Communicating Instead of Conditioning

“In order to really enjoy a dog, one merely doesn’t try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of being partly a dog.”

– Edward Hoagland

Living harmoniously with a dog shouldn’t be as difficult as so many are making it for themselves. In the dog scene, people are constantly fighting over differences in opinion. Anything you do will be frowned upon by someone.

About half of dog owners say that you need to be the pack leader and think and act like a dog, while the other half says they aren’t dogs and won’t begin to act like one!

I am somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. As with most things, I believe the middle road, the most balanced path, is the best one to walk on. I am not a dog, no, but I also can’t expect my dog to understand my language and way of thinking. Nor do I want to have a relationship based on conditioning and ingenuine training exercises.

If I want a genuine, harmonious relationship with any animal, I need to be just that: genuine. As luck may have it, that’s exactly what dogs are! Animals are extremely genuine creatures and can spot an equally genuine person from a mile away.

What do I mean by that? Many people who never say no to their dog, only work with clickers and believe their dog should understand their language, are not being genuine. If their dog did something that hurt them, frustrated them or they didn’t like, they wouldn’t tell them. They will ignore them (as form of punishment), or redirect the behaviour.

I know this, because I had to learn these methods in my own training. Sometimes they can be helpful, but in many cases, you are not keeping it real with your dog.

Replace the dog in these situations with a person. Would you just ignore them or redirect the situation? No! You would tell them, in a nonaggressive manner, that you did not like what they just did.

“(…) open oneself to the possibility of being partly a dog.” Instead of conditioning your dog to mechanically respond to different commands, try to see things from his point of view. When he does something correct, be like a child and be genuinely happy! If he does something that you didn’t like, let him know!

Remember how you were as a child? Your communication was simple, yet genuine. That’s why dogs flock to children like bees to honey. 

Let me give a classic example. Here is a common problem: your dog is afraid of loud noises. There are a few ways to go about this, but I will compare two. The first would be to give your dog a treat every time he hears a worrying noise, so that he eventually connects that sound = food = good, therefore sound = good.

In other words, you condition your dog. This will take ages and, most importantly, you would have to give your dog a treat every time he hears a sound. Who am I? Superwoman? What if he hears one of the sounds when you are not around? If he doesn’t get the treat each time, this probably won’t work and he won’t get properly conditioned.

The other way you can go about it, is the way I would do it, which has worked amazingly and also on dogs who were truly scared by loud sounds. The most important part of this equation is your relationship. Before you can work on any problem, you need to gain trust and have a good relationship with the animal.

Even if you only met him half an hour ago, crouch down and get to know him! If my dog gets scared of something, I stop moving, stay totally relaxed (showing him that I am not worried about it), say something like “don’t worry about it!”, and hang out until they settle down. When they seek comfort, they can get it from me by sitting close to me. If it is an object that they are afraid of, I go up to it, touch it in a very relaxed and joyful manner and the dog will quickly see that there is nothing to worry about. Usually they walk up to it a few minutes later and have no problem.

Dogs just need time. They need time, trust and the ability to actually see that nothing happens. Often times, people click and treat and then do this and that and just keep walking right away. So much is going on and there is never a chance to simply sit and observe.

What do you think dogs in a group do? If one dog is scared of loud sounds, the other dogs don’t give him food every time they hear the sound, yet the dog gets over his fear eventually. He observes the group, notices that no one else is worried about the sound.

After a while of simply hearing the sound, seeing calmness in the others and noticing that nothing bad happens, he gets over his fear.

Of course there are dogs who have genetics that cause them to be more scared of sounds than others, border collies, etc, or some who are truly traumatised, but generally this will work.

To become “partly a dog”, we need to observe our dogs. See how they react to each other and how we could do that as humans.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear about them in the comments!

This post is also available in: enEnglish (Englisch)

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