How’s your relationship with your dog? For most people, the relationship with their dog needs improvement.
Good dog training is personal. Mediocre dog training is mechanical. Poor dog training is reactive and punitive. I ask my students, “is your presence centrifugal or centripetal?” in other words, are you driving your dog away from you (centrifugal)?
I am working with a student who is relating to his dog in a centrifugal way. When they go for a walk, the dog is typically keeping a 6 foot distance from him, even on leash. I have another student that has a similar problem, her dog keeps a 30-foot distance from her. I saw a dog last night that avoided the owner’s petting. In all these cases, we are working on repairing the relationship between the dogs and owners.
None of these dogs have experienced any kind of abuse. That isn’t what is going on. It’s just that the owner’s proximity, demeanor, and communication drive their dogs away. The dogs like their owners, and aren’t afraid of them, but the dogs aren’t driven to be closer physically and emotionally.
In some cases, the relationship is too mechanical. People relate to their dogs in the way they been told to relate to dogs in books, on TV, and in typical dog training programs: be stern, be the leader, be the alpha, and such. I asked one student recently, “how would your girlfriend like being talked to that way?” He admitted she wouldn’t like it. I said his dog didn’t like that kind of thing either. In almost all cases, people love their dogs, but they just don’t know how to communicate and touch their dogs. And in some cases, the corrections the people have done have made the dog not trust being too close to the owner.
In all such cases, we must repair the relationships.
Try this test with your dog. Go to a safe, outdoor, enclosed area with your dog, like a grassy ball field. Take off the leash. If your dog starts exploring, that is OK. Wait 5 minutes. Now, command your dog to Heel and start walking around the area and past distractions (such as other dogs, strangers, and scents on the ground). For this test, you are not allowed to correct your dog, or use any treats or toys (or pretend to have any treats or toys). Will your dog come up beside you and start walking with you willingly and with a happy attitude? Now, slow to a stop and tell your dog to Sit. No loud voice, no harsh tone allowed. Does your dog do that willingly and with a happy attitude, and is your dog attentive to you and looking for what you are next going to do together? Pet your dog. Does your dog smile and give you a bit of a happy tail? Walk away 25 paces and wait a minute. Now, command your dog to Come. No harsh tone, no loud voice. You aren’t allowed to grab your dog, only praise and petting allowed. Does your dog come fast, with a happy tail, then allow you to pet your dog, and does your dog choose to remain with you instead of running off?
Another good test is if your dog makes a mistake or is unsure about how to do what you are asking, does your dog look to you? In other words, if you give a command, and your dog doesn’t do it correctly, does your dog look to you for further instructions? My student’s dogs do.
I did these tests with a student’s dog the other day. I had him go first, and the dog just blew him off and started exploring the environment instead. I then did the same exercise, and the dog happily obeyed me. He was astonished, and asked, “how are you doing that?” I explained and demonstrated how he must improve his communication and relationship with his dog. He is too focused on trying to being his dog’s leader and using treats to gain results.
You fail this test if in any way you are engaging in a pattern of force to make your dog to be with you and obey your commands. I see lots dogs that have been forced to obey. I have seen this with dogs that have been trained with too much aversive treatment, and I’ve seen this with dogs that have been trained with purely positive methods. However, the reciprocal relationship can be observed to be mechanical and without any true affection and bond. Just because you can fake a good relationship doesn’t mean you have a good relationship. We see this with married couples, who can go to a dinner party together, but then when the event is over, and no one is around, they avoid one another or even start bitterly arguing.
I’ll give you another example. For some dogs, the presence of some people can set off a dog fight. A lot of dog fights in the home happen almost exclusively when the owner is present. That is a relationship problem. It isn’t just about the dogs. To fix the dog fights, I must fix the relationships between the owners and the dogs. Dog fighting is a social problem, a relationship problem. You must repair the relationships to fix the fighting.
So, what does your presence predict to your dog? Are you the dark cloud in the room? Are you someone that your dog loves to be around and work with?
Today, we all have heard of the term “dog whisperer” or “horse whisperer”. But, to me, that term isn’t what we all commonly associate with this idea. What you are seeing isn’t what I’d call great training. The very best master trainers are master communicators with animals. They don’t create artificial pictures of relationships with animals using intimidation tactics, or an artificial Potemkin Village of positive reinforcement techniques, instead they have a full expressive relationship with animals. They aren’t basing their programs on gimmicks, special training tools, or bizarre training methods. The very best trainers can get dogs to do things that can seem to not make sense. You’ll also be asking, “how are you doing that?”
It takes time to learn how to relate to a dog properly. It can be frustrating at first, especially if you are coming from a training background that was too mechanical. I start out every new student with exercises to teach them better communication and relationship skills. Once they can start perceiving how their presence can positively impact their dogs, and the dogs reciprocate in a good way, then we can get into the more typical details of how to train this or that behavior. The training seems to start out slowly, because it takes time to learn these communication and relationship skills. But then, the training accelerates when we start working on the action commands (Sit, Down, Heel, Come, etc.). Dogs learn best when the communication and relationship is healthy and happy.
Please try the above tests and see how it goes.