DEAR DIDI: I have a 5 year old Standard Poodle. We have taken many AKC classes and he always excels in a class environment. He has titles and graduates with honors. His behavior at home, however, is not exemplary. He jumps on kitchen counters, helps himself to the sofa or trash cans and is overly joyful with visitors to our home. We are not sure how this is possible or what to do about it. -Stumped in Lodi
DEAR STUMPED: When the human part of the training team is in a formal dog training classroom environment, they are focused and paying attention. The dog is also on point and focused on the tasks at hand. Once the class is over and life reinvades our minds we are not as focused on our dogs. We don’t notice what they are doing as quickly, if at all. Instead, we are worried about bills, kids’ schedules, dishes, and all sorts of other issues. Our dogs know perfectly well whether or not we are paying attention. Just like our children, they tend to pick the moments mom is not watching to do something they shouldn’t.
Poodles are one of the top breeds for intelligence and problem solving. Although this may seem really cool, for the smartest pooch on the block it is more often a problem. The smart ones get into things, second guess commands, notice minor training errors and inconsistencies and, in general, are a little more difficult to train. It is like having a gifted human child but never letting them read above kindergarten level. They will get bored. Bored children look for things to occupy themselves. What they choose to occupy themselves with is rarely what we want them to do!
A good group training class does have its advantages. Our dogs need to learn to listen and focus on us despite the distraction of other dogs nearby. The cost of group lessons is usually much less than private lessons and your dog is getting out of the house and working on being socialized to new and different things.
I find that there are really two facets of training, however. Your problem is not unusual! Most of my clients are focused on obedience and believe it will be the solution to all of their problems. However, the other facet has to do with respect in the home and learning manners. This is very different than obedience which deals with Sit, Come, Stay, Heel, etc.
I know many dogs that are very well managed by their owners but have zero obedience. More often than not, however, I find the reverse. Many dogs know how to Sit and Come but only do it when they feel like it and run amuck in their daily home lives. I know this can be a foreign concept to many people but management in the home is a separate issue over obedience. It is based on mutual respect, an effective communication system, and firm boundaries with clear rewards and/or consequences. This is where a Behaviorist differs from a trainer. If your obedience is strong enough to win awards, then you should be able to turn things around at home fairly easily under the guidance of a Behaviorist who will help you set boundaries and consequences as a matter of day to day manners.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. Email your questions or inquire about dog behavior presentations at firstname.lastname@example.org.