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Great Expectations

Have you ever heard yourself saying (or thinking) any of the following:

He’s being stubborn…

He knows what to do, he’s just not doing it because XXX…

She goes deaf when…

What happens in that scenario? We start to think about our dog in negative language, and a lot of responsibility is placed at the paws of the dog. What about if we reframed those thoughts, looking at ourselves instead?

He’s being stubborn----- have I explained to him clearly what I want? Have I checked he understands? Is there something new here that might be worrying him?

He knows what to do, he’s just not doing it because XXX…---- Does he really? Have I proofed this behaviour in this specific situation already? Multiple times? With the current distractions? Or do I need to rethink and make it easier for him to make the right choices?

She goes deaf when… ---- Have I placed her in a situation where the environment is overwhelming? Was that her choice or mine? Have I proofed this behaviour enough, and built enough muscle memory and positive associations with the right choice, to over-ride the powerful pull of this situation? Am I asking too much right now?

People have pretty high expectations of their dog to listen and “to do” without perhaps putting in the right kind of time and energy into developing that ability to make the desired choice. Why is this?



I find it odd that we wouldn’t expect a toddler to understand the concept of not running into the road, or exercising some self-restraint, but we often don’t apply that understanding to our young dogs (yes, I know dogs are not humans, but there can be parallels drawn between baby mammals and how they explore the world and develop understanding). With young children, rather than just saying “don’t run into the road” we would say “hold my hand, look both ways, stop at the crossing, wait for me”- specific, clear actions that they can understand.

A dog chases, or jumps up, or grabs any available food because that’s what they would naturally do, so why would we expect them to have an understanding to NOT do that, unless we have worked hard on helping them to understand?

We are fed a diet of perfection and excellence these days flicking through social media. We see dogs performing amazing feats, perfect obedience, amazing agility, focused gundog work, tricks galore. We see celebrity “experts” seemingly performing miracles in a short space of time (and not just with dogs, think about home makeovers, body changes, fashion makeovers). It gives a false impression that

-          Change can happen really quickly (and if it doesn’t, then your dog is at fault)

-          You don’t need to put in much effort (your dog should just “know”)


What we rarely see is the hours and hours spent working on skills. The commitment to working through problems, to developing understanding, to being consistent. Hopefully if you’re reading this, you already know that learning a new skill or way of approaching something, TAKES TIME AND EFFORT!

Dog training is a skill and, like most skills, it can be learnt- that goes for both ends of the lead! And, as with most things, the more you put effort in, the better you will get. Think about something you have tried to learn in the past- maybe it was a language, or a sport, or a mechanical skill - did you see huge improvements if you just did one hour a week and then no practice? And what about if you actually went to France and tried using your language? Or if you didn’t just go to rugby practice once a week but you built up the muscles with other exercises through the week? Or you practiced sewing clothes, or knitting, or taking apart an engine?

Comparison is the thief of joy…

Yes, some people are naturally better than others at some things, but the point remains- you will always improve from your personal starting point if you try to develop your skill. And so will your dog if you are consistently working with them, at a level they can achieve with your help. And just because someone else- whether in real life or online- is making something look easy, it doesn’t mean it was always easy for them. Most likely what you are seeing is the result of someone who has tried and tried and tried to get that behaviour correct.

For example, I’m currently a student in an online spaniel trick training class- why? Well, I want to have fun with my dogs and keep improving on my timing and ability to read what they are telling me. Do I care about the actual tricks? No, not really! Will I keep practising them every day for a few minutes here and there so we keep improving? Yes, absolutely! Why? Because it’s a training habit, like going to the gym. I can’t expect my dogs to be in good shape, connected with me, and ready to learn, if I don’t put in that time with them on a very regular basis. Quality over quantity though!

Great expectations

At the start I talked about the right kind of time and energy- what do I mean by this? Well, just taking your dog for a walk, letting them run around and sniff everything to their heart’s content whilst you are on your phone or chatting to your friend is going to give your dog stimulus and will be meeting their basic needs to exercise natural behaviours, but it’s not putting yourself into the heart of that WITH them and it’s not guiding them to your expectations in that situation. If you are not engaging with your dog, and actively training for behaviour you want then, newsflash, your dog is going to follow their natural desires (hunting, scenting, chasing, retrieving- oh, you didn’t want that dead bunny?!)

And, on the flip side, if we want our dogs to DO something, we have to actively help them understand what it is we want from them. Dogs generally do want to please us, and gundogs especially have been selectively bred across generations to be those that display genetic traits of wanting to do the job, which also involves wanting to work with us. So, a well bred gundog already has that hard-wired- BUT! If we ignore their efforts to connect, or don’t acknowledge them, then that desire will dwindle. So, on a walk, get involved! If your dog is busy sniffing, ask them if it’s a good sniff- watch their tail go!

Putting in the time

Helping our dogs understand new, desired behaviours, is not a “one and done” scenario, despite what you see on TV and TikTok. If we want our dog to understand heel means walk or sit at my side, or recall means turn and get back to me as fast as you can, then we have to help them understand that, and want to do it. Put the expectations on ourselves, not our dogs!

We need to

  • Help them understand step-by-step what it actually is we want them to do (no, heel isn’t “be at a right angle to me”! Yes, that is exactly the right position, here, have a reward for getting it right, and again…)

  • Build value for the dog in doing “the thing” – how do you make them understand that coming back to you and NOT chasing that bird has value? How do you reward staying at heel even though biomechanically it’s not very comfortable for them?

  • Contextualise it- have you practised in different ways, different situations, spaces, times, with distractions?

That’s where the value of the trainer comes in. These aspects are what we address in training- has your dog understood? Have YOU understood?! How do we check the understanding? How do we adapt and change if needed? We can help you develop the tools and understanding of what is going on with your dog, and what you need to do to effect change, but the change truly comes in the time between sessions with just you and your dog. The sessions you put in through the week, the engagement you put in on dog walks, the commitment to developing your partnership- that is the where the magic truly happens, and where expectations do become reality 😊

So, what’s ONE thing you are going to do this week to change the way you train? What are your great expectations of yourself?

Happy training!

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