With only a few sleeps until Xmas, surrounded by thoughts of Giving, Sharing and Being Grateful, I find myself reflecting over the human-dog relationship. I know I don’t need to tell you that dogs are amazing.. But I’ll spend a few moments reflecting and pondering with you.
Besides being our constant companions…obviously dogs have brilliant ability to learn…beyond what most of us actually really explore and push boundaries for. We have not even scratched the surface for what we could indeed teach our companion dogs. I am convinced, too that dogs DO love and WANT to learn: they LOVE the attention they get in the teaching/learning process. If you are a good “employer” (which hopefully you strive to be), make it safe for the dog to experiment and offer behaviors and pay your dog well for effort and learning – the relationship that develops in this process is also truly remarkable and will continue to deepen and flourish further, the more you teach and the more you challenge the dogs’ brain to keep learning! I see it in classes and my clients all the time. Dogs absolutely love learning, they truly enjoy and want to be participants in the process…and they are utterly and bluntly honest about what they know and what they don’t know! And how fun for people, too…to see their companion shine!
So…when you Have taught your dog some stuff…we run into a topic which often is controversial and met with questions and hot debate. We have taught our dogs some basic skills/ manners and “we know that the dog knows” these – should they not just “obey” because they “know”?? We are the leaders and they should be subservient and just DO things because we ask them? Misbehaviour really shouldn’t happen “Because they know better?”!?
Like walking nicely on leash, for example…if we’ve given them a few cookies during a few walks for being beside our leg, then yanked them a few times and told them “NO!” for pulling…and again given them another treat for walking beside…should they not KNOW better? Have we now not clearly shown them what leash walking should look like? Shouldn’t they now walk nicely all the time? —Maybe not…Here’s my take on stuff like:
walking nicely beside your leg (VS. sniffing the ground, or pulling toward something really exciting),
coming when called (VS. running off to play with another dog or chasing a bunny), relaxing and lying down calmly waiting (VS. lunging away from you, straining, looking for fun elsewhere when on leash)…
Dogs are completely HONEST about where they see the VALUE. Where has your dog, through a history of reinforcement (rewards) learned that there is FUN, Joy, and opportunity for reinforcement?? THAT is where his attention and energy will be directed to! If you don’t build a reinforcement history for walking nicely next to your leg but instead your dog finds amazing joy in straining away from you to smell the world, try to chase bunnies…etc…of course your dog will think that the value when on leash is Definitely AWAY from you. Not in being WITH you.
If your dog has lots of opportunity to play off leash in the dog park, running AWAY from you and learning that other dogs are truly Amazing and fun, whereas you are mainly a sure-fire signal that the fun is about to end and there is no reward history telling the dog that hearing you call him would ever have any significantly positive consequence (possibly rather the other way around) L – of course your dog will see more value in running away from you towards other dogs, than he will see in coming TO you. Simple as that.
IF, however, you take the time to build YOUR value…teach your dog how to play games with YOU, teach your dog that beside your pant leg is the best place in the World to walk (have him earn all his breakfasts and dinners for walking where you WANT him to walk) and spend time BEING YOUR DOG’S BEST FRIEND…guaranteed, in the process your dog will start to Seek You Out as someone fun and reinforcing to be around!
I am often amazed at how many students in my classes complain about the dog’s “lousy recall” and when discussing the dog’s daily/weekly routine we quickly discover that INCREDIBLE time and effort is dedicated toward making sure that the dog has ample opportunity to play off leash in the dog park, but one-on-one time owner-to-dog is nearly non-existent. Why would we then be surprised to find that the dog clearly chooses other dogs over the owner? When looking at things from a “minutes-per-day” perspective, it is pretty clear that the owner has actually taught the dog: life is all about other dogs, not human family members. Why is it then a surprise that the dog has clearly chosen to stop listening to the human being at all? It should not be a surprise…nor should the “fix” feel like a mystery. Dogs are (sometimes brutally) honest. They tell you, through their actions, where they see the value.
The really good news is this: You can CHANGE THIS! If the value isn’t where you would like it to be; you CAN switch things around! Really, I see and help people do it all the time!
The most functional and rewarding relationships definitely seem to be ones where the dog sees a ton of value in being with their person and actually will CHOOSE to be with the human, even when “distractions” are present. It is also a relationship based on trust and a safety. In the most successful human-dog relationships that I see, (if I define that simply in terms of least amount of friction and frustration) besides the very important safety factor, it is quite obvious that the owner has been able to build their own value to a large degree / the dog clearly WANTS to be with and “do” stuff with and for the human being. These people, while obviously committed to spending one-on-one time with their dogs are not rigid or unrealistic in their expectations of their dogs, they understand that there is an on-going balancing act; and they are also flexible and open to re-adjusting this balance as the relationship develops and evolves. Keeping and maintaining your value as a “best friend” to your dog is not something we should take for granted or think we don’t have to work toward and continually assess. Relationships evolve and change, and so does the value scale, which needs to be looked at and adjusted from time to time. In times of frustration, or when “mistakes” happen – important to consider that your dog is not to blame for “mistakes” – inevitably it is the human being who is responsible for:
a) Making sure you make and take time for your dog: one-on-one
-in dog agility a common saying is also ”BE the handler. SHOW the way!”. BE the driver, be the chauffeur. Call it whatever you want – time and commitment is needed!
b) Actually teach your dog what you DO want him TO DO instead of just being frustrated at the “don’t do’s”.
c) If/ when there are “mistakes” – ‘Fess up! Your dog is not to blame! Dogs are (well yes, they ARE opportunists) but always HONEST…if there are “mistakes”… Either you have not done a) taken time for your dog, or b) there are gaps in what or how you have taught him. He is probably not prepared well enough for what you are asking of him!
With these thoughts to ponder, I leave you to celebrate a very Merry Christmas! And wishing you a Happy New Year, too! As part of your New Years’ resolutions, maybe consider adding a resolution relating to the current relationship with your dog!? Is there room for improvement? Teaching better, more solid skills? Or maybe just spending more one-on-one time; making sure you live up to being His/ Her Best Friend, too?! And of course, if you would like some support on your Journey – I’d LOVE to see you, whether in a class or private one-on-one.