- Does Your Dog's Life Matter?
The client has been working with another trainer, and they like their trainer, and their dog likes that trainer, but the client feels they are failing their dog because things fall apart at home. The day-to-day just isn't getting easier.
"I know I need to be the pack leader," they confess to me, "and I know my dog can do these things because they do it for the trainer. It's me. I need to work on me. I need to be better."
In a way, I'm not there to help them with the dog so much as with themselves, they always tell me. They are unhappy and frustrated because their dog doesn't respect them. They hope some private lessons with me may help them improve their skills because despite a lot of hard work, and a dog who performs well in class, they're still really struggling at home.
So I suggest we go for a walk.
The dog's tail is up, and they have a grin on their face. They lift their face and inhale the myriad of aromas in the air, and look around for birds, squirrels, other dogs, and people. They are lost in the beauty of this moment.
Their beloved human, however, is not.
Fido has picked up his pace a little bit, accidentally easing into the ground-eating trot that is a dog's natural gait for moving from one place to another.
"Fido," his human says warningly, and she tightens the leash a bit. The dog doesn't look around. He's used to this. It is just the first of several hundred repetitions of his name that he expects to hear on his walk, almost always with a note of warning.
I notice that although he is not pulling on the leash - his pinch collar discourages that - he moves forward a bit to keep the leash on the edge of tightness. He wants the leash to be just tight enough that he can feel where his human is through the tension on the leash. That way he doesn't have to look to see where she is.
His human is watching him closely, but she, too, holds the leash ever-so-slightly tight, so she can feel his every movement.
They are ready to begin their dance.
They walk. Fido moves ahead as far as the leash will let him, and no farther.
"Fido..." the owner says warningly. The dog grudgingly backs up a bit. His head swivels around, taking in all the sights. He moves ahead.
He moves back a bit.
"Do you always keep him in heel position on walks?" I ask curiously as we move down the street.
"Well, I try," says the poor woman in an exasperated tone of voice. "But you see how he's constantly testing me? He knows what he's supposed to do, but he keeps trying to get out of it."
I agree with her assessment.
The dog does understand expectations. He has done competition level obedience. He knows where he is supposed to be. He just doesn't want to be there, and so he's giving her his absolute bare minimum compliance... and she knows it.
"What would happen if we take off the pinch collar?"
"The same, mostly... it's just if he sees another dog he goes nuts."
"What happens if you pull out a treat?"
"Oh, he'll behave then," the woman concedes, pulling a treat from her pouch. Hearing the rustle he looks around, falls into heel, and his tail begins to wave. He takes on that prance that says so clearly "look at what a good boi I am".
"But I don't want to have to bribe him every step of our walk every day," she says. "And if we see a dog or a person... he won't care about the treats any more."
I believe her. This dog knows how to get treats and knows he can get them whenever he decides to put in the effort. But he likes to see proof of payment up front.
I grasp the leash by the loop and let the other five feet of line pool at my feet.
We start walking again. The dog, feeling the laxness of my leash, moves joyfully to the verge and starts sniffing a bush.
I praise him for stopping. "Thanks for waiting for me! What a good boy you are," I say admiringly. He grins at me, wags his tail in acknowledgement, and comes to me for an ear-rub.
I start walking again.
When he pauses to check some pee-mail on a street light post, I pause and wait for him. When he's ready we move on, until he passes me, at which point I stop until he checks in with me.
We move along in this start-and-stop way for a block or so, before the client says, "you really don't mind him sniffing around like that?"
"No," I say. "It's his walk, isn't it? Aren't we out here for him?"
"Yes...." she says slowly, thoughtfully. "But my trainer says you need to keep them at heel all the time."
"Even on pleasure walks?"
"Yeah, I don't believe in that," I say flatly.
I'm not here to slag other trainers. But I'm open about my own opinions and attitudes. "I teach dogs to heel, and when I ask my dog to heel, she does. But I don't see how she can enjoy her walk if she's busy working for me, and I want her to enjoy her walk."
"So when do you use heel?"
"Mmm...at the farmer's market, or in a store, or when we pass someone who is obviously nervous of dogs, or when a car is driving really close past us... You know, times when it's not really appropriate or safe for the dog to be sniffing around. When I need the dog close."
"But..." the client isn't arguing, just trying to deal with this complete about-face from what she's used to hearing from a dog trainer. "Doesn't it mean that they don't respect you if they ignore you like that?"
"No," I say. "It means the dog is enjoying their walk. They can enjoy their walk AND maintain awareness of where their person is. It's not much to ask."
"What you're saying makes sense," the client says. "But I can't seem to figure out how that works. I've always been told that he's being disobedient if he sniffs around like that."
Now it's time for me to say The Thing.
...The Thing that always seems to devastate the owner so much. I hate to break hearts, but The Thing is at the heart and centre of my attitude toward dogs so they might as well hear it now.
There are people out there who don't love their dogs with all of their heart and soul, but those people don't tend to call me, so I never meet them.
If someone asks me for help, I know they care deeply about their dog. But somewhere along the way, priorities got mixed up.
Somewhere along the way... they forgot what really makes dogs happy.
Awards and ribbons don't make dogs happy, they make PEOPLE happy.
Dogs just want to have fun and work with their special person.
The person picks a game of "how fast can you jump those hurdles?" or "can you find the birch scent?" and the dog is like "let's find out!"
Heeling for treats in the ring is a fun way to spend the occasional afternoon, but the dog also has a lot of other things on his to-do list for today, and if the owner spends all of their time issuing orders, the dog's patience will start to wear thin.
If your dog knows what you want them to do, and they don't do it, then you've asked them for more than they feel they can give you.
Because in their experience, there are times when treats fail and the dog will tell you where you can stick that ham, because he's not leaving his new bestest buddy at the dog park.
But what if you prioritized relationship over obedience?
Because here's the funny thing...
My dogs will leave their new bestest buddy in the park to come running when I call.
Even when I don't have treats.
And it's BECAUSE I don't feel entitled to their obedience.
I don't call my dogs that often. When I do, I have a good reason. And I am always, always grateful to my dog for listening to me and make sure they don't regret their decision to listen to me. I don't feel entitled to my dogs' obedience.
They're my best friends.... not my serfs.
When your best friend calls you and asks you to please come over right now... do you tell them that you're sorry, the new season of Stranger Things just dropped, so maybe next time?
Probably not... not if they're any kind of real friend.
If they're the kind of friend who moves heaven and earth for you when you need them... you move heaven and earth for them, don't you?
Research bears out my own personal experiences as a trainer. Again and again, studies have found that friendship wins out over so-called "balanced" training techniques.
Dogs come when called faster and more reliably when trained without a shock collar... even when the trainer is someone who usually uses shock collars.
The study I just linked to used trainers specifically recommended by electronic collar companies... and it found that those trainers got better results when they didn't use the damn collars.
And with or without "electronic stimulation" those trainers still didn't get dogs to come as quickly and snappily as the trainers who never bother with such useless equipment.
Dogs don't struggle with those last two things. Anyone who has lived with dogs, and especially anyone who has worked with abused and neglected dogs, knows that dogs hardly ever let past traumas interfere with the joy of the current moment.
They love unreservedly, even after they've been abandoned several times. I once met a dog who had her entire lower jaw amputated due to cancer. She couldn't chew. She had to live on gruel. She was still brimming with joy and it didn't seem to bother her in the slightest. Dogs don't lose sleep over minor things like complete facial disfigurement.
And if a dog were to have the first three regrets, well... that's on us, isn't it?
Pet dogs don't have control over their own lives. We took that away from them when we put a collar around their necks.
And if we keep our dog confined and away from the company of their own species... that's on us.
...Why should they obey?
I believe that it is our job, as their guardians, to ensure they are provided with all the necessities of life, and the opportunity to life a life that they want to live.
All I ask in return is that they do what I ask them to do when I ask them to do it, because if I'm asking, I have a good reason.
It's either a safety issue - don't run in front of a car - a health issue - don't pull me off my feet and put me in the hospital - or some crazy whim of mine which I'm sure to pay well for if they humor me - let's see if you can lie still while I bounce this tennis ball over your head! Amazing! Have some CHEESE!
So my dogs cooperate.
My dogs are grateful to me, the Great Giver Of Food And Fun, and they love to make me happy even when I don't have any cheese on hand.
And when they come running to me with their tails held high and joy on their faces... I am deeply, humbly grateful.
Because they had a choice... and they chose me.
If they didn't, I would wonder why...
If they're resisting, it's because either they don't understand what we want... or they think we're being real butt-holes.
We forget... dogs love buttholes a whole lot more than we do.
I'm sure that if we could put them on couches and let them talk, they'd say things like "I love her so much, and I really enjoy doing all that "obedience" stuff, and her treats are pretty prime. But I just really really wish I could have more "me" time in my day, you know? An hour alone with her shoes... is that really so much to ask?"
Amelia and I sometimes joke that we moonlight as marriage counsellors, as both spouses point to each other and blame the dog's behavior on the other person.
But really we are dog-human relationship counsellors. We can see that the love and the commitment is there, but sometimes you just get really stuck over certain issues, like "why can't I just dash across the road to meet new friends?" and "why doesn't he respond snappily enough when I command him to sit?"
Then it's time to work out everyone's priorities and see what things can be compromised on, and which can't.
The good news is that the more you bend on some issues, the more willing the dog is to accept your rules on less flexible matters.
But of course, all of this is VERY different from the more hard-nosed training philosophies out there. A lot of trainers value snappy compliance about all else, and will do whatever it takes to get it, including bringing out electronic collars or pinch collars, to MAKE the dog do as they are told.
I understand the allure.
That type of training is easier, because you only have to consider one set of feelings - your own.
Don't like what the dog is doing? Correct him!
Like what he's doing? Praise him!
All that matters is how the dog's behavior affects YOU and YOUR life.
Never mind how your behaviour affects their life.
I can't do it.
I can't pretend that the dog that I have chosen to imprison owes me a damn thing. They didn't ask to come into my home. They didn't walk up with a leash in their mouth and say "please confine me, oh great one."
They certainly didn't sign any contract agreeing to pay for their room and board with life-long subjugation.
Trust me, I know.
Like most trainers who have been in the industry long enough, I started out with the my-way-or-the-highway method. My first book on dog training was the classic No Bad Dogs by Barbara Woodhouse.
I trained my childhood sheltie with a choke chain and milk bones. We won the school pet fair for most obedient pet!
As I grew older I found new books. I discovered Don't Shoot The Dog on an aunt's bookshelf and consumed it within a couple of days when I was 12 or 13 or so. A dog trainer put me onto The Culture Clash and other excellent books on dog training.
I've tried everything from choke chains to clickers, and I've come to realize that not only do dogs prefer the "positive" style of training, but so do I.
The older style of training made me feel angry and entitled. When the dog frustrated me, it was so easy to take out my frustrations with a sharp leash correction and a "no!".
When the dog was not listening, I felt so mad as I corrected their behavior.
It was like... "why are you making me hurt you??"
...Wait... isn't that something abusers say?
When I realized that I could get better results AND feel happier, I dropped that "alpha" attitude and I've never had a reason to return to it.
I rarely get frustrated when I'm training now. Even when the dogs are being total jerks I just laugh (while trying to hide my amusement because some dogs love to make people laugh and will repeat the annoying behavior like a kid telling the same joke over and over again).
Occasionally I have a selfish moment, thinking "ugh I can't believe you want out again. I JUST walked you! I'm trying to get some work done!"
Then I pause, and ask myself how I would like a life where someone else always has to get up and walk to the door every time I wanted to pop outside for some fresh air... and how I would feel if the person got really salty about it whenever I asked for help.
So I open the door and tell them to have fun outside.
"We need to work out a schedule," I might say. "I can't keep getting up and down like this. We'll figure out a compromise, okay?"
They say "okay" with their waving tails and loving grins before disappearing down into the yard.
I'm happier when I don't go around feeling constantly offended by other beings having their own wants and needs. My dogs are happier.
And best of all? When I ask my dogs to do something for me, they're only too happy to oblige. They know I really care about their happiness... so they give it all back to me in abundance.
I mean, you're probably one of the many with whom I have had this conversation, but it isn't about YOU, personally. You're not unique in this, sorry. This is for all the folks I can't reach out to, who have the same experiences.