I Just Want.
I have been on the road full-time as a professional dog trainer for six months now. It feels so comfortable and “right” that I sometimes can’t believe there was a life before this. I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the loveliest humans and dogs. I’ve had the freedom to travel, to train, to go deeper into the woods, to explore, to witness amazing transformations (in my own training, and in my clients). But within all the moments of gratitude, there are (and always will be) moments of frustration. Moments where my eye twitches and I redo my ponytail for the fifth time, and I am unable to help my client find the connection to their pet.
It starts with wants and ends with lack of understanding. It seems simple enough to say it out loud, “I just want my dog to…. Listen to me…” but entirely complex, subtle, and biologically impossible when broken down.
To understand why the general population of dogs cannot simply comply with every request presented by a human, we first have to understand how dogs came to be. Simply put, they are dogs because they chose to take advantage of reinforcement (food) that, over time, involved more and more human/canine interaction. They chose. But let’s not fool ourselves here. There has always been a lot “in it” for them too: thriving survival. So what do those early dogs have to do with the doodle jumping on your guests? They have changed a lot over the decades, but one of strongest traits remains, the trait of decision making, the trait of free will.
The pet dogs 2017 are severely lacking in choices.
Think about the dogs of the 60’s and 70’s, the dogs my relatives joyfully tell stories of. Of King, the shepherd-mix, who faithfully walked with them to and from the bus stop daily, followed them to their forts in the woods and waited expectantly for dinner to be served in the garage. King, was not unusual here, most dogs in that era lived predominantly loose outside.
They chose what they would do, what walk they would take, where they would nap, who they would see. King learned when the kids went to the bus stop and what time he could expect to be fed. He made choices, for good or for bad, how he would mostly spend his days. Do some of these stories also involve an unplanned litter? A dog bite? A traumatic death? Of course. Was there the same amount of behavioral problems? No.
I am not advocating that we turn back the clock on all the things we have learned about safety, healthcare and general practices of wellbeing. I am saying that all dogs could use a little more choice in their lives.
Your dog just wants to: smell the bush, look at another dog, run through a field, interact with you, communicate his wants, eat food, cope, soothe himself, participate in reinforcing scenarios. Your dog just wants you to listen to him (is that so hard? Ha).
So, can we have the best of both worlds? The happiness of the decades past and the wellness of today. Of course. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Let your dog lead your walk: set a time limit that you would like to adhere to and let your dog pick how he spends his time. Don’t rush him away from smelling the grass, let him set the pace. Better yet, attach him to a long line and let him explore a field.
Feed him out of puzzles or enrichment set-ups: kongs, slow bowls, food searches, hard chewing projects and kibble dispensing toys are easy ways to fill some of his time and let him chose how he will solve the problem of feeding himself. Integrate as much fresh food into his diet as you can afford.
Focus on what you want in a concrete manner and train it. An idea of “listening” is abstract, break that down into pieces, and teach your dog exactly what to do in different life scenarios. Seek a professional who can help guide you through the steps of teaching your dog. Catch and reinforce your dog offering “good” behavior, all the time.
View food as a system of reinforcement, not a system of bribery. Pay generously, give bonuses. Be the person you would like to work for yourself.