CONNECTION = BETTER DOG BEHAVIOR
Last month we looked at the connection between a dog and his person from the perspective of shared experiences, give-and-takes. We focused on loose-leash, pleasure walking but the general idea, regard, can be applied to the entire relationship. I was utterly delighted by the number of readers who contacted me directly or posted in various forums about trying the suggested techniques and the process itself.
This month let’s dig a bit deeper. We’ve mastered the shared walk concept, understanding that the walk is
best when both partners take time to regard one another. Paths, timelines, assumptions, be gone.
But what of more serious issues? The anxious dog, reactive dog, scared dog?
UNDERSTAND YOUR DOG’S TEMPERMENT
First and foremost, this article is not a substitute for working with a trained professional. However, we can certainly tackle a few fundamentals that can help all relationships.
Take a moment and picture two people in your life. They must be very opposite. One should be your go-to for a great time. He is always up for fun, has a wicked sense of humor, and lives in the moment. He’s the hold-my-beer guy. We’ll call this friend the “wild one.”
Now choose a friend at the opposite end of the spectrum. This one is always on time, smart, secure. He’s always there if he says he will be. He has a family, home, and the same job for 25 years. He’s the always-count-on guy. He may be slightly boring. We’ll call this friend “old faithful.”
Now let’s say that you, a level-headed human of temperament similar to most companion dogs, head to a party with Wild One and Old Faithful.
For context, the usual companion dog is social but selectively. He’s usually mildly to moderately uncomfortable in new situations, he’s an introvert, mild to moderate, he doesn’t know how to navigate every social situation but he’s not a total social klutz, he maintains a moderate level of anxiety and doesn’t like to be the life of the party, and he prefers routine and doesn’t like surprises.
Before you leave for the party, you’re slightly anxious (as the average companion dog is before anything
new), but you’re with friends so it’s all good.
KARAOKE: FUN OR FRIGHTENING?
Immediately upon arrival, you learn the main event is Karaoke. The average companion dog does not want to do Karaoke.
Wild One is gunning for stage-time with gusto. He’s got a Pabst in one hand and is putting in a request for “Billie Jean.” This is gonna be awesome.
Old Faithful’s made it clear he’s the designated driver. He’s sipping a soda water as he leans against the wall.
Wild One takes the stage and gives a performance worthy of Karaoke stages twice as big. His final note is met with huge applause and he triumphantly rejoins you and Old Faithful. He informs you he’s put your name in for “Like A Virgin.” You are annoyed and anxious. He doesn’t notice.
The DJ calls your name. You freeze. “No, no, I, no, thank you, there’s been a mistake.”
The crowd is looking at you. They begin to chant. Wild One chants. You laugh nervously. The crowd begins to get irritated. The chant turns to taunts. Your pulse races, breath quickens. You’re sweating, it’s been 3 minutes of taunts.
On your shoulder, Old Faithful’s hand. You turn, he says, “c’mon, you ready?”
Yes. Hell yes. You wave pitifully at the raucous crowd and walk out with Old Faithful. Once in the car your heart rate and breathing return to normal, you are calm. You feel safe.
BE FUN AND BORING WITH YOUR DOG
Because of your temperament, no matter how fun he is, you’ll never have a good, true, solid connection with Wild One. He’s great to hang out with, a good time-passer, but he doesn’t regard you and you cannot return the favor not extended. He’s fun but not safe; he’s insensitive to your anxieties and it’s possible for him to put you in situations you’re really not comfortable in. In dogs, this results in anxiety and reactivity.
While Old Faithful is boring and he’ll never initiate Karaoke, you two are connected. He regards you, sees you, you see him, regard him, in return. He’s boring but safe. He soothes your anxiety, gives secure footing beneath your insecurities, and you never feel he’ll push you beyond your level of comfort in any situation.
In the scenario above, Wild One and Old Faithful are two different friends, but in your dog’s life, he needs you to be both, and you can be. You just have to figure out who you are to him now and develop the other one. Odds are, you’re more similar to Wild One than Old Faithful. We’re always better at fun with our dogs. This is certainly true of what I see in my work.
Now, back to you and your own dog. Think of how you acquired your dog. Did you date? Long courtship? Meet one another’s families before you moved in? Same species, are you?
BE CONSISTENTLY CONSISTENT
With none of that as the basis for how we ended up with the dog we have, it’s safe to assume that most dog/human relationships could benefit from some serious intimacy building. The randomness of most dog/human pairings, short of a meeting at a shelter or agreement with a breeder, cannot be anything but flawed except in very rare cases. It’s no less random than if I went to the local restaurant and plucked the person closest to the door to come home and be your forever-companion.
If you are strong, level-headed and peaceful, and I bring you a frightened reactive woman as your mate, your household’s going to suffer upset. Likewise, if you’re timid and shy and somewhat afraid of the world, if I bring that same woman to your home as your forever-companion, the two of you will develop an unhealthy co-existence built in shared anxieties but no real partnership.
There are key characteristics that differentiate Old Faithful and Wild One beyond the obvious fun/boring, colorful/beige.
Wild One is unpredictable. He’s erratic and somewhat volatile. He’s unreliable and inconsistent. His moods swing and he’s unstable. He’ll tell you something and do another. He’ll promise one thing and do the opposite.
Old Faithful is highly predictable. He’s stable and sound. He’s even-tempered, reliable, and calm. If he says he’ll do something, he does. If he promises something, he’s good for it.
We in the field now know that one of the most valuable things in a dog’s life, regardless of his temperament and behavior issues, is solid communication with his primary person. The nature of that communication has to have a set of qualities: it must be consistent, predictable, stable, and clear. It must be fair, even-handed, and respectful. It must be firm but exceedingly kind. Did I say consistent?
Consistent. It must be consistent. Consistency is key. Be consistent. Seriously.
Now that you’ve taken time through the walking exercises from last month to watch your dog, regarding him for what he likes, these steps should feel like a natural progression in building that connection and regard a little further.
First, pay attention to your own body and voice when you interact with your dog in any situation. Are you consistent? Same voice, tone, demeanor? That voice and demeanor, is it calm, firm, and kind? If not, that’s where you need to start. Begin to regulate yourself around your dog when it’s not playtime. The more predictable you are, the less volatile, the more comfortable your dog will be with you as his partner.
Pay special attention to your mood when communicating with him. Are you anxious or impatient? Are you communicating calm confidence or frustration and your own anxiety? All of these things transfer directly to him.
Next, think about what you ask him to do on a daily basis. Stop barking? Come? Sit? Or no! Don’t! Down! Are you consistent with those demands a.) when you ask for them, and b.) in the consequence or reward you’ve paired with what you’ve asked?
Odds are extremely good the answer to both of those questions is no, and that’s normal, though not ideal. This is a huge area of possibility for improvement that can give rise to a much stronger connection. Being mindful is the best way to tackle this.
First identify what cues you use carelessly and stop using them that way. Only use them if they have meaning and you can follow-up with a reward or consequence. If not, stop nagging. This binary approach alone will rattle your dog. He will begin to notice that you are noticing!
From this month and last, you’re now prepared to focus on:
- Shared walking with your dog
- Your own body and regulating tone, posture, and demeanor
- Commands and requests to your dog; eliminating the ones with no consequences and tightening up consistency with rewards and consequences for those that remain
Keep in mind this is all new to your dog and it’s likely he’s had a long reinforcement history of misconnection. Be patient, give space. I promise this gives rise to something wonderful.
Next month we’ll tackle two of my favorite parts of building connection; trust and negative space.
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.