We live in a fast-paced, results-oriented society, one in which technology advances at warp speed and solutions to many of our everyday problems are often just a mouse-click away. Our increasingly hectic lifestyles mean that we waste very little time getting our needs met. This is fine if we’re ordering a couch and decide that blue tapestry is more to our liking than vintage brown leather. Chances are good that we’ll get just what we ordered. The same is often true when buying a car, a boat or the latest status toy. For the most part, we get what we want, and we get it without much effort.
Living with inanimate objects is very different from sharing a home with a four-legged best friend, however. Dogs, as we are learning from a wealth of newly published research, display sensitivity, emotion and advanced cognitive skills; they also have an understanding of fairness, and perhaps most importantly, they have the capacity to form intense social relationships with humans, other dogs and even other species. In my 15-plus years of scientifically studying and training dogs as well as treating their life-threatening behavioral problems, I have yet to see a pre-packaged dog, one who comes out of the box perfectly behaved and needing only food, water and a leash. It just doesn’t happen that way. Nor should it.
When we bring a new dog into our life, we enter into an interpersonal relationship that entails a responsibility on our part. As a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, my goal is to help clients foster relationships based on trust, understanding and friendship.
What does it mean to enter into a relationship with a dog? Among other things, it means that:
We see our dogs for who they are, which is based on thousands of years of evolutionary history. Dogs are not furry little people. They have their own heritage. Whenever possible, look at your surroundings through your dog’s eyes. If you were removed from the only world you knew and placed in an unfamiliar environment — like a puppy separated from her littermates or a dog rescued from the streets — chances are you might feel a little unsure, anxious and perhaps even fearful. It’s not unreasonable to expect that our new dog might feel that way, too. In some situations, a careful dose of anthropomorphism can be useful.
We cut our new dog some slack. Ike isn’t peeing on the leg of your brandnew baby grand piano because he’s mad at you. Perhaps instead, he’s feeling anxious about being left home alone, or maybe he’s just not fully housetrained yet; even adult rescues often need housetraining help. A new puppy or adult dog should never be given free rein of the house right from the start. It’s a recipe for disaster.
We learn to communicate with our dog in a way that she can understand. This is what good dog training is all about. If I were put in a room with a group of Spanish-speaking people, I wouldn’t be able to converse with them because I’ve never learned to speak Spanish. However, I have the ability to learn that language; with some training, people can learn to speak “dog,” too. Trainer Bob Bailey once said that “training is a mechanical skill.” It can be learned and refined with time and practice.
As an academically trained ethologist, I also believe that a big part of learning how to communicate with our dogs involves developing keen observational skills. Spend some time quietly watching your dog and learning about her personality. Does she take on new tasks with joie de vivre, or does she tend toward a more laid-back, wait-and-see approach? Respecting who your dog is and what she needs to feel safe and understood fosters trust and builds lasting partnerships.