Sometimes I feel like shouting from the rooftops: “Stop training your dog!!”
There is way too much emphasis on controlling dogs rather than allowing them to grow to their fullest potential. The need for control is sometimes self-serving, and does nothing for the well being or personal growth of the dog and just feeds our own egos. I have even seen social media posts on how well “trained” dogs are by demonstrating how the dog won’t touch a morsel of food until the “okay” is given, or that the dog will take single steps at a time under the strict control of their owner shouting the order. Is this supposed to impress? Obedience and other training competitions measure levels of control one has over their dog. Yes, I was an enthusiastic participant of that scene once upon a time, competing heavily in Schutzhund and French Ring with my dogs. Thankfully, I have grown since then.
Your thoughts about control will depend on how you feel about your dog and the relationship you have with him. Is your dog a vehicle in which you place all your desires and ambitions? Are you living vicariously through your dog? Or do you feel as if your dog is an accessory in your life? I know that in legal terms, dogs are considered “chattel”, but can one living organism really own another?
Is your dog your friend? If the latter is true, then attempting to train your friend will not help the friendship grow and flourish. You don’t own your friend nor are you your friends boss; if you feel that way then you are not his friend. A friendship is not a hierarchy. A healthy friendship has little tolerance for possessiveness, ego, selfishness or manipulation. A deep friendship can exist only between two fully functioning beings. I don’t mean to sound preachy here – I am only sharing my opinions and you can decide for yourself.
At this point you may be thinking that I am advocating total and complete freedom from all structure and guidance, and that I think one should allow their dog to do whatever he wants at anytime. The answer is no and yes. If you truly care about your dog, you will want him to achieve his highest potential. You will give him the space he needs to allow that to happen. Just like us, our dogs need space to grow as much as they need air to breath. Constant control and smothering will kill the roots of a friendship before it can even begin to flower. At the same time, there is also a need for friends to help each other become successful in life and “self actualized”, by sharing the wisdom each of us has with the other. For example, true friends want each other to be happy and safe. We want each other to become confident and autonomous, and we can help our dogs achieve this through communication and conversation, not manipulation or intimidation.
Humans and dogs have enjoyed a synergistic relationship for thousands and thousands of years. We are better together than we are apart, because we each have complimentary skill sets. We are adept at seeing the “big picture”, and our dogs are experts at details. For a friendship to thrive, we need to trust each other’s area of expertise. It’s a two way street. The over-training of our dogs only goes one way, and we spend most of our time talking to them, and very little time listening to them. Instead of constant training and the manipulation of behavior, we should be having “conversations” with our dogs, offering our guidance on how to live safely and happily in the world. At the same time, we should take their advice on how to appreciate the small things in life and to savor each moment.
When we have a healthy relationship built on mutual trust and respect, then our dogs will regard what we tell them, our guidance, as advice worth listening to. In this case, they are not obeying, they are trusting our judgement, because as friends we have faith that we are always doing what we feel is best for each other. A good friendship will have lots of deposits in the “trust account” that can be drawn from when needed. This is not obedience. If there’s nothing in that account, our relationship goes into arrears, and that’s when we resort to manipulation or domination.
There are many ways to build a high level of trust and faith in each other. The first is to be open and honest. Always show your dog that the advice you are giving them is true and worthwhile. If you tell them that coming to you when you call them is a great thing, and when they do come to you they are locked in a crate, scolded for not coming immediately, or even worse, ignored, then you have only succeeded in destroying trust. It’s the old story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
To build trust is to remember the first principle of the Path of Friendship: Always Put the Friendship First. Your dog must believe at the core of her being that you will love her and accept her for who she is, not just what you want her to be. This fosters a sense of security in your dog so that she feels confident and can discover the world for herself. She will develop a great sense of self esteem by solving problems both on her own and with your gentle guidance. This helps her become autonomous and confident. It affirms with your dog that you believe in her and it give her a sense of self worth. Remember, she loves and accepts you for who are, so this needs to be reciprocated. Your friendship must be unconditional, otherwise it becomes a business transaction.
The next step to help you create a strong friendship with your dog is to always be yourself. I see too many people change their tone of voice, posture and their very persona when they interact with their dogs. This is just plain silly. If your relationship is based on you acting out a role then your friendship is based on phoniness and deceit. The origin of the word “persona” means “mask”. That should say it all. Don’t change your persona; be yourself and communicate how you really feel. Remember, your dog will always tell you how they feel – just make sure you are listening.
To cultivate individual growth in your dog is to give them space to breathe. Too often people smother their dogs by micro-managing everything they do. They tell them when to eat, when to drink, how to play, when to sit, when to stand… it borders on oppression. I realize it’s important to guide your dog on how to be safe and how to have proper social etiquette, but there has to be balance. It’s like trying to force your dog to drink because you think he is thirsty. Dogs know how they feel, and they know how to be happy. Our constant interference is damaging to their sense of self-worth. Allow your dog to be themselves. Guide them but don’t force them. In order for your friendship to grow deep and connected, you need to give them space. Otherwise, it’s like trying to pull on the stem of a flower to make it grow faster. If you do this, you’ll only succeed in killing it.
Remember the Path of Friendship principle #4: Give Up Control and Help Each Other to Grow. Help your dog to become whole and complete. Cultivate growth in them, as well as growth in your friendship. If you have faith in your dog the way they have faith in you, they will become a great and trusted friend. A true friendship can only exist when you have faith in each other.