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  • Writer's pictureTaryn Blyth

Relationship First

We always ask on our intake forms for both adult and puppy classes: What do you hope to get out of attending training? We ask this, because it is important for us to understand our clients’ needs, but it is also a good indication of how they view training in general and what they expect, not only from us, but from their dogs. Before writing this post, I reviewed some of the answers we have gotten. Here are some of the common ones:

  1. An obedient dog

  2. A disciplined dog

  3. A socialized dog

  4. A responsive dog

  5. A dog who understands commands

  6. A confident dog

  7. Control over my dog

Then we had these slightly less common, but really lovely answers:

  1. Education for me and my dog

  2. To build trust, love and understanding between my dog and I

  3. To have fun with my dog

  4. To have a time for positive bonding

  5. Friendship with my dog

  6. A rewarding RELATIONSHIP!

I love these last answers, because there is an acknowledgement of the RELATIONSHIP we should have with our dogs, rather than a focus on doing something TO the dog so he or she turns out in a way that we feel is acceptable.

Of course, for safety and practical reasons, we all want dogs that are responsive and will follow cues in as many situations as possible. The more we can rely on our dogs to follow our instructions or requests, the more we can trust them out in public and the more freedom they can have to enjoy all sorts of activities with us. But we are not going to achieve this by imposing a set of rules onto our dogs and forcing them to comply. We are not going to achieve this by practising sit, stay and come all day in the hopes of achieving a robotic response. Such practises will only teach our dogs that we are tedious and boring and they will avoid interacting with us as much as possible and find everything else in the environment a lot more fun! We will end up having far less “control” over what they decide to do, because our input will have no value to them.

So how do we get it right? What should we do to have a responsive dog? We need to FIRST build a healthy RELATIONSHIP with them. What does a healthy relationship look like? To me, it is a dog that WANTS to be with us. A dog that feels GOOD and HAPPY when they are with us. A dog that TRUSTS that they are SAFE with us, because we will NEVER intentionally frighten or harm them physically or emotionally or deliberately take away the things they value, without good cause. I am not saying that our dogs understand all of this on an intellectual level and that they sit and think about our relationships with them, but I do believe that they FEEL this relationship and it effects how they interact with us and respond to us all the time.

How do we go about building this relationship? We do it by creating GOOD associations with being around us. We need to be a source of GOOD things in our dogs’ lives, summed up by the three F’s:

  • FOOD: While many people frown on using food to build a relationship, we need to remember that all baby mammals start off associating their primary caregiver (mother) and most important person in their lives with food. The expectation and receiving of food creates good feelings, which become attached to the source or provider of that sustenance. There is nothing corrupt or unsavory about this – it is natural and healthy. To not use food GENEROUSLY in training and for reinforcing our dogs for behaviours we want to see more of is to discard one of the most powerful tools for building relationship that we have at our disposal.

  • FUN: Why do young dogs so often seem to want to race off after other dogs and initiate play? Because play is FUN! Dogs love playing and social play creates positive associations with play partners. If we want our dogs to have the same enthusiasm for us as they do for their canine friends, we need to tap into that desire to have fun and BE a SOURCE of FUN for our dogs. We need to play with them in ways that they enjoy. This may be playing tug, tag or gentle rough-housing where appropriate and safe. Even new adventures and engaging in activities (hiking, swimming) and sports (agility, rally free, nose-work) together can be fun – as long as we are not forcing our dogs to engage and they are doing so because THEY enjoy these activities.

  • FEAR-FREE: It is absolutely imperative that our dogs view us as a place of safety. If coming close to us and engaging with us has unpredictable results i.e. sometimes we are nice and sometimes we are nasty (and this is one of the problems with so called “balanced” training) our dogs will view us as potentially dangerous and avoid us when they can. Be the one safe thing your dog can rely on in his life – the person who never lets him down. Then when the world seems a bit scary, your dog will be far more likely to come to you for support.

So, instead of focusing on discipline and obedience to get the compliant dog we think we need, let’s focus on building a STRONG RELATIONSHIP where our dogs WANT to be with us and WANT to respond to us, because the connection we have with them makes this the natural choice.


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