One sad effect of the bad economy is the increased number of dogs surrendered to shelters and rescue groups. Not all of these dogs are untrained, unsocialized strays, abandoned by uncaring people. Some are well-loved pets that were socialized and trained by owners who unfortunately can no longer afford to take care of them. If you are one of the good folks who have adopted such a dog, there are some things you should know about working with dogs that have been trained by someone other than yourself or your family.
When a dog learns to respond to a command, many factors are involved. Commands are a composite of many things. The tone and inflection of the voice in which the command is given, the command words used, the hand motions that accompany the command — even the general posture of the person giving the command — all are part of the command process.
The dog learned to respond to a certain set of words and physical cues that are a package. If all are done in the same, familiar fashion, he will likely respond correctly. If any of the pieces of information are missing or unfamiliar, he may become confused and not respond as expected.
Here is an example: If the dog has been trained to lie down when he hears the command word “Down” and sees the handler make a sweeping arm motion downward, he will not know what the command “Lay” accompanied by a finger snap and a quick point downwards means. Does this mean that the dog has not been trained to lie down on command? No. He’s just not familiar with the command as it was given.
One good way to learn to work with a pre-trained dog is to enroll in a good basic obedience training class. An experienced instructor can help you learn to give commands correctly and to follow up with suitable praise or correction as needed. A good instructor will also be familiar with the variety of command words and common hand signals widely used and will most likely be able to find the combination that makes your dog “tick.” A refresher course at the basic level will be especially helpful if the dog had to spend any significant amount of time in a shelter waiting for adoption after finishing his prison training program.
If you are lucky enough to have adopted one of the dogs trained in the Allen Correctional Institution’s PETS (Pets Educated To Survive) program, you should have received the inmate trainer’s journal along with the dog. This journal outlines the inmate’s training procedures and the dog’s progress during its six- to eight-week stay in the program. It gives volumes of useful information as to command words used, any hand signals taught, and how good behavior was reinforced and undesirable behavior was corrected or redirected.
Any quirks in the dog’s temperament will be noted in the journal, as will be general observations on the dog’s personality. Some of the men in the PETS program write volumes and others can only manage an outline of sorts, but each dog’s journal will contain vital information for the dog’s new owner.
Almost every dog in the PETS program leaves the prison with its American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificate. These dogs are trained to a high standard and this is apparent when they are worked by their inmate handlers. This level of training will not automatically transfer to the new owner without some work on the new owner’s part, though.
Investing a bit of time in learning to give and follow up commands properly, being patient and having realistic expectations will help the dog’s training transfer to its new owners. If the new owners make the mistake of assuming the dog will automatically know what they expect of him when he is given what may be an unfamiliar command, they may make the assumption that the dog is untrained. A little work and a little help from someone well versed the training process will go a long way to help to build a strong and satisfying relationship in the dog’s new and hopefully “forever” home.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog trainer, obedience and tracking instructor and judge of canine events. She is a published author and contributes regular columns to several dog publications. Dorothy currently teaches at the Hollowell Academy of Dog Training and, along with Diane Laratta, teaches weekly classes for the Allen Correctional Institution’s PETS Program.