Competent vs Cordial

Are well-trained and well-behaved the same thing?

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Many years ago I sat at Sea World and watched a show featuring a variety of animals trained to perform fantastic tricks. They’d dart down aisles filled with people onto the stage, release ropes that would drop banners, jump through hoops and more. After the show, the handlers brought out many of the pets that starred in the act. I watched, intrigued, as many of the handlers struggled to hold leashes which were being tugged and pulled this way and that. The same pets that had just accomplished some truly incredible feats now stood, pulling their leashes, jumping wildly up and down, barking, and more, as carefree park guests wandered by the stage and out of the theater.

When considering the amount of training that had to take place in order for those animals to not only perform, but perform on cue, it’s reasonable to assume that they are also incredibly well behaved. They are the ones that every pet owner daydreams about: Lying calmly at the feet of their owner who slowly sips that $8 latte out front of Starbucks; The ones who sit quietly as the doorbell rings and the door opens, admitting guests into their home. These dogs obviously attended all the right training classes as their attentive owners did all the right things to guide them on their path to success. But is that really the truth of it?

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With very little open and honest communication available regarding pet training, such misconceptions about well trained being the same as well behaved thrive in our modern society. Training facilities everywhere would have you believe that you need to sign up for that next training class in order to have a well behaved dog. While continuing education is indeed a practice I strongly support, there is something wrong with the assumed cause and effect model of pet training.

So if good behavior isn’t born from training, where does it come from?

Half of that answer is simply genetics. Certain breeds have dispositions that make it easier for them to sit quietly in greatly distracting environments. Similarly, certain people make it easier for pets to be calm and tranquil. That is one of the reasons why researching breed traits before bringing home your newest family member is so important. While I in no way mean to imply that certain breeds simply cannot be well behaved, they are less likely to be so if their owner doesn’t understand that they may need special energy outlets in order to focus better.

The other half comes from regular interaction with your pet, and your pet’s interaction with others. This is one of the reasons why training can seem to result in good behavior. But really, what you’re striving to achieve is to earn the respect of your furry friend, and you can gain that by giving it yourself. This includes talking to, petting, rewarding, and socializing them.

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Think about it in terms of children, parents, and babysitters. When a parent instructs a child to sit calmly at the dinner table, often the child complies since they respect the parent and their authority. When the parents leave and the babysitter steps in, that respect may not be there yet. When the babysitter instructs the same child to sit calmly at the table, it is almost a joke. Only after a threat to tell the parents of their disobedience does the child comply- and even then, often half-heartedly.

This respect didn’t come from regular drills at the dining room table where the parent instructs the child to sit, then lets them stand once again. The child learned to obey requests though regular interactions with their parents. It is in this same way that our pets learn to respect us. When we ask them to sit, they are more likely to do so if they respect you and your authority. You’re also more likely to respect them and their desire to say hello to guests, and let them do so.

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The ultimate goal is to have both a well-trained AND well-behaved pet. Your companion should listen when you ask them for a behavior. They should also be able to greet another person while maintaining a calm attitude. But don’t become mislead in thinking that if your pet knows dozens of commands they should also have good manners. As a child learns to walk and talk, the parent must also teach them the importance of saying please and thank you. These are two different learned behaviors intrinsically connected to one another through their similarities.

The next time you see your pet, give them some love. Take them with you when you go to the pet store. Don’t take them out just to practice heel. Take them out to show them the world and give them experiences that will hone the blade of their manners and personality. It’s not just our pets that benefit from this- more times than not, it’s us too!

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