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Finding Balance

A dear friend who also self-described as my “favorite troublemaker” recently wanted to hear my thoughts on “balanced training.” I thought that was a little bit hilarious because she knows perfectly well how I feel about punishment-based training, generally speaking (and yes, I know that so-called balanced training isn’t just based on punishment, but it does feature consistently and/or often). But in light of some recent conversations and internal philosophical musings, I’ve decided to expound my views. This post is far from the be-all-end-all of my thoughts on balanced training or punishment in general, but it’s a start. If there are particular parts of this you, dear reader, would like to discuss, I am happy to engage in a respectful, compassionate dialogue. If you just want to hear more about what I think, I can certainly elaborate on anything, too.


When I started learning how to train dogs at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland back in the early aughts, I was trained not only how to use a clicker and deliver treats at the appropriate time, but also how to use a choke chain. We didn’t actually put them on the dogs, we placed them on a chain link fence so we could practice “pop corrections” without actually inflicting pain or discomfort on a real dog. I never in fact used a choke chain while I worked there, but it was part of my education because I was told that I needed to learn how to use all the tools. All the tools. This was at a time when shock and so-called “e collars” were not nearly as popular or prevalent in the training world, at least not for pet dogs. The philosophy that that we worked under, at that shelter, at that time, was, we use what works for the dog.

There was one dog from my time there who seemed to be fairly uncontrollable–a large fluffy German Shepard mix named Pellinore. After trying standard treat-based training methods the decision was made by leadership to try a pinch collar on him to reduce his jumpy/mouthy behaviors to the point where he would be considered “adoptable”. He wore that for a very brief period of time before he was transitioned to a head collar, but the fact remained that we, the training staff at an animal shelter, placed a dog on a punishment device intentionally.

In hindsight I feel that the reason a pinch collar was chosen and utilized was because the skill level and education of the handlers and decision makers, myself included, was not nearly where it should have been to create a force-free plan for this dog at that time. Everyone was doing the best they could with what they had, and no one had any ill intent. The dog certainly was not irreparably harmed (to my knowledge) by the use of this tool, and he ended up in a wonderful home with a family who loved him very much and renamed him “Wookie”. From my perspective now, with well over a decade of education and hands-on experience behind me, it wasn’t the right choice to use that pinch collar, but it was something that probably would have been used by a “balanced trainer”. Now I think we could have done him better.

Folks who call themselves balanced trainers, to the best of my understanding, are trainers who utilize a combination of punishment techniques as well as reinforcements. Things that fall into the punishment category include corrections with choke, pinch, slip, or similar collars, verbal reprimands, and/or shocks from electronic collars. Those aversives, used to reduce undesirable behaviors are “balanced” by the use of various reinforcers such as treats, praise, play, access to toys, and so on, which are used to increase the likelihood of desired behaviors.

The deep dark dirty secret of behavior and behaviorism is that punishment works. There have been studies upon studies upon studies on all kinds of species, including human children, that show that punishing behaviors through use of applying aversive stimuli is an effective method for behavioral change, and often a fairly fast one (though it should be noted that speed of efficacy is typically based on severity of the aversive; i.e. level of pain or fear [of pain] inflicted). There are of course caveats to this – you can google “punishment doesn’t work” and read a plethora of articles on the ineffectiveness of punishment in dog training, criminal justice systems, classrooms, and so on. That said, there are also plenty of other studies as well as endless anecdotal reports from dog owners, professional trainers, not to mention the sales data for electronic collars and invisible fences that speak otherwise.

Let’s take it as a fact that some types and applications of punishment do in fact work to train a dog to do or not do a variety of things. If this is the case, why on earth are so many dog trainers and behaviorists opposed to using effective methods, even just sometimes?

In short, because there’s a better way.

Let’s say you have two options in front of you to modify your dog’s external behavior (what he is doing with his body):

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your dog stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the person.

The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the dog, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the dog’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis while achieving the desired behavioral result. It requires more time, patience, energy, and commitment from the human.

Both these methods work, but the big difference to me isn’t simply how they work, but who they are working for. Option one (punishment, obvi) works for the human. There’s no major impact on the person’s life, they don’t have to change much at all, and they will see (external) results in a reasonable period of time. It should however be pretty damn obvious that this method is basically crap for the dog, as it becomes up to them to learn what’s desired of them, or else.

For people who do not recognize (or care?) that dogs experience emotions, including fear, joy, frustration, and anxiety as well as experience stress and all it’s physiological consequences in ways shockingly similar to humans, for those people I can see how they justify the use of positive punishment* methods in fairly pedestrian situations: jumping on guests, barking at delivery personnel, pulling towards other dogs on leash, and so on. And I can also see “balanced” trainers feeling okay with using punishment knowing that they would still be doling out the praise and/or treats for tasks accomplished well.

But let’s look at option two:

Option two has little negative impact on the dog, but requires comparatively quite a bit from the human. The responsibility for behavioral change is in the hands of the person to make sure that the dog is set up to learn without stress (which, for the record inhibits learning – you can Google that one yourself). In many cases this method requires huge shifts in how we live and work with our dogs, and therefor requires the pet parent to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their dog’s well-being.

That’s asking a lot, but I don’t think it’s asking too much. If you think that sounds like too much, let’s read the descriptions of the two options again, but replace the word “dog” with “child”.

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your child stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his or her internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the parent.
The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the child, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the child’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis. It requires more time, patience, energy,, and commitment from the parent
.

Suddenly seems a little more obvious which method to choose, doesn’t it?

No, dogs are not children, but there are a lot of clear parallels, the most relevant being: adult humans are responsible for looking out for both children and dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being and best interests as they cannot sufficiently advocate or care for themselves.

For the most part, people now agree that you can raise children without hitting or yelling at them, but for some reason, a large number of folks still think you “need” pain or fear to train dogs. That’s just one of the many falsehoods that trainers who emphasize punishment in their protocols are holding on to: it justifies their methods. In addition to the “punishment = good” (or at least “useful” or “necessary”) half for the story, there are also misconceptions spread about what positive reinforcement training is, allows for, and both how and why it works.**

The claim is made by many self described balanced trainers that positive reinforcement (R+) or force-free dog trainers believe in “never saying ‘no'” or let problematic behaviors go ignored without interruption. This is far from actuate. Most, if not all, R+ trainer use some methods of punishment, some of the time, because technically just turning your back on a jumping dog can be a punishment, or using a head collar for an anti-pulling walking device.

For the most part, well educated and skilled R+ trainers follow what’s known as The Humane Hierarchy when working to resolve training or behavior concerns. The Humane Hierarchy is A Big Deal, and it’s awesome. It is a road map to addressing issues by starting with the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) methods, and as one method is exhausted, then move on to the next least intrusive/minimally aversive method. The Hierarchy places the animals’ well-being front and center because, again, they can’t advocate for themselves, so we have to take their welfare not only into account, but make it the most relevant thing in a training plan, right up there with efficacy.

You can see from looking at the graphic below that use of positive punishment (adding an aversive consequence) is on the list of options, but as a last resort. That means, if you’ve tried and exhaused everything else and your options are now re-homing/euthanizing the dog or using a punishment based method, maybe it’s worth trying.

The problem arises with the phrase “tried everything else”, because most of the time “everything else” hasn’t been tried, or at least has not been correctly/sufficiently/appropriately to say that method is exhausted.

Most balanced trainers do not follow the Humane Hierarchy roadmap or operate under the guidelines of LIMA. Maybe there are some who do, but when LIMA & the HH are in place, you almost never get to the point to need positive punishment because all those other methods work, and work well. The use of positive punishment is reserved for seriously extenuating circumstances, not because it’s easier for the human to press a button or jerk a leash than modify their own behavior, because, again, we are our dogs’ only advocates: it is our responsibility to care for them: physically, mentally, emotionally. They can’t do that for themselves.

The Humane Hierarchy places methodology on a scale to be balanced against the animal’s emotional and physical well-being, which gets the most weight, always.†

There will be times that circumstances are extenuating, or certain methods not accessible. For example: if we have a dog who continues to escape his yard, scaling over even a 7′ solid wooden fence, and the possible repercussions of those escapes include getting hit by a car or killing a neighbor’s cat, would it be okay to put in an invisible fence? What are the other options? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the dog is receiving age-appropriate exercise and enrichment, a tie out or runner have been tried in the past but the dog has managed to get dangerously tangled, and it is unrealistic for the dog to be attended/babysat every time he’s in the yard†† for what would likely be the duration of the learning process, which removes most of the training options. If it boiled down to getting rid of the dog or using an invisible fence, which would you choose?

Is it better for the dog to be sent to a shelter (to potentially be euthanized for untreatable escape behavior) or placed with another family who will still have to deal with this problem (it’s not like changing homes will make the fence jumping behavior magically go away), or for him to stay with the family that knows him and loves him, but to experience the discomfort/pain of an electric shock as many times as it takes for him to learn the boundaries of his yard? Knowing that invisible fences are not guarantees and many dogs push through the shock to get to the outside world, is it worth trying?

In this case, IF we have made it though all those other options on the Hierarchy and eliminated them as either “tried correctly and completely” or “not available”, then I say, give the invisible fence a shot.

After saying that I still maintain that I am a force-free and R+ trainer, because this is the only option left on the scale that balances against the dog’s physical and emotional well-being as training with a shock collar in my opinion is in this case preferable to death.

You see what I did there? I’m still advocating for the dog’s welfare.

This is an extreme hypothetical case, but not too unrealistic. It is one of the rare, rare times when all other options have truly been exhausted in one way or another and we’re left at that last turn-off on the Hierarchy map before we hit the dead end.

Most training and behavior concerns don’t have to go all the way to that last turn off. A well educated and proficient R+ trainer can get satisfactory resolution out of nearly every issue prior to hitting that positive punishment turn-off, and we choose to do so because it’s fairest to the dog. It might take more work, commitment, and ownership of the issue from the person, but you know who’s job it is to care for that animal? The person.

Let’s sing it from the rooftops: we are our dogs’ advocates. With that fact clear as a bell, we are doing a disservice to our voiceless animals to cause stress, pain, or fear when there is another option available, and that other option is, with only very rare exceptions, always available.

So, balanced training?

I’m happy balancing the dog’s very real needs with an effective training plan, and so far use of positive punishment hasn’t needed to come into the conversation.



*Positive here does NOT mean “good” it means that the punishment is added, as in: when the dog behaves undesirably, an aversive consequence (shock, pinch, etc) is added/applied: Dog barks + electric shock = less barking. For more on the terminology of operant conditioning, check this info-graphic out.

**I want to make clear here that I do not believe that the trainers who espouse these views are inherently bad people or intentionally spreading untruths. I think, that similar to my history at the East Bay SPCA way back when (they have changed since then!), they are truly doing what the think is best given the tools and education they have.

†I would love, more than anything to reclaim the term “balanced training” to mean that all training methods used are placed on this scale – that any trainer who calls themselves “balanced” is implying that they are weighing everything they chose to do against what’s best for and fair to the dog. Not gonna happen, but a girl can dream!

†† If you’re having a hard time imagining why it would be impossible or unrealistic to stay out with the dog every time he needs to use the yard, imagine a single parent with one or more kids under the age of 10. The dog can not reasonably command 100% of that person’s attention every time he needs to potty.

Moving with (problem) dogs + identifying emotions + putting on your oxygen mask

I missed posting on my every-other-week schedule the Thursday before last. I thought I might be able to squeeze one in, but there was just too much going on to sit down and write.

The pack and I moved houses at the end of February: it was a fairly sudden & VERY fast move that left all of us reeling and out of sorts for a bit. It was a really tough few weeks with a ton of adrenaline and cortisol pumping into everyone’s system, not just from the change in routine and acclimating to a new environment, but from the constant workmen that were working on the exterior of the old house (painter and landscapers), and then having to cope with the moving company and multiple visits from the AT&T techs to setup internet service at the new place.

It was a lot.

All this BUSY might not be a huge deal for some dogs, but when you have a pack of sensitive-anxious (Shine), fearful-anxious (Stormy), and hyper-aroused-anxious (Kit) dogs, a lot of strangers, stimulation, and general disruption to the routine, well… things get a little bit sticky.

Did I mention that my dogs are anxious?

They are.

What got us through was a lot of stuff to chew on (especially stuffed bones), soft instrumental music playing in the background to create a buffer from outside noises, early morning walks, some herbal/natural calming supplements, and me doing everything I could to practice self-awareness & self-care in the midst of all the needs and anxieties of the dogs… and there was one day that those last two things saved us from a likey meltdown.

Shortly before moving day I was (still!) trying to pack, and Stormy wouldn’t stop barking because she was so upset by the landscapers in the front yard. She had already finished or disengaged from all the chew items available and we didn’t have another room that she could go into that would calm her down. All I could do was draw the blinds, spray some “Peace & Calming” essential oils in the air, put on some Tibetan singing bowls on YouTube, and take deep breaths.

Despite all that, I found myself getting legit angry about her barking. I knew there was nothing to be angry about, I knew that the barking was caused by fear, stress, and anxiety, and that she was just doing what her body told her to do given its emotional and chemical state at the time.
But.

But I was so, so on edge, so stressed by what I was dealing with in that moment, that I was becoming angry at her.

I took some time to dig deep and realized that what I was really feeling was helpless. My poor, poor dog felt like the world was coming down around her and I had already done everything I could think of to soothe her, but she was still upset AF and expressing it in a way that grated on my nerves.

I couldn’t help her, I couldn’t save her from the outside world or her own brain in that moment, and my frustration, irritation, and complete powerlessness had started to tip over into something more intense, so I did the only thing that I could think of: I took myself for a walk.*

I left the house to walk in the sunshine for about 30 minutes listening to the latest episode of Tara Brach’s podcast, and it was medicinal. I had half an hour without barking, workmen, moving boxes or obligations. It was the world’s shortest vacation, but it was what I needed, and–indirectly–it was what my dogs needed.

They didn’t need a mom who was a hair’s breath from snapping at them. They didn’t need my frustration to come seeping through my voice when I spoke to them. They didn’t need me to loose my cool because the y were expressing fear and stress the only way their little doggie selves knew how.

What they did need was a mom who knew to put on her oxygen mask first.

When I got back, things hadn’t settled in the house, but they had settled in my brain, and that was enough. I could continue doing what I could for the dogs, given the very real limitations we all faced, with a little (or a lot) more grace and empathy than I otherwise might have.

Those of us with special needs dogs know a very unique kind of frustration with them. It’s the kind of frustration where you get so upset but know that you’re upset about something that can’t be resolved in that moment. That you don’t have a way to fix things so that you feel better and your dog feels better. You know that yelling won’t help, and sometimes there aren’t enough biscuits in the world to settle your dog. When your well of resources has run dry and you have done all that you can, sometimes the only thing left to do is to take care of yourself, and that’s probably what your dog needs, anyway.


We’ve been in the new house for a little over 2 weeks now. The food bowls are in their permanent locations, the new wakeup and bedtime routines are established, and we’ve learned which houses in the neighborhood have barking dogs in their yards. We’re settling in, getting closer to fully unpacked, and enjoying the new space.

More than the space, though, I’m really enjoying and am consciously grateful for these dogs with all they bring to the table, good and bad. They are difficult, they are challenging, they are humbling, and they are my greatest teachers.

*if you’re wondering why I didn’t take the dogs for a walk with me, the answer is that t wouldn’t have a been a de-stressing experience for any of us, but that’s a post for another day.

Be Your Dog’s Valentine

Valentine’s Day is an interesting holiday that people tend to have very strong love or hate feelings about, and those feelings can change from year to year depending on the individual’s romantic life. Well, if you have a dog in your life, you will always have someone to be your valentine. Our dogs love us. Like, luuuuuuuuurve us, so let’s show them how much we love them!

So, how do we show our dogs we love them? Treats, toys, play, sniff breaks, and of course training! Training can and should be fun, both for us and our dogs. Chances are if our dogs are having fun, we’re having fun, too, but how do we make sure that our dogs have fun?

Think about training as taking your dog out on a date, Valentines Day or any day! When you take someone out on a date your goal is to be more interesting, engaging, and fun than anyone else in the environment, right? You don’t want your date to look across the room and see someone else that they might rather be on a date with. When we’re training, we don’t want our dogs to look (or sniff) around and fine someone or something that they’d rather be investigating or hanging our with, either.

So, how do you become a “good date” for your dog? It’s not actually that different than with people: for both dogs and humans, a good date is cheerful, friendly, says nice things to you and buys you dinner.

Be Kit’s Valentine?


Be cheerful and friendly: If you go into a training session in a bad mood or already frustrated, you can bet your biscuits that your dog is picking up on your feels.  On a date with someone grumpy? you’ll check out pretty quickly, and so will your dog.  By keeping things upbeat and fun, your dog is much more likely to stay engaged with you. This is pretty easy to do just with your tone of voice. Dogs love, and I mean LOVE high pitched, squeaky, or otherwise cartoonish voices, and in my personal (and often very regretfully public) experience, they love being sung to, as well. When you’re communicating with your dog verbally, talk to him like you love him, sing his favorite song in a fun voice (Kit is a huge fan of a song that’s only lyric is “who’s a good dog?!?!” repeated over and over), and see what a difference in your dog’s level of interest in you.


Say nice things:  Would you want to be the valentine of someone who was constantly telling you what you were doing wrong? Neither does your dog!  If you focus on the (ahem) “areas of improvement” there isn’t much room for positive motivation  It’s pretty much common sense that being constantly criticized or told “no” is frustrating, and frustration is where I see dogs begin to shut down, disengage, and look for something more interesting (and reinforcing!) to pay attention to.
On the flip side, if you encourage your dog with praise and affection for all the good choices she’s making, you’ll see her excited to keep going on that right track. Being told “yes!” is going to build excitement, engagement, and endurance during training, as well as being the very foundation of positive reinforcement training: the more you’re able to reinforce the good choices you pup makes the more often she’ll make those choices!


Buy dinner: Aside from the fact that you literally always pay for your dog’s meals, when training it really helps to use food (most of the time: there are always exceptions!) to reinforce the behaviors you want to see repeated.  Food is known as a “primary reinforcer” which means that it’s something that dogs find naturally valuable, and that makes it a very potent tool for training. What kind of food? Well, would you rather be taken out on a date to a fast food chain or a 4-star restaurant?  The better the food, the more memorable the experience, and the more engaged and motivated the date, err… dog. Kibble and carrots probably aren’t going to be as powerful a reward as cheese, pastrami, or bacon, but ask your dog what he likes! Bring a variety or treats with you to a training session and notice which snacks make your pup’s eyes light up and focus become laser-like.

In Summary: If you go into a training session with a treat pouch full of special goodies, a heart full of love & patience, and a willingness to get a bit silly with your dog, I can just about promise you that your pup will not only have a great time, but gladly go out with you again.

Happy Valentines Day, y’all.

A Really Good Dog

Some time back, on a walk with Kit, a neighbor spotted us strolling along: Kit frequently looking up at me, making eye contact; me marking the behaviors I liked with a clicker and feeding him treats. She called out to us, “Looks like you have a really good dog, there!” I laughed and replied, “About fifty percent of the time!”

If only she knew, I though. This is the dog that has made me cry on dozens of occasions, the dog that came pre-loaded with explosive reactivity to other dogs, rabbits, skateboarders, running children, and mourning doves (yes, just specifically those birds). The dog that has to be muzzled and sedated at the vet in order for staff to get within 3 feet of him (Dear Pandemic, thank you for brining us vet-visits on Zoom). The dog that, when he first arrived at my house, would practically vibrate with stress and tension as he lay panting, shallow and hard, with nothing actually going on around him. The dog who is on a finely-tuned cocktail of medications, supplements, and Chinese herbs to bring his arousal level down to the point that he can live a normal-ish doggy life.

This is my “really good dog”.

Her words got me thinking, not just about what people mean when they say a dog is “a good dog”, but also about Kit, himself, how far we’ve come, and what we believe we are seeing when we glimpse dogs walking with their people.

I regularly refer to Kit as my “monster” or “30 pounds of fury”, but, in fairness, he’s come a long way since I fist brought him home and he unpacked his behavioral baggage. We’ve made a lot of progress, he and I. He hasn’t made me cry for a good long while. He’s able to rest and relax in the house instead of frantically barking, spinning, panting, or chewing on something. I can be in the bedroom without him vocalizing extreme displeasure at being left in the living room and I can leave the house without fear of what happens while I’m gone. He no longer spikes up so high when my partner comes over that I feel punished for having a personal life. We can pass telephone wires adorned with a dozen cooing mourning doves and he no longer blows up like a landmine.

That smile.

Kit’s more in-tune with and responsive to me than any other dog in my life, past or present. He picks up on language-based cues as though he could actually understand the words, and he’s even learned to snuggle without trying to violently and lovingly force his way underneath my skin (well, sometimes). He’s not that bad anymore: he’s still a really challenging dog, in many many ways, but we have found a way to live with one another successfully, and with more peace and mutual affection between us than strife.

I can’t take all the credit for the progress he’s made. Outside of the actual training we’ve done, we finally worked out the right mix of meds and supplements for him, he’s nearly 3 years older, and therefore (theoretically) three years mellower, and my own effort to integrate the yogic/Buddhist tenets of acceptance and nonattachment have been a huge help in keeping my own behavior from amplifying his. The last three years have also tied us closer together, and the more clearly I’ve seen and understood him, the easier it’s been to give him the support he needs when he gets over-stimulated and his brain is reduced to a string of firecrackers. When I can meet his needs, he no longer fires up and erupts (at least as much or as frequently), which in the past would have set off a chain of emotional responses in me, and the cycle of anxiety and stress is broken.

I know that I’ll have many more blog posts about Kit, so I’m going to hold off on going into the details of some of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of the work we’ve done to get here, to this place of predominant peace. It’s enough now to say that we made it. Imperfectly, arduously, haltingly, and ungracefully, but we made it.

This is certainly not to say that we’re done making progress. I’m still looking for and working on anything that may help bring Kit down a decibel or two, and decrease the strength of his responses to certain triggers and situations, but if this, the Kit of now, was as far as we could go? I could live with it without feeling overwhelmed, and just as importantly, so could Kit.

My neighbor who saw us walking together didn’t see all that.

We never see the whole of each other in a quick glance, whether we’re looking at a dog or a human. We never see the full story when we notice a dog behaving well or poorly, but we quickly make assumptions about the dog’s temperament and personality based on the snapshot of behavior we are witness to. We boil these judgments all the way down to a declaration that a dog is “good ” or “bad”. My neighbor couldn’t have looked at us and been privy to the last three years of literal blood, sweat, and tears, just as no one could see all the progress we’ve made if they caught us during on a Bad Day when Kit erupts like an angry volcano and I have to carry him for long stretches of road to calm him down.

My neighbor just saw a devastatingly handsome Cattle Dog paying attention to his mom, and she saw a really good dog.

And you know what?

He really is.

On Attention, Engagement, and Connection

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what “attention” and “connection” mean when we’re discussing training and living with dogs. 

I hear from private clients and students in group classes that they want their dogs to “pay attention” to them, but I think it’s important that we, as thoughtful and well-intentioned pet parents, take the time to examine what it is that we truly want, ask, expect of our dogs.

So, what gets packed into the picnic basket of “attention”?

Looking at us?
Responding to cues?
Moving with (not against) leash pressure? 
Relegating the rest of the world to a backseat to focus on us?

I think for many people it means that when we ask the dog to pay attention, that they should switch ON like an electronic device and remain attentive to us until we’re done giving commands.

All of these versions of “attention” are active on the part of the dog, and passive on the part of the human. We place ourselves in the position of being at the receiving end, with no responsibility to act.  The term “pay” as in to pay attention to is plainly one-sided and indicative of a inherent separation in the relationship: one pays attention, the other is the recipient of attention.

Additionally, asking for or requiring our dogs to “pay attention” makes no room for the dog – there is only room for the human’s priorities, and while in some emergency situations that’s a very relevant place to come from, the vast majority of the time it is in everyone’s best interest to recognize the validity of both partys’ experiences and perspectives.

I truly don’t feel like I’m just being pedantic here: words have power, sometimes so subtle that the indirect implications of the words we use are absorbed and soak into our subconscious. I do not ever want to feel that my dogs are obligated to pay attention to me because I exist, walk on two legs, feed them, and take them to the vet. I DO want to feel that my dogs are willing (and happy!) to connect with me because I give them the respect of being engaged with them.

Engagement as the direction of connection

I think about engagement with dogs as reaching for or being actively open to connection. I can engage with my dog Kit by attuning myself to his individual vocabulary of body language so I can interpret his mental and emotional state based on the signals and behaviors he displays.  When I see where he is at that moment, I can tune my communication with him to be best received and understood.  By doing this, by giving him acknowledgement of his existence as a thinking, feeling, expressive being, I am inviting Kit to engage with me. Through my actions I let him know (whether he’s cognitively aware of it or not) that I hear him when he speaks, I see how he feels that day, I recognize how is focus and interest may be split at that moment, and I make room for all of that in how I interact with him.

(Does this sound like coddling?  You could look at it that way if you think your dog is able to see the world through your eyes and make decisions large and small with your desires and priorities in mind. Guess what?  Your dog can’t do that, but you can, and that’s why it’s on us to go the extra mile for our pups.)

So, what is the dog’s responsibility here? What does it look like to have a dog who is engaged (again, that’s a dog who will reach for or being actively open to connection) with his person? How do you get that?

I think of an engaged dog as one who keeps his person in his sphere of awareness, even if the person isn’t his main focus at that time. On a walk this could look like a dog who is able to sniff and explore but primarily stays within the parameters of the leash voluntarily, responds to his name with a glance and a tail wag when called, and checks in with his person with reasonable frequency without being cued to do so. That pretty much describes what most people want from a walk with their dog.

Some people are lucky and have dogs who are like this naturally from day one, even if the person on the other end of the leash is not actively engaging with the dog (have you seen these pairs? The dog who keeps looking to his human for some semblance of interaction while the human twiddles on his or her phone?). For the rest of us, especially those of us with adolescent or reactive dogs, it takes a lot of work to build engagement.

Work, and patience.

If you have a dog who isn’t innately tuned in with you, whether at home, on a walk, at the park, wherever, that means it’s your responsibility to cultivate that engagement by giving your dog a good reason* to engage. And that’s what well executed positive reinforcement training does: it gives dogs a really good reason to choose to do the stuff we would prefer they do.

I’m not going into the nuts and bolts of creating engagement and connection here, that would be a much longer post, or possibly a separate one) and I also don’t want to dictate what connection with your dog should look like for you. The way I engage and connect with Kit is different from how I engage and connect with Stormy or Shine: each dog has different skills, vocabularies, priorities, interests, and motivations.

Think of this as a starting point for your own journey with your dog, where you, maybe for the first time, make space for your dog’s experience of the world and allow that to gently shift how you interact with him; you can turn interactions into dialogues and walks into conversations where you each have a voice.

When Kit and I are connected, when we are each listening to the other, we are dancing with one another (or sometimes acting out a comedy routine; I am always the straight man!), we are moving together, with as much synergy as a dog and a human can. That doesn’t mean our dances, our training sessions or walks are always easy, but they are always performed as a partnership between to beings who are open to each other and willing to listen.

And that feels so good.

*To be clear, that’s a good reason from the dog’s point of view, not yours.