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. 

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.