I was having a conversation with someone who complained that the activities that were the most rewarding and motivating for her dog were behaviors she didn’t like, barking at, and becoming aroused by strangers the main bones of contention. Her frustration was easy to understand since it was impossible for her to interrupt and distract her dog once this behavior got started. It made me wonder though, was there nothing that her dog enjoyed that included her in the equation? Had she never found ways to be her dog’s best friend?
Some will argue that a dog like this doesn’t need someone to be its friend, and I would say that friends don’t let friends drive drunk or let them chase the cars being driven by someone who’s been drinking or not, it’s not about giving a dog free rein (or reign for that matter).
Most of our dogs are here because originally they were bred to interact with humans, in one way or another. Some may be more inclined to focus on their humans making training easier. As a border collie owner I have long since given up on trying to take a shower without being accompanied by at least one dog into the bathroom, but I am very pleased to have dog boarders who barely raise an eyebrow when I leave the room while they lie on a bed in front of the woodstove.
When Sunny first came to live with me he had no skills for interacting with people at all. His response to being around people was (and in most cases still is) to avoid them as much as possible. I believed that somewhere inside that poor brain of his was some coding that would help us find some common interests and they would likely have to be based more on his preferences rather than mine. As much as I might enjoy cuddling up with a dog to watch a movie, it wasn’t likely that Sunny was going to find that enjoyable. Food, while a no-brainer for getting a dog’s attention, is a very powerful tool for working with dogs and its value should never be underestimated. I added some gentle handling and scratching to my relationship with Sunny and he soon learned that there were places only I could reach, and with some coaxing with his paw I could be convinced to get to them for him.
When I worked with rescue groups from Puerto Rico and would receive a shipment of dogs, getting them out for a walk in the woods was a top priority for me before I brought them to our local shelter for adoption. I enjoy doing it and it was a great way to lower the dogs’ stress levels as they recuperated from vet visits, a plane flight and complete change in environment. While I don’t recommend that anyone let a dog off leash if they have any question about its safety, I routinely brought dogs I had known for only a day or two, on long woods walks armed with nothing but good treats, a pair of hiking shoes, and my dogs to act as role models.
There was nothing magical about my ability to get the dogs’ attention or keep them with me. Perhaps as a story teller and tour group leader I have an inclination toward the dramatic which helps me out and I rarely found it difficult to convince the dogs that I was worth paying attention to, they were after all dogs and not rocket scientists that I needed to entertain. There is nothing wrong with acquiring a dog for one’s own personal needs or reasons, but it would be silly to assume that the dog comes without its own needs or preferences. And it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to figure out what those preferences might be, though creative thinking is often in order.
Finding ways to get and keep a dog’s attention is a logical first step in any training program. It might be food, balls, tug toys, squeaky mice, kicking up leaves, or dancing a jig that stops your dog in its tracks, makes it turn on its heels, cock its head and think, “What the heck is the tall one up to now? Better go see.” Sunny is a frisbee and tennis ball fanatic, loves string cheese and wishes I would let him keep the furry, squeaky mice I sometimes hide in my pockets. Most of our interactions include activities that he enjoys and often initiates. It feels like a friendship even if I’m the one with control of the doorknobs and treats. Maybe when he cuddles with me on the couch he’s just humoring me, and it is kind of him. And when I stop him from barking at passing cars or joggers he knows that I usually have something worth paying attention to up my sleeve. One day it just might be one of those squeaky mice and I’ll be feeling generous.