Teaching Dogs through Relationship, Communication & Trust

© By Linda J. Brodzik, Dog Trainer & Behavior Specialist

I believe that we all have a “Lassie Movie” running through our heads when we choose to bring a canine companion into our lives. By this, I mean that we all have a vision of how we see ourselves interacting and living with our new friend. We see the excitement of coming home to a dog that is always happy to greet us. We see games of fetch, relaxing walks, and just “hanging” around on lazy days. We see joy, trust, harmony and unconditional love. Nobody adopts a puppy or older dog with the thought that they will not be happy with their new companion. We all venture into this union with the best of intentions and the greatest of expectations.

Unfortunately, this movie, the vision, the dream, often ends in tragedy. The hopes and expectations shatter as the dog becomes unruly, destructive, disobedient or even aggressive. It is an unsettling reality that only 30 to 40 percent of dogs remain in their original homes for the duration of their lives. When surveyed, 97 percent of people would change some aspect of their dog’s behavior if they thought it possible. Most staggering is the fact that more dogs die (are euthanized) due to problem behaviors than from all other causes, including disease and injury combined. It is estimated that 10,000 dogs are euthanized daily. Why is it that so many dogs develop problems and are discarded as untrainable?

I believe that it is due to two basic factors:

  • The first is a lack of understanding of our dogs as a species. We put too much focus on what we want to gain from the relationship, but not enough emphasis on what they as living, feeling creatures need.
  • The second factor is a misunderstanding, and therefore, a misapplication of communication. Often our communication is inconsistent, unclear, or of mixed intent. This can leave our dogs confused, disinterested or even fearful of our guidance. We must develop the relationship, communication and trust that supports a harmonious coexistence with our dogs if we are to enjoy them in our lives.

Relationship

Relationship is the foundation. How we relate to our dogs sets the pace for their interest and willingness to work with us. Are we clear with our communication? Can our dogs trust in our intent toward them? Do we convey our lessons in a clear and consistent manner? Do we empower our dogs with the ability to succeed, or break them down for all that they do “wrong”? Do we seek to understand their needs, their expressions, and their comfort? All of these factors are important.

Our relationship with our dogs should reflect a trust and harmony. There should be not only willingness but also joy in interacting with each other. Our relationship with our dogs should be as leaders and as friends. It is our responsibility to guide them and keep them safe but also to allow them to express themselves as individuals. We must acknowledge and fulfill their needs before our own in the relationship. Relationships are a team, a partnership. How well this partnership works depends not only on what but also on how we communicate.

Communication

Communication is what makes or breaks a relationship. This relays our thoughts and our desires, our emotions and our intent. Communication occurs on many different levels. What is in a word, a sound, a tone? Dogs do not learn words. They learn sounds. “Come, come, come, come!” sounds very different than “Come”. Any sound (word) is only as useful as the association that is made with it. If we say “come,” but our dog continues to ignore us and sniff the grass, what does “come” mean to him?

If we just shout out sounds (words) that we have not completely defined for our dogs, we are essentially communicating in a foreign language to them. This leads to a breakdown in our communication, our dog’s interest and their willingness to participate with us. We must be complete with our communication. If we communicate only part of our desire to our dogs we again leave them open to confusion. If we teach our dog to come only in the house where there is little distraction and where we are relaxed, this leaves us open for a downfall when we try to instruct our dogs to come when they are loose in the neighborhood. This would be like giving a 6-year-old child a copy of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and expecting them to not only read it but also to comprehend it. Although it has no more ABC’s than a copy of “Good Night Moon,” “Hamlet” is by far the more complex and difficult accomplishment.

It is estimated that humans communicate 93 percent by body language and only 7 percent through words or sounds. Our body language is a flashing neon sign as to our emotions and our intent. You can not hide it. If you are stressed, angry, ambivalent, happy or full of joy your dog will know. Learning to be conscious of our emotions and our true intent is a necessity in achieving clear communication and a trusting response.

Our communication must be in the moment. This is a very hard concept for us. We are continuously projecting forward or looking back. But essentially we can only deal with the moment that is before us now. If we offer praise, it is connected to the very moment it is being given. So if we praise our dogs for coming, but continue to talk as they start to veer off, we are now encouraging their disinterest in joining with us. We must learn to live in the moment. Before setting out on teaching a lesson we should always ask ourselves what our true intent is in this communication. Are we working to empower our dogs with a greater ability to succeed our causing a breakdown in trust?

Trust

Trust is the most important factor when interacting with and teaching our dogs. Without trust our dogs are not fully open to our communication, our lessons and our leadership. Good leaders are calm, cool and completely in control. They empower their followers with the ability to succeed. Trust is a very complex thing. It goes far beyond our dogs’ fear that we may physically harm them. Calling our dog to us and then aggressively grabbing at their collar or – even worse – hitting them breaks down on trust very quickly.

Trust is also attached to our intent. Trying to coax a dog to us when we are frustrated is a simple example of breaking trust. Also, can our dogs trust in our instruction? Do we say one thing but mean something else? Do our words or signals have multiple meanings? Teaching our dogs to “come” is a great example of this. When we want our dogs to move toward us we use so many differing signals: “Come”, “Let’s Go”, “Sparky!” and so forth. Then we mix these differing instructions with differing responses. Sometimes we want them to “come” into the house. Or, we might want them to “come” away from something but not necessarily to us. We often say “come” when we just want them to follow us. So what does “come” really mean? In most cases, our dogs don’t really know. If we do not have an absolute vision of what we want, how could we possible expect our dogs to know how to correctly respond? We set them up for the failure that we so often complain about.

To truly be successful in the training of our dogs we must bring into sync these three factors. Our relationships must be based in harmony through a mutual understanding. We must communicate in a manner that is clear and empowering. And above all, we must always preserve trust.

We must remember that the end is brought about by the means. Only then can we fully enjoy the wholeness of what our dogs have to share with us.

To learn more about my training methods, ask about availability in a dog obedience class or to schedule an in-home, private behavior consultation, please contact me today.