Picture this: every day, as part of your daily routine, you go for a walk with a friend. He gathers you up and for an hour you walk around your favorite area of the city in which you live. In this case, the local lake.
When he arrives he is happy to see you. He greets you, possibly a hug, and leads you out the door. Immediately you stop to feel the sunshine on your face. He walks forward, then realizes you’re lagging behind. It is clear he will need to lead you by the hand if you are to walk as planned. He grabs your left hand, gently pulls you forward, and interrupts your sunshine moment.
Your friend takes a call on his cell phone. You continue to walk together.
Around the corner you go, you see your favorite lake just ahead! You rush forward to get there as fast as possible and stop quickly, yanked at the shoulder realizing your friend has tight hold of your hand. You turn to him, he’s busy on the phone and doesn’t notice. He continues to head in the same direction with you at the same pace he was walking all along.
You look back and attempt to pull him to the lake. He tightens on your hand, a small yank back, and continues to walk at the same pace as before.
You are annoyed.
Eventually you make it to the lake. Your friend is no longer on the phone. He turns ecstatic, “We made it! Off you go!” He assumes the lake itself is your favorite part of the walk. When you seem disinterested, he notices and back to walking you go, hand in hand.
You marvel most at the birds. Drakes, geese, fresh robins, and starlings scavenging in the grass. Your eyes cannot pick just one! Meanwhile, your friend is speaking at you, telling you about his week at work. You are more interested in the birds.
You feel your friend’s hand loosen and let go. Focused on birds, you begin to wander from his side and eventually find yourself 15 feet apart. He notices you’re not listening to his story and he rushes to your side, reprimanding you.
He grabs your hand and leads you back to the walking path, destination-focused. Drakes fading in hindsight, directed on your walk again.
You are sad to see your home around the corner. The walk is almost over. Once there, your friend opens the door for you, and guides you in. He will return tomorrow to walk with you again.
In this scenario, ask yourself a few questions:
Did you have an enjoyable walk?
Did you feel a shared experience where you were able to enjoy the walk as much as your friend was?
Did you feel connected, that you were walking with a treasured partner or more a friendly acquaintance?
With the walk over, are you looking forward to your next walk with your friend?
It’s fair to assume that most people will say the walk was somewhat enjoyable, that the friend enjoyed the walk more than they did, that they felt somewhat disconnected, not close like walking with a treasured partner, and they are either apathetic or not looking forward to walking with this person again.
If the walks continue unchanged, the relationship will deteriorate. Though walking together in physical space, both parties are not having their partnership needs met nor are they getting what they want or need from the walk. While there is no egregious abuse or neglect or misdeed happening between these two people, the relationship is certainly troubled.
With the exception of species, this scenario is exactly that which plagues countless dogs and owners every day. When the human/canine relationship weakens, the dog in question begins to exhibit behavior that is labeled troublesome; he doesn’t listen, doesn’t respond, pulls on leash, doesn’t come when called, is reactive to other dogs, and so on.
These are frustrating, common problems that can cause further division in a relationship. The result can be cessation of any walks or outings, unclear communication between owner and dog, frustration and anger directed towards the dog, and further diminished quality of life for both parties.
Until now, dog trainers have remedied these situations by focusing on behavior; teach the owner training and management skills, install basic obedience and alternative behaviors in the dog, “fix” problem behaviors such as leash walking and reactivity, and all will be well.
This approach has been good, but not great. It results in better experiences for both parties mostly because of the modified behavior of each. But what of the relationship? Both are behaving better, but owners typically have to continue to train and manage forever and dogs still exhibit the troubling behaviors listed above. The relationship can feel nitpicky and superficial.
The canine behavior and training field is beginning to recognize that it’s actually this relationship disconnect that is at the root of many of the most common behavior complaints, and by addressing that in addition to behavior we can help facilitate a deeper, more sound, solid, connection between owner and dog. We can coach trust and space between dog and owner while promoting great behavior between both. Nagging goes away, great behavior emerges, and both parties enjoy the benefits of a fantastic partnership.
So how do you begin? Build regard.
Disconnection is epidemic in our daily lives today. We are busy, have our attention split between jobs, families, hobbies, duties, etc. We struggle more now than ever to build real, fulfilling, mutually enjoyable relationships. Our dogs tend to get swept away in the melee and we forget that they have their own set of things they enjoy and dislike not defined by our beliefs, but by their own. We hustle them along, through our schedules, making sure they are walked, fed, watered, and loved.
But in order to really begin to shape a relationship that can give rise to wonderful behavior, we have to practice regard. We need to recognize that our dog is not just a dog. He’s his own dog. Let’s be curious to find out who he is.
To start, take a casual walk, and I mean super casual. Before you leave, decide not to care about destination or duration. Don’t care about how loose the leash is. Take a 6-10ft flat comfortable leash, and have your dog on a flat comfortable collar. Your goal on this walk is patience and just being present with your dog.
If he already walks on a loose leash the majority of the time, follow him. See where he goes. And get calmly interested in what he’s doing. If he leaves the sidewalk, follow him. If he stops to sniff, stop and watch him. If he looks up in the air, look around with him. He is noticing all of these things you are doing, I assure you.
If your dog does not walk on a loose leash already, you’ll go about establishing regard the same way. But, be prepared. Progress will be slower, and you will need to practice more patience to make it through those seemingly endless moments of tight-leash inspection.
A goal with both the loose-leash and tight-leash dog is to “respond to your dog’s gait with a change in yours. If he moves slowly, slow down and match him. If he is heading quickly towards the end of the leash, see if you can go with him to prevent it going tight altogether. Your gait will be erratic at first and your path, likely freestyle.
If you can’t keep up and the leash goes tight, stop gently and wait until your dog looks to you. When he does, thank him verbally. If he does not turn his body and goes back to inspecting whatever it was he was before, just wait him out and repeat the verbal thanks for each look to you.
When he actually turns his body to you, be prepared to verbally thank him and move forward with him again. Though it seems like a small gesture, nothing really, this regard for him stopping, and his regard to you with his turning to you are the first steps in building an amazing connection. He is processing your allowance of his need to inspect and he is now offering himself to go with you!
With a little practice, you will see him get his fill with these sniffs, inspections, and seemingly indirect investigations, whether on loose or tight leash. You’ll see him engage more often and faster with you. He will go with you just as you go with him, like two buddies out for a walk, each enjoying what they like individually and the partnership of doing it together.
There are several ways to build on the connection with your dog, this just being one and a fantastic starting point. I’ll cover other ways in next month’s article, along with some more advanced behaviors that can be addressed from the relationship angle, as well.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.