By now, we’ve addressed two foundational concepts in building better behavior through connection between a dog and his person; regard and mindfulness with purpose. Together, through the exercises explained in those articles, you’ve learned skills that have prepared you and your dog for the most exciting part of behavior modification through connection; trust and negative space.
Let’s start with trust.
HELICOPTER DOG PARENTING IS A THING
Most relationships between dogs and people that benefit from building better connection come from a place of superficial trust, if any at all. By that I mean that we trust our dog to come when called X number of times out of Y number of requests.
We trust he’ll protect us, maybe, or not, depending on his temperament. We know he’ll sit when asked, maybe with some persuasion, he’ll tolerate some people, not others, etc. In any event, we have to constantly be there to tell him what to do.
Without us, he’s unpredictable. We must tell him when to sit, when to be quiet. We must remind him constantly to walk on a loose leash, “be nice” to strangers, and not jump up. Poor thing. He’d be lost without us. No hope at all of knowing what to do. Thank heaven we are here to guide this poor helpless beast.
But, step back for a minute. Think how reasonable that is, or, isn’t. This need to tell your dog what to do in every situation for fear of what might happen if you don’t is, at its core, a lack of fundamental trust. It’s exactly what we see in helicopter parenting.
MAKE YOUR DOG AN ACTIVE LEARNING PARTNER
Every child needs to be taught the governing rules of his or her environment, and the consequences associated with certain behavior. Once learned, as part of normal development, it’s healthy to give that child space to try out what he’s learned, test boundaries. It’s normal, expected, and part of healthy development.
Because he’s never required to be responsible for his own behavior, as he matures his daily life becomes inconsistent and dependent on input from his parent. In other words, when he’s being told what to do, he knows how to earn whatever reward has consistently been given under that set of circumstances, e.g., if you have polite table manners you can have ice cream. If you yell in the house you lose a toy.
But, outside of those situations, without constant input, he’s at a loss. He does not know how to self-regulate his emotions, his behavior, how to read and regard others, he will eventually be unable to entertain himself and be only able to receive information rather than generate it. It’s actually a serious problem in child development that leads to children prone to emotional volatility, and behavioral dysregulation.
This is exactly the situation I see in almost every home to which I am called into for behavioral help. Common behaviors exist; barking, jumping up, pulling on leash, etc. And they are usually somewhat controlled because the helicopter owner is “there to keep a lid on the behavior. Even if not actively standing up and training, the owner is preoccupied with what the dog is doing (or not doing) so much that he or she can’t fully relax.
It’s nagging, and though some semblance of order is in place, the owner is stuck in a holding pattern and doesn’t know how to get out of it. The owner hovers, nags, reminds, and the dog responds, gets rewarded or not, and they exist like this for what can sometimes be a lifetime. It’s not horrible, but it’s not great.
BACK OFF AND GIVE YOUR DOG SPACE TO FAIL AND LEARN
What if we could undo the automated, predictable, and superficial plateau of coexistence between owner and dog? We could give that dog a little space to try himself out! Make mistakes, learn, regulate, fail, then find success in a deeper, more secure level of soundness. Imagine the depth that can be sown between two individuals who want to be near one another for mutual trust and understanding, not just as a means to how one can get something from the other.
Imagine what that looks like and you have what I’ll refer to as negative space.
In art, it’s is said that what makes a piece visually appealing or unappealing is the balance of negative and positive space, dark, light, shadows, and contrast.
Let’s consider a charcoal drawing as an example. Too much positive space and it’s boring. It’s just a space colored in completely and evenly with black pigment. It’s too stimulating, not enough contrast and interest. No balance. It’s too close. It’s predictable, no variation, not horrible but not wonderful.
Now imagine two specks of charcoal, one dark, one light, on a large white space. This is too much negative space. It’s disconnected and feels somewhat desperate, incomplete, like it lacks a foundation. The specks exist independently, both can be seen, but both have so much space around them they’ve little draw to one another. There isn’t enough interest to stay focused on it long enough to even care how it makes you feel.
In the middle of these two extremes is a balance of positive and negative space. In that area is where art finds meaning, interest, movement, and fulfillment. It’s captivating and healthy, even if it’s deeply sad or distressing. It is secure and keeps your attention. It is interesting but not so much you must look away. This art is “good” to the human eye. Whether you like it or don’t, it is visually compelling. The white exists, the black exists, but neither exists completely without just the right amount of the other.
So how does this relate to connection with your dog and better behavior?
CREATE BALANCE OF POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SPACE
The relationship between helicopter dog parent and dog is too much positive space. They are enmeshed to an extent. The relationship is not built on connection and trust as two unique individuals in a partnership, but a constant need for an owner to control his dog so his individuality really doesn’t get a chance to come through.
In real life this looks like a sometimes-well-behaved dog, when his owner is around, and with about 60 to 80% consistency in response. The dog is relatively happy but usually also has a moderate dose of problem behavior. The owner is always somewhat disappointed or frustrated, but reports general satisfaction with his relationship with his dog. I hear phrases like, “he’s good if there’s nothing to distract him,” and “it’s his breed, they’re known for being defiant,” etc.
The opposite of the helicopter relationship, the one in which the owner is entirely irrelevant and offers no structure whatsoever to his dog, is too much negative space. It is completely detached and though both owner and dog exist as unique individuals, neither cares to interact with the other in any truly meaningful way. They simply coexist.
In real life this looks like a dog who has no rules and an owner who is fed up. The dog has a host of poor behaviors, ranging from moderate to severe. He often suffers a marked but unnoticed-by-the-owner level of generalized anxiety and the owner has a measured level of frustration adding to the problem. They interact from time to time, meals, maybe a walk, but mostly they exist alone as roommates. (While helpful to consider here for comparison, here we’re focusing mostly on the type of relationship that has too much closeness, too much positive space.)
The range in-between is the sweet spot; the balance of positive and negative partnership. In this range, owners give their dogs the physical and behavioral space needed to move progressively and naturally into the ideal connection-based partnership. They provide enough structure to keep the dog in a secure orbit, but not so much the dog becomes a passive participant simply looking for nagging input from his owner to behave to get a reward or avoid a punishment.
DIAL DOWN YOUR NEED TO CONTROL YOUR DOG
You’re adequately confused by now, I am sure. Trust? Helicoptering? Art? What the?
Here’s how you start:
First and foremost, you must address your own personal need to control how your dog behaves. Before you can give him rope, as it were, it pays to take time and really consider what that looks like.
If he pulls on leash, connected walking (May’s article) will make pulling worse at first before it gets better. This is normal and desirable, but are you prepared? You may look incompetent or silly to your neighbors. Can you take it?
If he jumps on visitors, you’ll need to consider setting up his greeting environment differently so his needs are considered, too, when a guest arrives. This may mean guests wait a bit before they come in, and when they do, you may tend to your dog before them. Ready for how they’ll feel about that and how you’ll manage?
LIKE HUMANS, DOGS ARE INDIVIDUALS
And so let’s start with a simple exercise as a foundation to kicking off a healthier, deeper, less nagging relationship with your dog.
Answer this: what is your dog’s favorite thing? If you said, “me” (pets, scratches, etc) or “food” you’d be right in line with the majority of dog owners out there. But you’d likely be right only a fraction of the time, which means most of the time you’re wrong.
Look at him now. Is he eating or are you petting him? Assuming he’s awake, what’s he doing? *That* is his favorite thing! If your dog has choices, whatever he’s chosen to do, is his favorite.
Your exercise is to learn ten things that are his favorite, and to make note of when they are. Food is probably one, but only if he’s hungry and only if there’s food available. Petting and snuggles also possibly one but only if he’s asked for it, not if you’ve pushed them on him. You see? Fetch is fun but not if he’s eating or if he’s tired. Playing with other dogs is his favorite but only if he’s social and not if he’s overwhelmed by new places. And so on.
This simple exercise, though it seems so very basic, builds in space between you and your dog and requires you see him as an individual.
Take a few weeks to practice seeing him and guessing what’s his favorite from day to day, hour to hour. Do it until it’s second nature.
Next month’s article will be dedicated only to practical, hands-on exercises to start work on common problem behaviors from this new perspective. Be prepared! We’re doing away with sit, down, stay, come, leave-it, and other command-based behaviors now considered tricks.
Instead, we’ll build a foundation from which good behavior will develop organically and, with a little practice, the nagging goes away. Really. Your dog will learn how to behave without you having to dictate his every move, and you will enjoy an actual partnership instead of a boss-employee relationship with your dog.
As a surprising and encouraging side benefit of building connection through trust and negative space, in many cases we see improvement or the disappearance of behavior problems such as reactivity and aggression with little to no direct formal behavior modification. It appears the partnership itself grounds anxious and fearful dogs a great deal.
So get after finding out what your dog really loves and make way for next month’s practical lesson where these three months of prep are put to work. There is a wonderfully deep relationship awaiting you both, and good behavior to follow.
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.