Being the audience to a well-trained dog is as joyful as it is magical. How mysterious to see dogs fetch drinks from the fridge or to solve mathematical problems? It is befuddling to think how a dog can comprehend and respond to a complex set of instructions. There is also the very unique nature of the dog-human relationship. Sometimes all you need is a look to convey the seriousness of your request. Other times, the beginning crack of a silly-faced smile to communicate the onset of playtime. Perhaps a furling of the eyebrows is sufficient to send a message of distress and express concern. These are the subtleties of human and dog communication that emerge naturally upon the bedrock of solid, consistent, and dog-centered training.
To train a dog to do anything, we have to first take perspective. And there are many to choose from, too. You would not need to go very far searching for advice before coming upon information on how to get your dog to do something. The problem, however, is one of finding the right perspective.
Allow me to explain.
Very broadly speaking, I believe we can classify ways of thinking about dog training into two general perspectives. On the one hand, you have a human centered viewpoint where decisions are made primarily based on the needs of the human. Does the dog bark too much? This can understandably be a problem. The solution could be to stop the dog from barking. And there are many methods of doing so once we decide it is the path to take. Is the dog jumping up on guests? The solution would quite simply be to stop that behavior at all costs.
But there is also a second perspective that happens to be dog-centered. On this side of the pond, one might consider more deeply the context of the problem as well as the dog’s learning history.
Why is the dog barking? Could it be a lack of exercise? Frustration? Or maybe the dog wants to simply join in on the fun with all the humans who happen to be laughing themselves silly. These are all good reasons to bark. We have a dog that knows how to be a dog! However, from this vantage point where the focus is on the dog as well as the context, the solution looks very different. You may decide to give the dog slightly more exercise. How about giving her a time-consuming task to preemptively distract and momentarily occupy? Perhaps you could even teach the dog how to bark at an appropriate time and to stop barking when you need them to.
But it’s never that simple.
We live in an age where time is valuable and quick-fix solutions are popular. In an effort to strive for the method that does the most with the least, it is no surprise that when solving problems that have to do with dogs; we end up choosing to think like humans. In most areas of life, this serves us well. In the area of dog problems, it can cost us more than we are willing to lose. At best, we end up acting ineffectively, the problem behavior continues or worsens, and we become discouraged in our ability to communicate and teach our dogs. At worst, we end up causing significant behavioral harm to the dog. We lose sight of what’s ultimately the most important thing – the relationship. We exacerbate the problem, dismantle the trust we had built, and end up teaching our dogs that humans will cause you pain sometimes and you may not even know what it’s about or when it’s coming. I urge you to stop for a moment and just consider that message. How would you feel knowing that this is what your dog has been taught? To me, this is a seriously unfortunate outcome for both the person and the dog.
To take a dog-centered perspective, I would argue, allows for endless possibilities. Is it the easiest and quickest solution to a problem? Not always. But does it guarantee a solution that would be far more permanent, more effective, more aligned with the psychology of how dogs actually learn best – all the while preserving and deepening your relationship with your dog? You bet.
And while all that may be important, I think there is an even bigger prize to be had. What if you could continue to be surprised by your dog’s intelligence? What if your dog could learn to understand what you need all on his own? What if you could do more with your dog altogether? What is the price to pay for all of this dog training magic, you ask? Holding your dog’s needs with compassion and committing to approaching problems from your dog’s perspective. Is that worth making time for?