July 13, 2010

Don’t train your dog. (Yet)

I don’t believe in training dogs.

Oh sure, I believe that it’s important to have a dog who knows how to behave when they’re with you in public, or when left alone to their own devices at home. But if you’re focused on getting your dog to act the way you want them to act, then you’re really missing the point.

And you’re also missing an enormous opportunity.

What’s important about the dynamic taking place between you and your dog is the relationship, the trust that exists between the two of you.  When that relationship is strong, when your dog understands that you can be trusted no matter what is going on in their world, then you will get the behavior you want, almost automatically.

That’s because most of the time, your dog is simply trying to answer one question: 

What do I do with my energy?

If you answer that question for your dog, then your dog’s behavior will orient around you.  No matter how emotionally charged the environment is.  If you focus on the behavior, then you increase the likelihood that all your training will fall apart when it matters most.  Because in those moments your dog isn’t “thinking” about what to do—they’re just doing what feels right.  If you are focusing on answering your dog’s primary question (what do I do with my energy?)—then you are working with your dog on the level of feeling.  And a feeling always comes before an action.

Let me ask you a question.

What if someone gave you a little robot dog that could sit, speak, come, heel, and maybe even “act spontaneously” on demand.  Would that satisfy what you’re looking for, the reasons why you have a dog?

Could someone create the perfect robo-spouse for you?  The perfect robo-child?

Even though they’re behaving correctly, my guess is that these robo-companions might satisfy you for a little while, but that there’d be something important missing.  And that something important is probably something like a real, true, emotional connection, coming from another being—a being who otherwise thinks for themselves.  A being who makes a choice to give you their love and trust.  And you’re both better for it.

So why start with the behavior, since what you really want is the relationship?

Some people train dogs through intimidation, convinced that you have to be the “alpha” dog in the pack to get your dog to listen to you.  Others train dogs by using rewards to reinforce the behaviors they want, and punishment to discourage unwanted behaviors.  Both of these approaches focus on the symptom – getting the “right” behavior – rather than the cause – which is the relationship between you and your dog that underlies all that transpires in your dog’s actions around you (or in your absence).

However, you can have the kind of relationship that you want with your dog if you simply pay attention to your dog’s emotional needs.  If you consistently show your dog what to do with their energy, if you give your dog outlets for their stored stress (and avoid creating more stress), then the force of emotional attraction between you and your dog will increase.  That’s how you teach your dog to trust you.

And once your dog trusts you, then sit/stay/come/heel/down all flow effortlessly.  At that point there’s nothing to “teach” your dog.  You just have to get out of the way of their doing what comes naturally.

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