On Bad Walks and Love

I had several other things that I thought I was going to write about for this week’s blog post: more stuff on ego, some really interesting stuff I’ve been thinking about on frustration vs anticipation, and then a whole thing about plateaus in reactivity work that I’m really excited about.

But something got in the way: it was my walk on Tuesday.

One of the recent changes to my life is that I gifted myself with hiring a housekeeper to come twice a month to clean: I’m literally buying myself time by having someone else do my chores while I take the dogs out of the house for the time that she’s here. We try to find local hikes that are low-traffic for me & Kit (who, in case you’re just tuning in, is better-than-before but still WILDLY reactive to other dogs) and easy enough for 13 year old Shine and her functional-but-still-arthritic joints to manage. Because Stormy, my 10 year old, just had dental surgery on Monday, she needed to stay home, to have a fairly quiet morning while I took Kit and Shine out on a morning adventure.

We went to the park around 7:30 in the morning. Kit and I normally walk this park closer to 10:30 or 11 when most people are already done with their morning dog walks, but we figured it was early enough to be not too busy, and the trail has plenty of little offshoots if we needed more distance from other dogs.

Everything started off really well, Kit was in top form, and I don’t mean that in a snarky, sarcastic way: he was rocking it. We were able to work around the first dogs we saw, and he was playing the game like a champ. Honestly, he was much more interested in me and the game of “look-treats; look-at-mom-treats; look-treats” than he was interested in the dogs; my heart was swelling with pride in him and how far he’s come. Even when we passed by a group of women with a small (off leash!) dog, I was able to carry him past without incident.


Quick note: one of the things that Kit and I have worked on over the last few years is him letting me know when he needs to be picked up and carried. Unlike many dogs who find physical restraint incredibly stressful and aversive, when Kit is overwhelmed it has a decompressing effect on him. This is something I intend to write more about separately because it’s so cool and interesting. We have a fantastic system worked out where if I give him a cue like “touch” or “sit” but he is in too high a state of arousal to perform the behavior, he can place his front paws on me and I will pick him up because that’s the support he needs right then. If I think he’s getting a little stressed I can ask him, “Do you need an assist?” and if he does, he will place his front paws on me and I will pick him up and carry him; if he doesn’t hell look back at me and keep walking. Sometimes he asks me to pick him up without any cue or conversation before hand, he’s upset, and he knows he has the power to ask for what he needs. It’s a really lovely system, and I don’t know where we’d be without it. When I’m carrying him, I can feel his body going from rigid to slack in my arms as we walk along, and that’s when I know he’s ready to go back down: when all 30 pounds of him become deadweight instead of tense muscle. Again, I totally recognize how awesome this dialog between us is, and I’m excited to write more about it at a later date.


Back to the walk: Kit was doing really well. I had my treat bag pretty well loaded with two packets of cream cheese and a baggie full of my usual trail mix of cheese, hot dogs, and Happy Howie’s. It was a nice morning, cool, but with the promise of heat later on.

Anyway, it was really good. We would see dogs, and either work Kit where we were or I could move the kids away from the main trail far enough that I could work Kit and not have him anywhere near a point of reaction. Shine, who is a fearful girl, would also get treats for being in proximity with people and dogs, but her distance of concern is MUCH shorter, and she doesn’t hold onto stress the same way Kit does. So, Kit would get worked, Shine would get a cookie or two dropped on the ground for her. It was good. I was genuinely impressed by how well Kit was keeping it together, the choices he was making, and all those other wonderful things that dog reactive dog parents love to see from their kids.

As the morning crept along, we started seeing more and more dogs on the trail with their people, many of them off leash. Unfortunately, I had thought about what foot traffic was going to be like at 7:30 when we started, but not what foot traffic was going to be like as it got closer to 8:30 and then 9. That’s when people take their dogs for walks.

That’s when people with friendly dogs take their dogs for walks.

…and it felt like they were all heading on to the trail as we started getting closer to the end of the walk. Our first real problem happened when we were about two thirds through and a young woman on her cell phone was passing by with a white Pit mix. I think it probably would have been fine if that dog didn’t care about us, but that dog looked at us. It wasn’t threatening or even close to it, but the direct eye contact and pricked-forward ears were too much for my boy and Kit went over his edge into shrieking barks, lunging, and full amygdala overload. Nothing existed for him but that dog until we were able to get more distance from them, both spatially and temporally.

It wasn’t just that dog though. It was the fact that we had already passed several dogs. Trigger stacking is a real thing. If you’re not familiar with it (or choose not to watch the helpful video behind the link) the basic idea is that the stress-producing things that happen during our days pile up and compound. You don’t just spill your coffee, then stub your toe, then get cut off in traffic, and not have all of it affect how you react to the next stressor that pops up in an hour or so. We all, cross-species and individually, have different levels of ability to let things roll off, to not carry stressors or triggers with us through our hours and days. For humans, while chemicals still play a role, it’s a lot about how much we ruminate on the events and disturbances that have occurred. For dogs, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it’s primarily chemical.*

Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get released into the system don’t just disappear when the event itself has ended, they stick around and have a residual effect on how the stressed individual reacts to things moving forward. When you have triggers stacking up, one after the other, without sufficient time between events for the chemicals to dissipate sufficiently to bring the dog back to baseline, you see arousal levels rise and rise and rise.

If that first dog we saw put Kit at a 4–because even though he didn’t display textbook reactivity, it was still a stressor–the next dog pushed him up to a 5. The one after that to a 6. You get it? Even though he was totally handling himself, there’s only so much he can take. Finally, that adorable Pittie pushed him over his limit, where he began barking like a maniac and was unable to cognitively engage in our training game.

I want to stop here and again acknowledge it was my own poor foresight that had us on the trail at a prime hour. I thought about the low traffic when we started, but not where things would be as we came back, and of course coming back means arriving at a trail head, the busiest part of the trail, after already experiencing all the stressors and stimuli of the whole walk.
That last half an hour of what should have been a much shorter walk, or I should say what could have been, consisted primarily of me jogging towards and then hiding in the bushes, either holding Kit or trying to keep his brain engaged, dodging poison oak, as well as trying to keep Kit out of it so I wouldn’t contract it from his coat when I had to pick him up.

He had a few over-the-edge moments that were, as far as I could see, unpreventable, and I was trying HARD to keep those moments to a minimum. At one point I literally climbed through scrubby bushes carrying Kit, and nearly dragging Shine to get away from an elderly woman with a cast on her leg and an off leash terrier. I was dropping treat crumbs on the ground for Shine while talking soothingly to Kit hoping this woman would pass quickly. She saw us in the bushes, and–of course!–stopped to ask if we needed help, when all I needed her to do was keep going.

At one point, a gentleman who we had passed previously on the loop stopped as I was hiding behind trees to try to talk to me about my dogs. His dog, a Cattle Dog mix, also off leash, was not helping the situation. I asked him to please just keep moving past us, or at least I hope that’s what I said.

In these meltdown moments he was no longer able to work and we weren’t able to get far enough away from the dogs to be able to keep him in a cognitive or functional state. All we could do was hope people walked fast and that their dogs were both on leash and uninterested in us.

I’m not sure I’m really clearly articulating just how horrible this was for me and Kit. When we were probably a quarter mile from the end we were stuck hanging out maybe 30-40′ off the trail just waiting for dog after dog to pass. I was running low on treats and he was up so high he wasn’t fully engaged anyway. At one point we thought the coast was clear and I started back up towards the trail and all of a sudden there was a woman with a stroller and a retriever just a few yards away. Kit lost it again and we had to turn back into our hiding spot. At some point I even lost the first packet of cream cheese that I opened up.**

This probably reads like the overly dramatic comedy version of what most reactive dog parents deal with all the time. It’s funny because it’s true.

One of the saving graces of the situation is that we had no real options, so there was no internal struggle. All we could do was keep dancing this dance: on the trail, off the trail, on the trail, off the trail. I accepted the moment we were in.

There was one option that only occurred to me in dark jest during one of our extended rest stops in the bushes: just stay on the trail and keep going. Let Kit blow up to get to the car sooner.

…And I did want to get back to the car. More than anything, I just wanted this horrible horrible walk to be over. I wanted to get back to my car which is clearly labeled by the large magnets stuck to the doors to belong to a dog trainer. So anyone who saw me and my dogs would know exactly who not to call for help with their own problematic pups. Insert face-palm emoji here.


I’ve been listening to a lot of Tara Brach, a wonderful Buddhist meditation teacher lately. Anyone familiar with her knows that she talks at great length and with great insight about compassion. Compassion for oneself and compassion for others. I think that was what inspired me to, at one moment as we were crouched in the bushes, to whisper to kit, over and over again, I love you, I love you.

I think it was the most important thing I did during that whole walk.

Because I love him.

I’m hiding in the bushes, dropping packets of cream cheese, dodging poison oak, and and bending so much of my life around his needs.

Because I love him.

I’m not dragging him out on the trail to pass other dogs, just to get over it with, because I love him. Because I don’t want him to experience all the upset that’s so obvious when we’re too close to another dog.

I want him to live as calm and peaceful a life as possible, and that means going out of my way to protect him from the things that cause him so much distress that he will turn into a screaming demon.

In my last post, I talked about the shame that I so often feel when Kit reacts. But I didn’t feel that at all on Tuesday: I felt concern and care and compassion. I just wanted him to feel okay.

Yes, I was frustrated that things went so south at the end of what started off as a beautiful and successful walk, but I wasn’t frustrated at Kit, and I wasn’t frustrated at myself. I had moments of frustration at the people who stopped to talk with us, although I know that they were just showing compassion for us in their own way: wanting to make sure we were okay, trying to see if there was anything we needed that they could help us with. If they had ever had reactive dogs, they would have known what I needed was the exact opposite of what they chose to do, but I can’t fault them for never having a dog like Kit. I wasn’t angry with them. I certainly wasn’t blaming them for my dog’s behavior.

But I also wasn’t blaming my dog for my dog’s behavior.

It’s just behavior.

It’s the result of neurons firing & chemicals releasing as a response to an external stimulus.

I am not mad at my dog for his brain.

I love my dog for his brain.

I love my dog.

I love my dog.

And I say to my dog: I love you. I love you. I love you.

Even when it’s hard.

And especially when it’s hard.


We got back to the car eventually.

Sitting on a bench not too far from us was the gentleman with the Cattle Dog mix who had tried to talk to me earlier. I put Shine and Kit in the car and then went down to chat with him. I started off by apologizing if I came off as snappy earlier, and he said he just wanted to see if my dog was so excited because he was friendly and wanted to say hello. I laughed and let him know that that wasn’t the case, that that Kit was not friendly. I explained that I normally take this trail at a different time, that I was not anticipating quite so many dogs. We chatted for a few moments, he told me about his daughter, who is a groomer, which explained why his mostly-white dog had large dyed orange stripes on her coat that were reminiscent of a tiger. He said she had entered a contest. We said our goodbyes, I excused myself back to my car, and I drove home.


Back at home, the housekeeper was just finishing up. She told me that Stormy hadn’t barked at her at all, and while she wouldn’t take treats from her hand, Stormy would eat the ones that she tossed on the floor. Not barking and eating treats is a success in our book.

Kit and Shine drank water, cooled off on the clean floor, and took long naps after they settled down from the excitement of the morning. I showered and settled in for my day of desk work, and was surprised by how calm I felt after so much difficulty and upset on our walk.

While I wasn’t protected from unpleasant emotions on our walk, I was protected from destructive emotional aftershocks and thought cycles because–I think–blame and shame never entered the story. There was concern, fear, distress, and frustration, but I wasn’t throwing the fault of all those feelings on Kit, myself, or the dog walkers we passed. I focused my heart and my actions on the most important thing: shielding Kit from what upsets him, and by protecting him, I protected myself.

* I highly doubt that Kit spends much time thinking about those two retrievers who bark at him from behind their fence hours after we’ve already passed the house. Just a guess, though.

**My apologies to the person who found it later and probably silently condemned the thoughtless person who dropped it on the trail.

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. 

She must have been abused.

If you have an anxious or fearful dog, or even one who displays explosive reactivity or aggression, there’s a good chance that someone, maybe even yourself, has asked if your dog was abused. Frequently this assumed past of physical violence, neglect, trauma, or general mistreatment is practically insisted upon by well intentioned souls, even when there is no known history of such– outside of the “proof” of the dog’s behavior.

I get that a lot about both my girls, but especially about Stormy.

Stormy is almost certainly part or mostly greyhound, the rest could be some kind of Shepherd. She’s tan, she’s got a lovely pointy sighthound nose, long legs, a deep & narrow chest, and she is an utter delight. She is also very, very fearful.

Stormy was brought into the shelter where I worked in Chico when she was about 10 weeks old, along with the rest of her litter. We sent the litter to our best puppy foster, a woman named Kathy who had redesigned her entire backyard to be appropriate for rearing foster puppies. She called me two days after taking this group home and said, “Lindsey, there’s one I can’t touch.” Stormy was backing away from the (very savvy) foster mom and growling at her. After discussion, we decided to move Stormy to a different foster home where she could live with another, more confident, adult dog rather than just her siblings. That seemed like it would work, but unfortunately after just a couple days she escaped through a small hole at the bottom of that second foster’s backyard fence and got herself lost in the wilderness of a park during a major, pipe-freezing cold snap. We all thought that she was gone at that point, but both her first and second fosters made an effort to keep walking the trails looking for her. To everyone’s surprise, she turned up and was brought back to the shelter. That was when I took her home.

Stormy immediately bonded with my other two dogs, Kisa, then 6, and Shine, who was about 3. They made a lovely pack together and enjoyed exploring the backyard, wrestling, and doing all the normal doggy things. But like her other fosters before me, Stormy wouldn’t let me touch her. She seemed happy and comfortable in the home with the dogs, but was still very fearful of human contact and interaction. I could not walk towards her, even indirectly, without her running in the opposite direction. Just being in the same space as me was hard for her, and numerous times I wondered if I was doing her a disservice not to have her euthanized because of the constant upset and fear she seemed to live with.

Like many fearful dogs, she avoided feeling “trapped” at all costs – she was much less anxious around me outdoors where she could easily flee than in the house. When the dogs were out in the backyard, in order to bring Stormy inside I would have to call everyone into the kitchen, toss a bunch of treats on the floor, and then go around from the opposite side to close the back door while everyone was eating the cookies, or else she would run out into the safety of the trees and bushes.

We made some progress over the months of fostering before I officially “failed” and adopted her, but it was very very slow. I remember one day when she was standing beside the arm of the couch where I was sitting and she allowed me to scratch the side of her neck while I wasn’t facing or looking at her; I felt incredible joy and gratitude for that moment. Small mercies.

Stormy finally bonded with me over the long and arduous drive from Chico to Vista (12 hours in the car with 3 dogs = no fun, though my ex got the worst of it: he was in the U-haul with 4 cats in carriers). It’s possible that her sudden increased comfort with me after the move was due to “stress bonding such as one sees in rabbits, or because once we got down here I was simply more familiar than the rest of the world, and more familiar = safer (“the evil you know,” etc). Whatever the case, she warmed up to me, but new people were still The Worst and she would at times blow her anal glands when I had friends come over.*

Stormy & Shine, circa 2016

People who do not know her history assume that Stormy was abused. Because of her anxiety and fear around unfamiliar individuals, the way she spooks when people make sudden moves, and her sensitivity to environments and sounds, everyone wants to see her as the victim of some kind of mistreatment or trauma; I do not believe this is the case. As I said, we got her with her whole litter at 10 weeks old: they had all had the same upbringing, Stormy was just more fearful than the rest of them. Did the stress of being lost in the wods for a few days have an impact on her, too? Most likely, but let’s not forget that she was already growling and fleeing from humans prior to that event.

Generally speaking, people want to view dogs as blank slates when they are born: that “it’s all in how you raise them,” and that “it’s not the dog, it’s the owner”. We want dogs to be inherently “good”. But what is “good” for a dog? It’s no easier to discuss inherent goodness for dogs than it is for people, because like our canine family members we are born with baggage.

Science has shown over and over and over again that none of us, dog nor human, is a blank slate. We already know that genetic factors play a very significant role in the development of a dogs temperament and how they move through the world. If you aren’t already familiar with Belyaev’s silver fox experiment I’d strongly suggest doing some reading. It’s fascinating. (Sidebar: I was just reminded of the role of genetics in human personalities again listening to this episode of the wonderful podcast, Hidden Brain.)

There are plenty of factors other than trauma and DNA and that can cause behavioral changes. Lack of proper socialization as a puppy is the best known. An little known one that is both sad and interesting is that stress experienced by a mother can affect her babies. Another is that a dog may associate an unpleasant event with something that was present at the time, even if that particular stimulus didn’t cause it–this is in fact how shock-collar rattlesnake avoidance training works… that is, when it doesn’t cause dogs to become aggressive to snake-shaped things or fearful of other stuff present at the moment of the shock.

I recently had the opportunity to assist and do a bit of teaching at a birthday party for a litter of 13 puppies who had all just turned one year old. The human who helped deliver mama-Shadow’s exceptional number of puppies took incredible notes during the whelping process including the time of each puppies birth, and therefore birth order. The yearlings that I met included some very confident and outgoing dogs as well as a few much more fearful, anxious, and timid ones… and the spectrum of most to least confident paralleled first to last born, almost exactly.

Assuming that this birth order thing is in fact a case of causation causing correlation rather than coincidence, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you why that was the case. There are probably articles out there, you’re welcome to look them up and get me some answers, about why birth order of puppies has an effect on temperament. It might have to do with placement in the womb, nutrients getting to the puppies in utero, or access to the best milk once they are out of the womb and nursing.

Whatever case, I’m guessing that Stormy was probably the last puppy out from her litter. It’s a guess, but I think it’s a safer assumption to explain her increased fearfulness compared to her littlermates than that she experienced some kind of trauma, abuse or in-utero stress that the other four puppies didn’t.

Was she abused? Not by a person, not likely. Maybe she was mistreated by fate, to have been handed the short straw and the life with more stress, anxiety, and fear than the average dog. She doesn’t like meeting new people, going for car rides, taking walks outside of familiar spots, and the booms from Camp Pendleton, thunderclaps, or dreaded 4th of July fireworks send her info a panic. There’s some much about her life that’s difficult, but did she really draw the short straw? It was because of her problematic behavior and unstable temperament that she landed in my home, with my pack, bringing joy, snuggles and laughter along with the moments of fear.

I have no regrets about taking Stormy home as a foster, despite the number of times in the beginning of our life together that I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by keeping her alive: I could see how hard it was just to be her, but that was over 10 years ago.

She is now super cuddly with me and (eventually) with visitors to my home. She demands butt scratches in a way very similar to this, and while she still doesn’t know the “sit” cue (which is another post entirely) she is an integral part of the pack, quirks and all. No matter the reasons that she is who she is, I am grateful for her and the weird twists of fate, DNA, chemicals, and circumstances that make her who she is and that brought her into my life.

*Liz and Athena – thank you for being the incredible & stink-tolerant souls you are. Love and miss you both. ❤

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.