“A friend is what the heart needs all the time.”
~ Henry van Dyke
Sharing our lives with a Dog fills a void that cannot be filled elsewhere. Perhaps it is somewhere deep in our genetic code, or a part of our vast history together on the planet. Whatever the reasons might be, having a friendship with a Dog makes us more human. It is this connection that inspires us to invest the time, money and emotion into finding the right Dog for us, and building our relationship together. In all of my years working with people and Dogs, and asking the question: “Why did you decide to bring a Dog into your life?”, the answer is invariably the same: for friendship and connection.
Somewhere along the way, however, the desire for control surpassed our need for connection. We hire professional trainers, read books, and watch television programs – all which promise to give us a “better” behaved and more controllable Dog. We may even enter them into contests to prove our ability to control them, and earn certifications so we can “use” our control skills with our Dogs in various venues. Even if our aspirations are not as grand as winning the first place ribbon, our life with our Dogs often becomes a relationship of “puppeteer/puppet” or that of “master/subordinate”. So, what happened to the friendship? Unfortunately, it got lost amidst the overwhelming motivation of greed and/or fear.
A great lie has been put on us: that in order to have a “good” Dog, the Dog must be trained; that we must be in control of them at all times. That unless a Dog is trained and under control, they will run amok and be disruptive, aggressive and a menace to society. That we must be good “owners”. To this I say, respectfully, nonsense! If we are are to live with our Dogs in a harmonious, successful and deeply connected way, then we must strive to be their friends, not their owners.
According to the dictionary:
Greed: The intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power or food.
Fear: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Friendship: a state of mutual trust, respect and support.
Here’s how each of these effect us and our Dogs:
Currently, the most common philosophy in Dog training is based on Skinnerian behaviorism and positive motivation. In other words, we reward our Dogs for behaving the way we want them to with a treat or a toy. We tell our Dogs, “If your behavior pleases me, I will give you a “goody”. This activates our Dog’s drive system and is fueled by the neurotransmitter Dopamine. This method is often touted as the “humane” way to control our Dogs, but in reality it has a sinister component, and can have a detrimental effect on creating a true friendship with our dogs. When used too much, it can create the desire for more and more reward, as this can lead to greed and addiction. This will weaken the connection we so desire to have with our Dogs. I once even heard a professional trainer boast how he made his Dogs into “treat junkies”. It treats our Dogs as puppets, and not as friends.
Studies have shown that reward-based behavior can kill initiatives and intrinsic motivation. It can actually be a form of punishment if your Dog expects a reward and it doesn’t materialize. (learn more…)
Would you continue working at your job if the paychecks stopped coming at the end of the week? When we overuse rewards, our Dogs develop a “what’s in it for me?” attitude.
What about us? When we are greed motivated, we tend to want more and more control over our Dogs. We boast and show off how we can manipulate every aspect of our dog’s actions. Social media is full of disgusting videos showing how people can exert control over their supposed friends – their Dogs. The competitions of control are even worse. I know this because I, myself, was heavily involved years ago in competitive Dog sports – Schutzhund, Ring Sport and AKC tracking. I rationalized my obsession for this by telling myself that it was “good for my Dogs”, when after all it was only a greedy addiction for trophies and status. It becomes all about our own egos, and we become swept away by what psychologists call B.I.R.G. (Basking In Reflective Glory).
Often disguised as “natural” or “pack oriented” training, fear-based training has been around since the beginning of human/dog dyads. It basically says to your Dog that unless you “do this”, you will be severely punished, or worse… ignored. Pack theory is often cited as the justification for this, however it is lack of understanding of pack and group animals that is the culprit here. Punishment raises cortisol levels in Dogs, and when used, it can have profound effects on their overall sense of well-being.
This is not to say that our dogs don’t need to learn limitations or boundaries. After all, roses have thorns and fire is hot – both very useful to keep us safe. It is when the idea of the relationship deteriorates into a master/slave model for the sake of control that fear becomes incredibly damaging. In fact, for there to be a friendship, there can be no fear at all.
With us, when we are motivated by fear, we are often thinking about how others will judge us. I see this all the time at the Dog park. People become very harsh with their Dogs when they jump, bark, etc. because they fear the scorns and scolding of others. They allow the opinions of other people influence their relationship with their Dog. To me, this is very sad.
We also become fearful for the welfare and safety of our Dogs. This often leads to being overprotective and micromanaging everything our Dogs do. As well meaning as this is, it speaks very loudly to the fact that we do not trust our Dog’s judgement or capabilities. This is no way to build a friendship.
Trust, respect, acceptance, compassion, support, freedom, autonomy, devotion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, communication, wisdom, commitment, faith in each other… these are just some of the ingredients of a genuine and deeply connected friendship. What should motivate us and our Dogs is the idea and deep conviction that true friends want each other to be happy. It is not a “What’s-in-it-for-me?” attitude, but rather a “What can I do for you?” I want my Dog to be motivated, not by greed or fear, but by friendship and love. This is based on the neurotransmitter Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter released in a loving and comforting friendship – a relationship that is a mutual sanctuary – free from stress.
This is what motivates me every time I am with my Dog. As friends, we enjoy great rapport, and we learn together to respect one another and try our best to act in ways that make each other happy. We share our wisdom with each other in order to help each other navigate through life’s rough spots. We support each other’s autonomy, and accept and love each other for who we are, not what we can train each other to be. This requires open and honest communication. It’s a shared motivation, not a selfish one. It is when, as Martin Buber famously said, “Relation is reciprocity.” It is a relationship of collaboration and cooperation, not bribery or threats.
The more we try to control our Dogs, the further away from connection we get. We cannot have a meaningful friendship if it is based on a one-sided, top-down relationship. It is an on-going dialog, not a monologue or lecture. It’s easy to forget why we chose to bring a Dog into our lives when we become distracted by the lust for control. The good news is that our Dogs never forget.