“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our Dogs are distinct, one-of-a-kind individuals, not one can ever be duplicated in the history of the universe. They are as unique as snowflakes – no two are ever alike. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to our relationship with them would be unfair and disrespectful. Then how is it that so many “professional” trainers and behaviorists try to fit our Dogs into specific categories and boxes, and subscribe to“canned” answers to behavior problems? A single technique is applied because they are not seeing our Dogs as friends and equals that we need to connect with, only as pets and property that need to be managed and controlled.
We live in a culture that expects instant gratification and immediate solutions to problems. We “google” our way through troubles and difficulties, usually settling for lowest common denominator solutions and quick-fixes. Many Dogs are abandoned, surrendered to shelters, abused and neglected because we attempt this pre-packaged approach with them. We create expectations based on pages in a random book, or what some “expert”, who often only only sees our Dogs in specific situations and for a very brief period of time, says we should. These expectations not only blur our vision, but they often prevent us from seeing all the great things about our Dogs, because we filter our vision through these limited expectations. Our Dogs, as with other living creatures, must be seen for who they are – without prejudging them on their breed, gender or history. If we are to achieve the connection with them that we really want – as friends – then we have to have an open mind, be flexible in our approach with them, and understand completely that the Dog in front of us is not just a statistic in some book, but a living, breathing, thinking and feeling miracle.
It all begins with appreciating, accepting and loving our dogs for who they are, not just what we want them to be. It means seeing them as an “objet trouvé”, (art that is found as it is) as opposed to “objet d’art” (created art). This defines unconditional love and acceptance – not contingent upon any behavior or action that we desire. This is the root of any meaningful and deep friendship, what Aristotle called “friendship of the good”, the highest form of friendship as opposed to friendship based on contingencies and conditions.
True friendship continues by allowing our Dogs to be themselves as we support their autonomy so they can grow to their fullest potential – what true friends would want for each other, as opposed to a “what-can-you-do-for-me” attitude.
This also requires effective and compassionate communication, what I call the “effectiveness zone”, which is different for every Dog, and in every situation. Here’s how it works:
Picture two horizontal lines, one above the other. The top line represents the upper limit of effective communication and the bottom line represents the lower limit. In between the lines is where our communication with our Dogs is most effective and most compassionate. It’s like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. We want to find what’s “just right”. Here’s an example:
If our Dog was about to run into the street when a car was approaching, obviously we would need to communicate to her that this would be a dangerous thing to do. If we become too emotional and too extreme, (above the upper line), then she may not get the message and become panicky and fearful, possibly running into the path of the car. If we are too laid-back with our communication, (below the line), then she wouldn’t get the message either and might run into the road. We need to be somewhere right in between. This is also true for positive communication, not just negative ones. If we have asked our Dog to “sit” instead of jumping on us when we walk through the door, then too little praise, (below the line), will not be enough to tell him we appreciate his action. If we over-praise and get him too excited and worked-up, (above the line), then he will likely jump up again.
So how do we know when we are communicating in our Dog’s effectiveness zone? We need to be sensitive to the feedback they give us at that moment, and not blindly follow some technique or method we read in a book or a “professional” trainer told us. We need to connect and look at our Dogs and see if they understood what we were trying to tell them. It’s the same thing we would do with a friend. If we communicated with our friend, we might ask, “Did you understand?”, in order to know if we need to say it in a different way. If we see that our Dogs did not get the message in the way we intended, we must change our approach. This is how friends act with each other, an organic and not a mechanical process.
I always begin work with my clients by helping them understand that working with their Dog is a dialog and a conversation – not a monologue and a lecture. It’s a respectful and compassionate back and forth “dance” where each partner has a say and where we share the role of leadership. If we want a deep and vibrant connection with our Dogs; if we want to live with them in harmonious resonance, then we must treat each other as friends and equals, not as owner/pet. We must see beyond the artificial and one-dimensional labels and boxes we put them in. Only when we have removed the barriers of inequality and categorization can we effectively communicate with our Dogs, and fully connect with each other. This requires us to appreciate each other for the individuals we are, and therefore “custom make” our friendship. We can’t find that on the “one-size-fits-all” rack.