professional dog trainer to modify these behaviors by getting the dog to trust strangers and manage the environment so your dog feels safe.  However, your dog will probably NEVER be predictable enough to be a therapy dog.

* Your pet dog is incredibly distracted in public and may never really be a great trick dog.  But if you and your dog enjoy practicing and being out with other dogs and people showing off your stuff, THEN DO IT.  Enjoy the fun of just being what you and your dog can be.  Don’t worry about what someone else can do with their dog.

Information about criteria and testing for service and other activities:

Therapy dog test items from TDI
CARAT Assessment to predict success in service work


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