Can Dog Training Ruin My Dog's Personality?

  • “I’m afraid my dog will lose her personality”
  • “I don’t want my dog to be like a robot”
  • “He’s a dog, just let him be a dog” 
  • “I don’t want my dog to be afraid of me”
  • “I don’t want him to only listen to commands and not know what to do on his own”
  • “I love her spunky, fun-loving, personality and don’t want her to lose it”

Hold on, hold on! I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking these things sound like excuses aren’t you? Before you start judging, let me assure you, they are not. Sure, there are plenty of excuses going on out there and of course the male “I don’t need to ask for directions and I don’t need anyone to tell me how to train my dog” machismo thing exists, but that’s not it. These are legitimate concerns that people have, or at least concerns that people legitimately have. Perhaps you or others in the household have some of these concerns and have, therefore, foregone any formal dog training or professional help. Perhaps you are only reading this because your spouse is over your shoulder making you do it.

You are not alone.

Often times, there is a rift in the family over how to handle the dog because some members want a well-trained, well-behaved dog and others just want to “let the dog be a dog.” This is a major problem because it sends mixed signals to the dog as well as causes frustration amongst the humans. I didn’t think much of it at first but I’ve come across this scenario enough times now that I thought it worth discussing. Let’s dive into this topic a bit and see if we can avoid family counseling while keeping our dog's personality intact, shall we?

Being that I'm a dog trainer, you can probably guess that I am not going to advise forgoing training altogether but you may be surprised to hear me say that the sentiments at the top of the article are not without warrant. Yes, dog training can damage or stifle a dog if done improperly. BUT, so can lack of it! Here’s another news flash, training is happening whether you like it or not. That’s right folks; there is no getting around it. Whether you are training them or they are training you, it is happening, all day, every day. The trick is to be aware of this one simple fact and use it to encourage the kind of behavior that you want. You don’t have to turn your dog into an obedience champion, just learn some basic handling and leadership skills. From there you are in the driver’s seat and can maintain the level that you want. Training can actually be fun and your dog will still have plenty of personality. It’s all about balance, grasshopper.

Here is another sad but true consideration to keep in mind. Animal shelters and rescue facilities are filled to the rim with dogs abundant in personality and rarely will you find a well-trained shelter dog. Is this a coincidence? I would guess not. Adherence to the idea that dogs don’t need or should not get at least some basic training usually leads to one of two things:

  1. People finally break down and get some help because they “can’t take it anymore”
  2. They get rid of the dog even though “we sure are going to miss his personality.”

So, if this sounds like your situation I hope this article will inspire you and your family to sit down and have a serious heart to heart. Are you 100% committed to this dog for the next 15-20 years or will you keep him just long enough to ruin his chances for re-adoption when you can’t take it anymore? That untrained personality you love so much most likely comes with what many would deem “behavior issues.”

So, with all that said, some dogs really don’t need much training to make great companions but they all need some. The real questions are how much and what kind, all while addressing the concerns mentioned above which really seem to boil down to maintaining personality and spirit.

 

"What about the over-trained ‘robot’ dog?”

 

I understand what people are concerned about when they see highly trained dogs that are glued to the handler’s leg, constantly looking up at them and seem to only be looking for the next command. This can easily be seen as a dog that is “like a robot.” I totally get it but here are a few things to understand.

  1. Massive Amounts of Training. Competition level obedience takes hundreds, maybe thousands of hours to achieve, not to mention great skill on the part of the handler. Often, it requires getting a well-bred dog and starting from a pup. The average person has absolutely no worries in this regard. Matter of fact, not all dog trainers have dogs that are trained to that level... just as very few personal fitness trainers are professional bodybuilders. It simply does not happen by accident.
  2. On Duty vs. Off Duty. Before being convinced that the dog you saw doing competition level obedience was lacking in “personality” you would need to get to know them or see them after they have been released from duty. If they spend their life in a crate and their only outlet is training, then I would agree that this is totally unbalanced and unfair to the dog and the dog is over-trained. Some dogs are used as tools or weapons, but I am all about dogs as companions and members of the family. If, on the other hand, the dog is able to be released of duty, run on the beach, go for hikes, play ball, hang with friends, etc., then that is a beautiful thing.This is a dog that will actually be allowed much more freedom. A dog like this does not even need a leash!
  3. Dogs Like To Work. Dogs, especially those bred for working, love to have a job and know their place in the pack. They need structure and they need to be part of a pack. Most dogs don’t care what rank they have in the pack, they just need to know what it is. If you don’t take the lead, they will, simply because their DNA says someone has to do it. Training gives you tools to provide your dog with a job. The untrained “happy” dog may actually be displaying anxiety from a lack of clarity as to the structure of the pack. Anxious does not mean happy.
  4. Included In or Left Out. A trained, well-behaved dog will have a much greater chance of being included in your life and activities. An untrained, jumping, barking, spinning, overly excited dog may be seen as full of “personality” but they will also more likely be left out rather than invited on camping trips, or put in the yard rather than invited in when company comes over. Make no mistake, barking, whining and jumping on the glass door is not personality, it is frustration and anxiety.

 

"What about wrongful training? I don’t want my dog to be afraid of me”

 

This is a totally legitimate concern but not a reason to go without training. This is not a question of “to train or not to train” this is a question of how to train. Dog training needs to be balanced and despite all the conflicting ideas out there these days, is not that difficult. I am a believer in letting the dog tell us exactly how to approach their training. There are styles of training that are very physical and domineering. There are also very gentle and passive training styles. Is one right and the other wrong? Do I have to choose sides in this “us or them” media blitz? I personally think that they are both right and both wrong, depending on all the circumstances. Is that the ultimate cop out? No, not at all, I just believe that they both have value in some situations and can both be harmful in others. Dog training is not a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter endeavor; it is an art that requires versatility. The best trainers know how to use both in the proper ratio, for a given dog, at a given time and in given situations.

Clearly, training too harshly can break a dog’s spirit and make them fearful. This has been done a lot in the "spank 'em with a newspaper" days of training, and,to a lesser degree, is still done today which has led to a“Positive Only” movement in the dog training world. This is a massive overreaction and has led to its own set of problems. Of course training too harshly is open to interpretation but taking it to the extreme of never using any physical pressure and only rewarding good behavior is totally skewed and full of flaws. If nothing else this can be harmful simply by being ineffective.

How can you have light withought dark? How can you have “Yes” without also having “No”? The truth is, you can’t, and it’s not realistic. There are those that believe you can, but the result is commonly a lack of reliability and a ton of permissiveness. Well intentioned as this type of training may be, this line of thinking is extreme, just as much as those that think you should never use food and believe strangling your dog with a choke chain to show your dominance is a good idea.

Avoiding the extremes is the key to balance. Positive reinforcement should be the cornerstone of training a dog but they also need to learn to “give to pressure” which, believe it or not, can be done without harm to the dog or your relationship. Matter of fact, done properly this will improve your relationship and make your dog safer around children. Some dogs are very touch sensitive and others are very touch insensitive. Some really want to please you and others really want to please themselves. There are a lot of things to consider and the “devil‘s in the details” as they say but it is always about balance. A good dog will happily accept physical pressure as well as a treat, but these things need to be conditioned properly and according to each dog’s individual temperament.

So, will training ruin your dog’s personality? That is really up to you, how you approach the training and ultimately, what you perceive as “personality.” 

A properly trained dog will not cower from you but they will gladly accept your touch, be it a massage, a correction or just some simple guidance. They will not fear you but they will respect you and respond to a firm verbal “No!” There is a difference between your dog showing fear or submission just as there is a difference between your voice conveying anger or sternness.  Fear and anger are unwanted; submission and sternness are natural in appropriate doses. These may seem like fine lines but are actually giant caverns and the reason why some professional guidance may be helpful.

Yes, even for Mr. Macho who believes he never needs to ask for directions.

 

Chad Culp–Certified Dog Trainer, Behavior Consultant, Certified Holistic Chef for Animals

Copyright 2005-2013 Chad Culp, Thriving Canine. All rights reserved. Chad@ThrivingCanine.com