Tuesday Training Tip: Special Needs Dogs Need Patience Plus! Part 1

Mama Sally:  Because I exclusively train dogs in their own homes, I often see many more special needs dogs than an average dog trainer might.  Many of the dogs I train simply aren’t good candidates for group classes or even for going to a training facility which is new to the dog,  in order to take private lessons.  This might be because of aggressive behavior, or because the dog is excessively shy, or overly reactive in some form or fashion.  Every dog is uniquely different in this regard.

All of the above-mentioned types of behaviors can be really challenging for owners, and generally, by the time I am called to help someone train their dog, the dog owner is at the end of their rope.  When I go to evaluate a dog, at least once a week I hear, “We have to do something! We can’t continue to live this way anymore! If our dog doesn’t change, we just can’t keep him.”  There’s always a whole lot riding on evaluations and training assignments!!  Rugby is my daily reminder of owners who couldn’t make it work with him, and I know how hard life has been for him because of being shuffled around so much from home to shelter to home over and over again in his first year of life.


If there’s one thing I have learned from Rugby, it’s how to be patient with the process of transforming a dog’s behavior.  Dogs simply cannot be rushed when they are learning things.  They learn at the rate that they learn, and we can either adjust ourselves or give up.  Unfortunately, far too many people just give up….and our overflowing shelters and rescues are proof of that!  I don’t want to see dogs being recycled or thrown out like yesterday’s garbage that has no value anymore.

I see impatience every day when owners work with their dogs.  I think some of this is just a cultural shift.  We live in an instant world.  The Internet makes endless information available instantly, we can instantly stream movies, and microwaves make food available in seconds. As a culture, I think we just have gotten so accustomed to our “instant” lives, that we think “programming” a dog with good behavior should be just as quick and easy.

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Truth be told, many dog training techniques really are very simple and easy to learn.  However, just because a training technique is simple to learn, that doesn’t mean that it will be a quick process to rehabilitate the dog.  Those are very different things.  Dogs learn through repetition, but the number of repetitions varies from dog to dog.


Special needs dogs often learn things just as quickly as the next, but often the application of the things that they learn needs very soft and tender  training.  This is where owners sometimes get hung up.  They think that if their dogs can learn to sit in the kitchen, then their dog should do it anywhere….everywhere….with all kinds of life happening around them.  In your dog’s mind….that’s a completely different thing, and they don’t automatically generalize commands or behavior.  It has to be carefully taught and introduced with kid gloves so that they can come along with things.

Special needs dogs are often dogs who have experienced more of “life” than the average dog.  Experience is a very powerful teacher to us all! When I was five years old, I remember clearly, my mom telling me not to touch a hot iron.  But, like any five year old, I thought I knew better, and when her back was turned, I touched the iron….just to see.  Well….I promise you, I’m a few years older than five, but I still remember that experience, and I have a healthy respect of hot irons.

pexels-photo-14644Dogs really aren’t so different.  With very young puppies, anything traumatic goes much deeper, because they just don’t understand how the world works.  When scary things happen over and over, learned behavior takes place in a dog.  That can translate to me as a five year old, touching a hot iron over and over and over.  After several encounters, I might start to avoid the room with the hot iron…just in case it’s there.  It’s not so different with a puppy!  When scary things happen to them….over and over, they can produce some wacky fearful behavior.  It’s sort of like a  large ball of yarn to unwind….picking knots out as we go along….identifying one issue after another.

Patience is absolutely the word of the day with special needs dogs.  Rugby has needed time to trust me, time to learn basic commands and new behavior, time to process all of that, time to remember what to do when a situation comes up, and then time to consistently produce the new behavior when he’s asked, so that over time it will become a new learned habit.  Not an easy task for any dog, and I’ve sure had more than one hiccup along the way with Rugby that has left me scratching my head and having to re-think techniques!  He’s really made me forge a new way of training, and that’s just forced me to be patient and figure things out as I’ve gone along.

For many special needs dogs, fear is the root of what is happening emotionally, and that drives everything that goes on.  If I can reduce a 11.21.13 014dog’s fear and anxiety, he can learn new material and I have a hope at rehabilitating him.  A fearful dog isn’t thinking….he’s reacting.  He’s thinking about how to save his skin, so he cuts right to the chase and produces the learned coping skill that is often well rehearsed.  I have to carefully and patiently work through those things to help a dog learn to stay calm and teach him that he can choose to cope with new tools rather than his old coping patterns of behavior.

It’s definitely a process….and has an unbelievable wealth of reward when a dog makes progress forward.  My hope is always that there are still people in the world who want that reward, and are willing to see the process through….never giving up on their dog!  Many people love the idea of “rescuing” a dog…”saving” that one that no one else will take.  I have a heart like that myself.  However, it’s really important to know that the dream of getting that rescue versus the reality of living with that dog are VERY different things!!  Not all dogs can be rehabilitated, and not everyone wants to live with a dog who is an emotional mess.

Dogs are living, breathing, thinking creatures, and when you think about getting a dog who is special needs, you really need to know that you may very well be living with his current behavior for the life of that dog, if he can’t be helped with professional training.  I can’t “fix” everything that’s wacky with Rugby or with many of the other more serious special needs dogs that I train.  But….in almost every situation, the dog is so much better after training, that owners feel as if they can cope with what’s left.  That’s a win in my book.

Rugby has improved so much from what we saw in those early days, weeks and months of living with him.  He’s never going to be an easy dog to live with, or one that will enjoy having a big world with lots of new things to see and experience.  He’s the dog who has changed how I train dogs in such a dramatic way.  But more than that, he’s the dog who has changed me….and that’s been a journey of patience for my dog…as he’s had to wait for me to figure things out too!  And together, we’ve forged such a wonderful relationship with each other that’s been absolutely priceless.


Rugby will add his two cents on this next week!  He’s got a lot to say, as you can imagine….little barker that he is!  But he has first hand knowledge and understanding of work with humans, and he can tell you from a puppy perspective….about the mistakes I’ve made, and how those mistakes impacted him and his learning process toward rehabilitation!





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