I confess to not embracing the Valentine's day hype but as this year's crop of Valentine related emails land, I have found myself thinking more about the relationships between dogs and their people.
Recently I've had some conversations where we've ended up disclosing that there have been times where we've not really liked our dogs very much. It's very easy to get into a negative mindset around our dog's behaviour and what will happening in the future. Finding the energy to fight against these thoughts, keep going on the path to learning how to help your dog plus dealing with the challenges of work, family and home can feel like an impossible task. But let's take a minute to think about the value of a relationship with your dog.
Having a dog in your life can be like having a good friend, a team mate, an exercise buddy, a confident and thanks to their ability to bark and guard, a protector. At the beginning you were excitedly anticipating adding a dog to your family, planning your future together, and if you're anything like me - shopping! The day your dog finally became 'yours' was special, so memorable that 'Gotcha Day' is celebrated by many. You put your schedule on hold to spend as much time as possible with your new dog, you even slept on the sofa to make sure your dog didn't feel lonely or anxious in their new home.
Have you forgotten these moments? It's easy to do and can happen over time as our dogs mature or settle in.
One thing that will always strengthen a relationship is something you already have - commitment. Commitment to the relationship with your dog will help you build a bond which in turn will build trust and confidence in each other.
When things get difficult, commitment will help you stay solution rather than escape focused.
As I write this in 2023 calls to rescue centres from owners looking to surrender their pets have trebled. My professional body are warning that owners need to resolve their problems with their dogs or opt for euthanasia, the previous options of rehoming are currently in short supply. Being solution focused may be an essential skill for dog owners at this time. Where rehoming is the right solution, owners may need to look further afield or be prepared to wait until a space becomes available.
Some ways I've found to help strengthen the relationship with my dog:
Be a Team
Old fashioned dominance theories encourage us to think of our dogs as subordinates, to be obedient to our commands. Relationship building encourages us to think more about our dogs as the co-operative species they truly are.
Dog training can be very 'I' based. What is my dog doing that 'I' do not like? How can 'I' fix my dog's behaviour to make it easier for me? One tip is to change 'I' thinking into 'we' thinking. Instead of 'my' goals, what are 'our' goals? Another tip is to think 2 years ahead - where do 'we' want to be in 2 years time?
From experience the desire to apply control to elicit obedience results in a battle of wills and can lead to dog's becoming 'self-employed' especially outside the house. Lack of team work can often be found at the root of a missing recall, traffic chasing, and lead pulling,
Let Your Dog Do Their Bit
Part of being a good team player is delegation. Traditional training methods state that we need to be in charge, the instigator of all interactions and the keeper of rewards. From experience what happens is that the dog loses confidence in their abilities to problem solve and change their behaviour.
Another fall out from this training system is a dog that fails to connect unless it is asked to do so first. This can be a tiring way to live with a dog and is at the root of many lead walking issues.
Delegation may look like improving your training program, brushing up your skills so that you can build a greater degree of difficulty into known behaviours. Delegation can be as simple trusting your dog to seek out food or a toy by themselves without constantly being cued to 'find it'.
Develop Good Communication
A relationship that moves back and forth between a dog and a person requires communication. Communication will help you understand each other and continue working as a team.
Unfortunately, dogs and people communicate differently and it can take some time to learn each other's preferences. As people we tend to focus on verbal communication whilst dogs look for patterns and get information from scent.
In order to smooth out communication we can learn how to interpret dog body language, be aware of our body language and be consistent with cues.
Exercise and training are important but not at the cost of play. Dogs naturally learn through play and making time for games is vital to building a relationship with your dog.
Play is much more than tug or fetch. Play can be built into outings and everyday life. You could explore a new path together, chase leaves or see who can reach the fridge first!
One of my favourite parts of a dog walk is looking at things through my dog's eyes - getting up close to nature and taking a fresh look at the environment. Watching my dog's find new surprises that I've never noticed, brightens up the most mundane street walks.
Finally, be open minded. Be willing to let your dog have a different opinion, to say 'no' or 'not now'. Do you really have to win every time?
When the relationship with your dog feels difficult, take your time, take a break, step back and observe the whole picture. Look for qualities in your dog that you can celebrate, the small changes, the little wins.
If you need help, reach out and let me know.