In defense of ‘doing nothing’ with a dog

“Gee your dog has it pretty easy; he gets treats for doing nothing!”

I overheard this comment from one person to another at a rally trial last year. Comments like this really grind my gears…so please, allow me to dust off my soap box and offer you a few short points on why unhelpful statements like this still get me all riled up almost a year later.

Why comments like this bother me

  • They are typically unsolicited and come from a complete stranger – not from a judge, not from the team’s trainer, not even from a friend.
  • They imply that the person to whom the comment was made is a not an effective trainer because if they were, their dog would be ‘doing something’ for a cookie.
  • They imply the person who made the comment is skilful enough to assess what’s going on with another team in a short period of time. As a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, I know that the best training advice is the result of a lot of time spent asking questions and observing.
  • In this case, the dog in question is one of the most fearful dogs I know.
  • In this case, I know what said dog could be doing – he could be barking and lunging or he could shut down completely and cower in a corner, unable to look at – or eat – anything.
  • In this case, I know how much work this dog’s owner had done with the dog – and it’s years.
  • I know for a fact the dog was working – He was playing a game popularised by Leslie McDevitt in her book Control Unleashed called “look at that”.

Essentially, when comments like this are made, I think that the person making the comment has made two flawed assumptions about people and their dogs that grind my gears.

The first assumption is that dogs are only ‘working’ when they are responding to direct verbal or physical (hand signal) cues, commands or prompts from their humans.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a responsive dog as much as anyone, but I think it’s important to remember that being calm and attentive in a busy trial environment (or at a family picnic, or in the field) is hard work
in fact, I would argue it’s the hardest work of all because it requires a dog to:

  • Be confident enough in her handler’s to trust that her handler will keep her safe.
  • Be comfortable enough in an environment to settle near his handler or in his crate.
  • Practice self-restraint when confronted with a worrisome (or interesting) dog, sound or object.
  • Offer (appropriate) behaviours (sit, down, eye contact, look at that) in an environment filled with distractions.
  • A dog that cannot do these things cannot be ready to respond to your cues and until you have dealt with these issues, your dog’s responsiveness is compromised.

The second assumption is that because their dog (or a dog they know, or a dog they’ve seen on TV) can do, other dogs should be held to the exact same set of standards and expectations. My experiencing teaching and coaching humans and dogs has taught me that every dog and every dog owner has a unique history and a certain set of skills, challenges and sometimes deficits which all affect a dog’s ability to function cope or learn at any time and in any given environment. This means that each dog learns and grows at their own rate – no two learn everything at exactly the same rate and no two are distracted or worried by the exact same things. some dogs learn some things faster and some slower but with time and guidance, theses dogs and their owners do improve – at their own speed.

I don’t fully understand why people make these assumptions or feel the need to say such things to total strangers. Maybe they have been blessed with fearless and attentive dogs that have only eyes for them, or perhaps their dog raising experience has given them the skills to raise dogs that are prepared to handle all the wonderful (and scary) things the world has to offer. Regardless of why these assumptions are made, I am begging all dog lovers, owners and trainers to appreciate that for some dogs, being able to ‘do nothing’ but be calm and attentive in a show, trial or class environment may be the result of weeks or months or years of work.

For the love of doG, next time you see a dog ‘doing nothing’ for treats, hold your tongue, and take the time to enjoy a dog and their person sharing a quiet moment together. Companionship is, after all, what having a dog is all about – isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “In defense of ‘doing nothing’ with a dog

  1. Oh my…that makes me a terrible pet parent! I give my dogs treats just… because I love them. I often have them ‘sit’ not so much because it’s a command but because with 3 of them, when they’re sitting, they’re not knocking each other over to get at me! LOL

    Just ignore those people. Or, better yet, ask them what tricks their kids do before they get fed. LOL

    1. With multiple dogs, being calm is EXTRA important, in my opinion, so your tactic is great! I operate a dog daycare and typically can give large groups of dogs cookies because they have all learned no cookies are distributed to jumping leaping hounds. In my own travels, I have to admit, people don’t say things like this to me (anymore!) and if they do I explain to them that relaxing is work that deserves to be rewarded but I do feel badly for novice or less outspoken trainers when people try to insinuate they are being “bad owners” by perfect strangers.

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