As an animal attendant for the SPCA, I often see dogs surrendered to our shelter because they are supposedly “untrainable.” Frequently, the problem lies not in the tools and techniques people use, but in the feelings and attitudes they hold towards the dog. Instead of focusing on the practical side of training, this article will concentrate on the importance of the emotions you bring to your dog when interacting and working with him.
Dogs are intuitive creatures and respond to their human companions with acute sensitivity. They help process our emotions and mirror them back to us. This is a gift, but dogs often suffer the consequences of our desire to overlook some of the more unworthy aspects of our characters.
As in any relationship, the one you share with your dog can encompass love, tension, friendship, frustration – a veritable cornucopia of feelings. People often complain that their dog won’t listen or does things just to anger them. But perhaps the dog is merely mirroring certain aspects of his guardian. Are you a submissive person who owns a dominant dog? Or a “control freak” with a happy-go-lucky, laugh-in-your-face husky? How do these relationships work? Is the dog really untrainable, or does his guardian lack the necessary patience? Does the dog “not listen,” or has he actually listened so well that he knows exactly what he can get away with? Is he really trying to anger his guardian, or does he just want attention?
Most pet manuals will tell you to acquire a dog that best suits your personality and lifestyle. Good advice, but we are still often left with unwanted behaviors. There is something to be said for sharing your life with an animal that challenges your normal state of being, but in order to benefit we must see the situation as a gift that offers us an opportunity to grow and become more self-aware. The following six steps help us welcome and open up to this gift, while laying the groundwork for successful training.
It is important to understand that your dog is not trying to irritate you. If he is misbehaving, it is because he does not understand that the behavior is unwanted, nor what to replace it with. He may also be receiving some kind of reward for the behavior, even if it’s only negative attention.
Taking the dog’s behavior personally clouds our judgment and reduces our ability to think through the problem. We need to learn objectivity and distance. This doesn’t mean a lack of compassionate interaction with the dog, but an ability to not allow our feelings to color our thoughts and actions.
Understanding leads to an attitude clear of anger or frustration, and that lets us step back and properly assess the situation. With the right attitude, we can stop taking a victim or aggressor role. Remaining calm also allows us to see and take advantage of the opportunity to learn and grow, both as a person and as a companion for our dog.
With understanding and a clear and patient attitude, a situation that at first created frustration now turns into an exciting challenge to our problem-solving skills, as well as an opportunity to learn more about animal behavior and about ourselves.
As with most challenges, there are many tools, techniques and resources we can turn to for help. We should also prioritize, by concentrating first on the behaviors that are least tolerable. For example, a large dog that jumps on people can be a serious problem that could lead to injury. With small dogs, however, it may not take such a high priority.
A dog’s actions are not motivated by human concerns, which means he is not capable of doing “bad” things just to irritate you. On the contrary, a dog instinctively assumes he is in a relationship governed by pack dynamics. His motivations include social contact, food, mating (if not fixed), attention, praise, play, bodily functions, and striving to attain a higher position in the pack hierarchy. As well, every pack has a leader (in this case, you) who behaves in a fair, confident and consistent manner.
Dogs are highly attuned to body movements, pitch of voice and other physical cues. Also, just as humans have their own personalities, individual dogs have their own characteristics and traits. It is important to know your dog and his personality. Is he dominant or submissive? Hyperactive or laid back?
Assessing the interaction we share with our dog leads to an enhanced awareness of the dynamics between our own behavior and our dog’s. Just as we tend to interpret the dog’s behavior in a human way, so the dog sees our behavior in canine terms. Since it is asking too much to expect our dogs to think like humans, we need to try to think like a dog to further our understanding and be successful in training. This involves self-awareness. How do your own traits influence your dog and his behavior? Do you react to negative situations with anger or hurt? Are you over-controlling to the point where the dog doesn’t get enough fun? Or are you the opposite, allowing your dog to run loose, chew furniture and generally disobey your commands?
Consistency includes choosing a particular training method and sticking with it. Dogs are as clever as children when it comes to determining whether or not we really mean what we say, and if we intend to follow through. This is why your dog may behave perfectly with a trainer, but won’t listen to you. In the words of Dr. Phil, we teach people how to treat us; likewise, we teach our dogs how to treat us. Consistency will teach your dog that you are firm but kind, and that you will not tolerate any boundary crossing but will praise positive actions.
A dog’s behavior can serve as a mirror for our own characters. Blaming the dog for undesirable behavior not only makes training difficult if not impossible, but it also destroys the possibility of self-knowledge and growth and aborts the potential for creating a mutually fulfilling relationship.
Karen Hutton has worked with dogs and other animals for many years. Based in New Brunswick, she works for the Fredericton SPCA and shares her home with six dogs. She has a Master of Arts in Anthropology and a certificate in wildlife rehabilitation.