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How’s Your Relationship?

One of the saddest things I see as a trainer is a dog that has no relationship with the human at the other end of the leash.  When I see such a lack of camaraderie between dog and owner, I am struck by the similarities among almost all of these “couples.”  The first thing I notice, oftentimes, is how quiet and uncommunicative the person is with the dog, how quickly the person is inclined to correct the dog or feel that it needs correction, and how reluctant the owner is to use food in training or to use a sufficient rate of reinforcement when the dog is first learning.

Perhaps some owners feel that because dogs don’t talk that we need not talk to them.  But, a dog that hears its name spoken cheerily by a loving owner, who follows up with a “yes!” as soon as their dog looks at them, and then tosses a nice bit of cheese or meat, usually has a dog that knows its name.  If nothing interesting ever happens when the dog does try looking at his owner, why would he continue to try to engage?

If you can get a dog to turn to you when you say its name, you can carry on an additional conversation with your smile, directional gestures, and activity, that the dog can respond to. It’s the first step toward getting the dog to want to come when called, and the dogs with the most stellar recalls are usually those that have been built solidly on relationship.  Sure, if rote obedience is your only desire, you could put a shock collar on a dog and force it to come, but the joyous, free, “I can’t wait to get to you” recalls are built on healthy relationships that benefit the dog as much as the human, and not on coercion.  I would never again coerce a dog when I know that I can have such pure joie de vivre reflected back at me by simply making every recall a happy affair that results in my dog benefiting as much as I do.  I have no problem showering my dogs with a smorgasbord of real meat, cheese, yogurt, tripe, and all manner of other enticements when they arrive at my feet until they think that I really am the god of all things dogs want.  And even for dogs that are more inclined to want to chase squirrels than eat, there is still no reason for punishing techniques (there ‘s something called Premack Principle that will come in to play for that).

Another problem with relationship that I see is that everything is filtered through the lens of what the dog does wrong.  “How do I stop my dog from (name the unwanted behavior),” they ask me.   What if people, instead of thinking only of the things they want to correct, began to reward the dog when he was good?  Dogs are practical – they repeat behavior that works.  And, dogs aren’t trying to take over the world, be “stubborn” or piss us off.  They are just being dogs.  All they need is a bit of education and they are more than willing to cooperate.  But how do you educate a dog that’s already out at the end of its leash trying to avoid you because the only feedback you’ve given is aversive?  I’ve never been able to quite understand how any logical person could think that their dog would want to be with them after they speak harshly, pin, scruff, shake, yank, or ignore the dog.  (Yes, I know, we ignore jumping up, but that isn’t the same as ignoring the dog on a two mile walk, save to yank him away from some cool scent once in a while.)

Correction has fallout with regard to relationship.  If you were on a leash and the only time you got your neck jerked on, or heard harsh commands, or were pushed away, was when you were on that leash (next to your human), you might wish to stay far away from the human once the leash comes off.   The saddest thing is to see 5-6 happy dogs, engaged with their owners and having a great time at class, and one poor dog that is being corrected at home, trying his darnedest to get to the other puppies and people, never once looking back at his own handler.

The truly hard part for me, as a trainer, is when I get someone ask me if they are in the right class, are doing something wrong, or have a stubborn or stupid dog.  There are few nice ways to be honest enough to tell someone that they may have done some things that messed up the relationship they have with their dog.  If the dog wags its tail upon the owner’s arrival home, the owner may tend not to believe that there could possibly be anything wrong.  But, indeed there sometimes is.  So, if you are struggling in class, or at home, please know that I don’t want to tell you that your relationship is suffering, but your dog is counting on me to tell you!  So, if I ask you to increase your rate of reinforcement, or use a high pitched voice to call your dog, or get cheerful, or catch your dog doing something right, or pay your dog a jackpot, all of that is designed to get you to be the most important thing in your dog’s life.  If that means a smorgasbord, and no more “no” then that’s what it means.  Please don’t shoot the messenger, but this blog post is my way of telling you, too.  Your dog will thank me if you listen, but you don’t have to – one more happy dog is more than enough thanks for me.

For information on why punishment doesn’t work:

For more information on the proper use of food in dog training:

Pam’s Dog Academy has some great videos on building attention and recall (and side effect of building relationship!)  You can start here:

Pet owners can now join the Pet Professional Guild.  Guild members, affiliates & sponsors understand Force-Free to mean, no shock, no pain, no fear, no physical force, no physical molding, no compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.
To learn more:


About pawsforpraise

I own and operate Paws for Praise. We offer group dog training classes and behavior consultations in a dog and human friendly environment. We think training should be fun for you and your dog. Go ahead - make a tail wag!

4 responses »

  1. Excellent Article. Thank you!

  2. Jennifer Titus

    Terrific article, Anne!

  3. Excellent!!!!

  4. Another great article, Anne! I wish every dog owner would read this as soon as they brought their dog home.


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