As we enter a new year, we reflect back to the past year. I hope your 2016 has been filled with blessings and joy a plenty; mine certainly has been. With 2017 comes a few new projects for me. One of them is writing about my thoughts on and experiences with dogs. This year marks for me 20 years of working with dogs professionally as a trainer. This puts me in the unique position of having been blessed with the opportunity of working with thousands of dogs and their humans. These people have committed time, money, love and resources (often scarce), all to help the furry beings in their lives to have the best lives possible. And it is this commitment, this bond, this amazing choice, that truly inspires me every day.
I want to thank each and every dog and person that I have worked with in the past 20 years. You have all taught me and shaped me into the trainer that I am today. I have been so blessed to be able to share my life with all of you and your amazing dogs, and to share the joy the struggles and sometimes the tears that come with opening your hearts and homes to a dog.
So I am officially starting a blog. My hope is that I will be able to share with you some of the more nuanced ideas and concepts regarding the canine-human bond that are often too detailed and conceptual to cover in a training class or private session. Every day I find myself wanting to have more time to dive into some of these bigger ideas with people, and my schedule often doesn’t allow it. So here it is!
Some people set resolutions at the new year; I like to send wishes or prayers out into the world in hopes that they come true. I have decided that my first blog post will talk a little bit about my wishes for dogs. These are wishes for dogs who are already lucky enough to have food and shelter and humans to love them. There are still millions of dogs in the world who are not blessed with these basic necessities, and may we all continue to work to help them reach those most basic of goals. But, for the dogs in the world lucky enough to have those basic needs met, may you also be blessed with these things.
Wish #1: May all dogs have a meaningful relationship with a human where they feel safe and understood.
May their humans take the time to teach them a common language and to be patient in doing so. It is incredible to me that dogs adapt (for the most part) so well into our crazy human world. We owe it to them to gently teach them what we want them to do and how to manage their impulses. Some dogs figure this out on their own, and others need more time and detailed coaching. The messiness of real life can make this process challenging at times; may we all work every day to communicate effectively and peacefully with these animals that share our lives.
The second part of this wish is that we may understand our dogs. So much of my daily training and behavior counseling business is helping people to understand the dogs that they have. I wish that people take the time to research their dogs’ breed histories and find out what genetic traits they bring to the table, not to judge them, but to better understand them and help them stay out of trouble:
When my retriever pup brings me my daughters new Christmas slipper I do not scold him for it, I thank him for bringing it to me and then ask my daughter to keep her door closed. I understand that he is just showing me this fantastic thing he found and thought I might be interested in also. I know that if I were to scold him at that moment, I would be telling him to never bring me things that he finds, and that could be annoying if not dangerous down the road. I also understand that with age and experience, he will learn that his human never plays with slippers and that his toys are actually the fun objects in the house.
Another example comes my late Akita, Luna. Akitas are a breed that was created to go out, and, independently of a human, hunt both small and large game, everything from bunnies to bear. I understood that she would be a dog that took a tremendous amount of training before she could hike with me politely and safely off leash. After three years of serious training, she was absolutely trustworthy off leash. However, I never forgot that she was an Akita, and I took care to make sure she was leashed and under control when the situation warranted it.
These are just two examples of dogs’ instinctual challenges that could make our lives and even their own lives difficult or unsafe if I did not understand them. With patience and training, these challenges are just part of sharing your life with a dog. Please take the time to understand your dog. Whether that is reading about your dog’s specific breed or breed mix or talking with others who have the same breed or professionals that understand them. You have the opportunity to have better insight into what makes your dog tick.
Understanding your dog also means understanding the different stages in your dog’s development. Puppies have different needs than adolescent dogs. An adolescent dog’s needs are very different from a four-year-old dog’s. Understanding these stages help you to meet your dog’s needs appropriately and minimize their frustration and bad behavior. When I understand that meeting those needs is my responsibility as a dog owner, it helps me to be clear about where blame should lie. If my dog acts up after a period when I have failed to meet his needs, it is not his fault; it is my own.
Wish #2: May all have a career that is satisfying and enjoyable.
Whether this is hiking with you every day, running agility, learning new tricks or finding things with their nose, dogs thrive when they have a job. Let this job be something they truly enjoy and want to do. Just because you want your dog to be a therapy dog doesn’t mean that they will enjoy that. Take an honest look at what your dog enjoys and seek out ways to challenge your dog in that area. If your dog likes to run and jump, maybe agility is a good thing to try. If your dog likes to sit by people and be pet, then therapy dog work may be a good choice. If you have a dog that likes critters, then barn hunt (yes that’s a dog sport) may be a good fit. And, practically every dog enjoys nose work of any kind! Going on hikes, training good manners outside of the grocery store, walking to get a kiddo from school, even getting the newspaper, these are all great ways to give your dog a job. Just make sure that your dog truly enjoys going to work.
Wish #3: May all have a social life that they enjoy.
All dogs are different with regard to what type of social lives they enjoy. Humans are the same in this area. My best friend Jenni enjoys lots of social events in a week, the more people the better. I, on the other hand, enjoy maybe one or two outings a week with maybe one or two close friends. I can tolerate large social events, but I find them stressful and hardly ever actually enjoy them. I think of this when it comes to dog parks and doggie day cares. Some dogs really enjoy the variety, action, and intensity of a large group of unfamiliar dogs, while many dogs find it to be overwhelming, stressful, or, for some, even terrifying. And just like me at a large social event, you often can’t tell just how stressed they are because they internalize their stress and tolerate the ordeal. Many would prefer going on a nice quiet walk with their humans or learning a new fun trick or training skill. Most dogs I know who have really great relationships with their humans will almost always choose to be with them versus running with a bunch of unfamiliar dogs. After all that is what the majority of dogs were originally bred to do, to work with a human and be the companion of a human, to be man’s best friend.
Dogs need to continue to be exposed to people and dogs outside of your family for their entire lives, but that does not have to be in a large group environment such as a dog park or dog day care. Walking or hiking with friends and their dogs can be a great way to find social time for your dog. Going to a training class where your dog can get comfortable with the other dogs is a great choice for many dogs. Most dogs prefer socializing in small groups with dogs who are polite and respectful.
If your dog continues to be harassed by a dog or dogs whom your dog perceives as rude, your dog may eventually find it’s breaking point and start to correct the other dog. Correcting looks like growling, barking, snapping, or biting, and these are all behaviors that we would rather our dogs not need to display. Keep your dog’s best interested in mind all of the time. Just because another dog may be trying to play does not mean that your dog enjoys that style of play. Just because another dog’s owner is insisting that “He’s friendly,” does not mean your dog likes what is happening or feels safe. Always listen to what your dog is telling you. If your dog is moving away from another dog, then your dog is not enjoying the interaction. If your dog is looking more like it is defending itself than playing, help your dog to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. If your dog is getting overstimulated and out of control, it may erupt into bad behavior. You should be your dog’s protector and teacher. One of the reasons that many dogs become on-leash reactive or aggressive is that we humans miss many of the signals that they don’t want to or know how to interact with other dogs. Another reason is that they get so over stimulated when interacting with other dogs that they blow up. If your dog does not greet or socialize appropriately, seek out the help of a professional. They just need to be taught how to do it and have the chance to practice the skill. We live in an extremely dog friendly town. Avoiding other dogs is not a solution; helping your dog to meet polite, appropriate dogs in a clam manner is.
I wish you all a safe, happy and peaceful 2017. May you all continue to enjoy the amazing animals whom you share your lives with. Cheers!