The Role of Ego in Dog Training (Part 2)

As I said in my last post on this topic: ego has no role in dog training. Unfortunately, ego frequently appears, sometimes subtly and under the guise of something else; other times ego screams its presence from the rooftops. To be the best trainers, handlers, and dog parents we can be (not to mention the best human beings) it is our duty to root out ego and excise it from our interactions with our dogs*.

For clarity’s sake please note that I’m not talking about the Freudian ego which–in that line of psychology–is an essential part of the psyche.  Here I’m referring to the Buhddist idea of ego: the individual’s idea or construct of self: the self we think we are, which at its core is illusion.

This ego is self-important, self-absorbed, and fragile. Ego is the root of many of the “shoulds” in our lives and the driving force of much of our unhappiness. Ego (along with its cruel twin, attachment) creates a false narrative that our self-constructed view of the world (ourselves included) is right.  This narrative propagates the sentiment that things should be the way we want or expect them to be, and anything other than–that contradicts–our “should be” version of reality is wrong, bad, or undesirable. Ego frequently creates blame, judgment, and shame, often turned on our dogs, but sometimes turned back onto ourselves.   When ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Manifestations of Ego: Proactive and Reactive

The most odious and obvious version of ego in dog training is seen in folks who insist on being the “alpha” (which is just the contemporary version of the old fashioned and ugly term “master”). These are the people who pride themselves on being in charge, on dictating their dogs’ every move. An old neighbor of mine was like this: she kept her dogs marching in step beside her on walks, never allowing them  to sniff or explore, leashes short and attached to pinch collars. She loved her dogs, but her need for visible control over them was more clear to me than her affection. These owners, trainers, and handlers often do not hesitate to use pain and fear to get the behavioral results they want, because the most important thing is the result they want. This is the proactive ego:

This ego says: I present my control over my dog to the world as an object lesson on my construct of importance, power, and worth.

A more subtle manifestation of ego can be seen in the person who does not require full-time compliance but “corrects” or otherwise punishes their dog for doing something (typically normal and predictable dog behavior) that falls outside their perception of “appropriate” behavior. I saw this recently when a young man harshly jerked back on the leash and scolded his adolescent Golden Retriever for attempting to say hello to another dog in a public space. The dog went outside of the young man’s unconscious (and uncommunicated!) list of what he felt was appropriate or tolerable public behavior, and the dog was punished. This is the reactive ego aiming away from the self: the internal upset caused by the conflict between desire and reality is shifted away from the self.  The handler’s negative emotions are discharged onto the dog.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior contradicts my construct of appropriate or good; I will take action to show the dog they are wrong for this.

Reactive ego can also point its arrows inward: the person who experiences feelings of failure or shame when they perceive their dog’s behavior as being outside what they think it “should” be. I personally have experienced this more times than I can count when Kit, my 30 pounds of fury, completely loses his marbles over some trigger or other and spikes into an explosion of reactivity. 

I’m a professional, my dog shouldn’t be like this, his behavior is supposed to be different, and because I am responsible for his behavior, I am failing as both a dog mom and trainer. 

Do you see how completely self-absorbed that thinking is? While in this example I’m not reacting with any response that is directly injurious or aversive to my dog, the foundation of the sentiment is about what I want and who I think I should be.

This ego says: my dog’s misbehavior is a reflection of my own failings.

Again: when ego exists in training or handling our dogs, it shows up in our self-absorbed motivations and reactions.

Wanting a Trained Dog Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Here’s the thing: in so, so many cases, there’s a really valid reason out there to want our dogs’ behavior to match our idea of “good” or “correct” responses to situations. There are very good reasons not to want a dog to leap forward to greet another dog, react to environmental triggers, or even to want your dog to walk at heel, but when the primary motivation to curtail undesired responses is rooted in ego, the training process becomes soiled with judgment, attachment, pressure, and impatience.

If our motivation for wanting a dog to sit quietly next to us in public is because it’s “correct” or makes us look good, there is automatic judgment on anything else the dog does. Our ego response to anything outside the realm of “correct” will cause dissatisfaction/suffering in us and our feedback to the dog will be tainted by that unhappiness. Woah. Uncomfortable truth, much?

But what if our motivation is different? What if we want our dog to sit quietly next to us for the safety and comfort of our dog, other dogs, and the people around us? How will that motivation change how we respond to that joyful leap to meet another pup? Are we worried about ourselves and our constructs of good and bad? Or are we concerned with the wellbeing of our dog and others?

What is the opposite of an ego-driven motivation?

In part three of this series, we will explore motivations rooted in compassion, community, and relationship, and how moving from these spaces is better for humans and dogs, alike.

*and everyone else, including ourselves, forever.