These past two weeks, my wife, our three dogs and I took a cross-country road trip to hike in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. One thing that really struck me, in contrast to Northeast Pennsylvania, the vast and openness of these places. Driving mostly secondary roads, there were stretches that went on for a hundred miles without one gas station, one billboard; not even power lines. Out there the land and nature were allowed to remain original, without any interference or control from anyone. Except for the road we we driving on, the environment was untouched. As we drove through, I realized how breathtakingly beautiful land is when it is left alone. This got me thinking once again about how we are with our dogs. Very few of us leave our dogs alone to be themselves.
In recent history, relatively speaking, there has been a flood of “new” methods to control our dogs. There are many forms and fashions of training. Dominance, positive motivation, clicker training, electronic training, ad nauseum. They all have the same goal: to control our dogs. We have developed entire industries that deal with control – I know, as a behaviorist I see a lot of that industry. However, does this do more harm than good? In many ways, I think it does.
We have to give our dogs a certain amount of guidance, of course, because they live in our world filled with speeding cars, unfriendly people, and other man-made dangers, but it seems that control has become an obsession with many owners and trainers, destroying the very fabric of our relationship with our dogs. Much of this stems from our basic assumptions about our dogs. Often, we assume they are like naive, ignorant children, not fully-functioning, competent beings. Our egocentric view of ourselves as superior beings interferes with our judgement. Unfortunately, our dogs fall victim to the expectancy effect, and they end up becoming what we expect them to become.
There are two problems with this obsession of control:
1. The control is off-balanced and only one-sided. Why not allow our dogs to guide us at times? If we love them, we need to trust them and have faith in them as well. We need to share the responsibility equally as true friends do. Our dogs are smarter and wiser than many give them credit for. They have an incredible intuitive ability and a keen perception of sight, sound, and smell. We can learn much from their acute present moment awareness.
2. We have become arrogant and self-righteous. Many people feel that unless we control every aspect of our dogs lives, they won’t survive. Furthermore, we feel that our way is the only way. This is utter nonsense. “Helicopter parenting” has been shown to increase anxiety in children, and it does the same thing to our dogs. I see this often with my clients and observing at dog parks. Dogs that are allowed to be themselves are more relaxed, social, and get into fewer problems than those whose owners hover over them and continuously micro-manage their behavior.
Constant control is like having a beautifully grained piece of wood, then covering it with thick paint. Dogs are amazing creatures. To really appreciate their beauty, we must bring out their natural grain, not cover it up. Giving our dogs more “open spaces” to be themselves will allow their true beauty to shine through. Real friendship can only flourish when each is allowed to be themselves. It is only in these open spaces that a deep and true friendship can grow.