I presented a seminar on how to teach your dog self control for Your Dog's Friend last Saturday. It was a good crowd, especially considering we had the first summer-like weekend of the year.
Almost everyone there had a dog who could use at least a little bit more self control. Everyone asked excellent questions and were very receptive to teaching their dog the easy way, with positive reinforcement.
I did, however, get a couple questions that went kind of like this: "Yeah ok, I understand that positive reinforcement is good to teach my dog how to do something, but how do I get him to obey me?"
I wasn't quite sure what the person was asking, so I asked for clarification. This was the answer: "You know, how do I get the dog to obey me no matter what? Sometimes he only obeys when he wants to."
My answer startled the person. That is not a dog problem, that's a person problem. It's up to you, the person, to teach the dog how to do what you ask no matter what the distance, no matter what the distraction, no matter what the duration. And it's really easy to teach when you use positive reinforcement. Ridiculously easy.
As you may well imagine, the person wasn't particularly thrilled with my answer. She couldn't understand that her dog, who'd been taught to come when called, hadn't been taught to do it in distracting circumstances. She believed the dog was being willful, spiteful, stubborn, mischeivous (insert your adjective of choice here). She didn't see that the real problem was the teacher. She hadn't taught the dog that he actually could come when called, even if a deer ran across it's path.
Here's the example I gave her, hoping it would help explain that the dog wasn't being stubborn or willful, but simply hadn't been taught how to come when called:
I have been driving a car since I was 15. I can drive a stick shift, automatic, truck, sports car, convertible; I can even tow a boat. I know where the turn signals, emergency brake, and light switches are on all those different kinds of vehicles. I can drive them fast, I can drive them slow, I can drive them in the rain and in the snow. (No, I didn't really mean to sound like Dr. Seuss, it just came out that way.)
HOWEVER, ask me to drive you into or out of the District of Columbia at 4:00p on a Friday afternoon and you'll see a woman who's driving skills will quickly deteriorate. Not because I'm stubborn. Not because I'm being willful. Not because I'm mad at you. Simply because I don't drive in the city. I don't think I've ever driven Downtown. In all my 40 years of living, I've never experienced a traffic circle with 5 lanes. I've never had to dodge taxi doors opening. I've never had to look at twelve signs within 20 feet of one another.
Teaching your dog to work with you through distractions is no different. You've got to teach them how to do the much more difficult job of complying even in the face of things they may not see very often. It's really easy to blame the dog. But it's just not fair. Do your job of thoroughly preparing your dog to work even in daunting circumstances, and he'll do his job just fine and dandy.