Do dog trainers believe that obedience training is likely to fail in real world situations? Some must sincerely believe that any dog can be trained, and they just ignore evidence to the contrary (they are human, after all).
Perhaps others have their doubts but think that (on balance) saying that any dog can be trained, even if untrue, does more good than harm. Dog trainers tend to love dogs and may view the whole culture of dog training as essential to saving (dog) lives. As Ian Dunbar has written, lapses in house-training and chewed furniture lead directly to the deaths of countless dogs every year.
So they advocate for a point of view – your behavior determines your dog’s behavior – that in many situations seems perfectly sensible:
- the frequency of house-training mishaps is influenced by the consistency of the dog-owner,
- dogs that are being closely-supervised (or are in crates) tend not to destroy furniture,
- owners can minimize obnoxious dog behavior by putting the dog in a controlled environment (like a crate) when appropriate, and not giving mixed signals (like rewarding table-begging with table-scraps).
But there is a big difference between human-dog interactions that can be directly controlled by the human (not feeding table scraps) and human-dog interactions that rely on a fairly high-level of interest and compliance from the dog (like obeying a recall command in a real-world setting). Interest in what humans want varies by breed and by dog and these genetic traits cannot be controlled by changing human behavior.
And this is the irony. Though trainers surely believe they are advocating for dogs, by insisting that any dog can be trained to obey basic commands (in a real world setting) they perpetuate a myth that is both cruel* to people and potentially dangerous** to dogs.
* Lots of people have dogs that are not going to pass an obedience test in a real-world situation. It is cruel to say that the owner (who may in fact deeply love the dog) is failing because of insufficient committment to the dog, or even because of deeper personality flaws, like impatience and untrustworthiness.
** What of dogs that pass a controlled-environment obedience test, and then ignore commands to come-back while chasing a cat into a busy street? If the owner thought less of the obedience training certificate, might he have kept his dog on a leash? Even leashed dogs – in parks and on neighborhood streets – are regularly assaulted by unleashed dogs. Given that about half of dog owners take obedience courses, some of these dogs are being unleashed by owners who have been told by professionals that their dog will now respond to basic commands in the real world.
From a (dog) public health perspective, professional trainers are sending the wrong message. To save a lot of dogs from early death, trainers might instead focus on better housetraining plans, the importance of crates, and really low expectations for off-leash, real-world obedience.