One day, as I was driving past a school field, I saw a man and his two dogs coming across the field. One dog, a golden lab, walked calmly by his owner’s side. The other, a black lab, forged ahead, lunging and sniffing. It looked to me to be a very young dog. Then suddenly, without warning, the owner yanked back on the black dog’s leash — hard — and it pulled the dog off of its feet.
It was a warm day so my windows were open, and now I was listening for some sort of cue or command. Nothing came. The black dog began to lunge and pull again. Again, the owner yanked the dog off its feet without warning. As I drove on past, I wondered how that dog learned anything. It must learn though trial and error most of the time, I thought to myself, and the errors seemed to have pretty unpleasant consequences. Not the way I would go about teaching my dogs.
But here’s the thing, I’m sure that guy loves his dogs. After all, I’ve been known to yank my own dogs off their feet; not in many years, mind you, but I used to do that before I learned what I now know about dogs. I once used prong collars and shock collars too. I even alpha-rolled my dogs before I learned a few things about dogs. Throughout all those years I’ve loved all my dogs dearly. What I know today about dogs and behaviour doesn’t make me love them any better or any more. It’s just different for me now.
A Dog for All Reasons
As I write this, Christmas is just around the corner. Many homes will find a bright-eyed, bouncy puppy under the tree this year, just as so many have in other years. Many of those dogs will go on to have wonderfully pampered lives but some of them will end up at the local SPCA or shelter before year is out. Some will go everywhere with their families and some will spend most of their days alone in a basement or backyard. Some of these dogs will grow to be a comfort to an older person who will care for them and walk them daily as a best friend — and others will be a playmate for the kids.
Still other dogs will be painstakingly selected to work with the physically disabled or to play dog sports like Agility or Tracking with enthusiastic owners. These dogs are brought into homes with a purpose, frequently joining other dogs who already have jobs in the home. Expectations may be high, and training will likely be structured and make up a great deal of the daily interaction with the owners.
And some dogs will be a “good idea” but very difficult to manage. The proliferation of “doggy day care” and dog walking services will shift some of the daily interaction and management of some dogs from their homes to professional services that look after them during the work day.
Not All Homes are Created Equal
A lot of people love dogs for a lot of different reasons. From the smallest toy breeds to the largest working breeds, dogs come in all shapes and sizes because somewhere along the way someone thought a dog of that size and shape would be best for them. Just as dog breeds have different purposes, the people who own dogs have different ideas about the needs and wants that a dog can address.
People who breed dogs may have their ideas about structure and temperament, and they may see their dogs as works in progress, with each successive generation of puppies moving closer to an ideal dog. Those who enjoy dog sports may spend a great deal of time looking for an ideal dog and may even spend hours each day on training and management to create a competitive canine athlete. Dogs who are destined for the show ring may be pampered and fussed over, lovingly groomed as they go from show to show.
But most dogs will end up with a family. Some of these homes will have owned dogs for generations; others will be getting their first exposure to canine companionship. Each home will have its own requirements regarding scheduling, time and attention. Some of these homes will train dogs as they have for decades; others will watch TV trainers or take their dogs to training classes for basic manners or more advanced instruction.
Most homes will have some challenges with unwanted behavior. The owners just want the dogs to “behave”. Some will look for advice from neighbor who has always had dogs, or from a local “dog expert”. Others will look to the internet or television for answers. Still others will contact a dog trainer. And some, like myself, will dive into the wealth of books and seminars now available about dogs and behaviour.
Knowledge, Not Righteousness
When I started reading and learning about behaviour modification and behavioural science, it was like a curtain was pulled back and I could finally understand why my dogs were doing what they were doing. The speed and precision with which I now could teach my 10-week-old puppy was absolutely astounding to me. Behaviours that used to take me days or weeks to teach my previous dogs were coming in minutes or hours, with just a couple of training sessions. The level of cooperation and enthusiasm I was getting from my dog was incredible. I wondered how I had not seen this stuff years ago.
In a very real sense, I was a “born again” dog trainer. I was full of the energy and enthusiasm of a new convert, ready to spread the “good news” to all who would listen. And believe me, you couldn’t shut me up about clicker training in those days. If you had a dog with you, I would tell you exactly how you should be training and managing that dog to have the benefits of the wonderful life I was having with my dogs.
I must have seemed like quite the self-righteous and sanctimonious bastard with all of my unsolicited instruction and critiques. At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I loved my dogs and I wanted to get smarter about them — and if you didn’t know this stuff as a dog owner, well, what did that say about you as a dog owner? I’ve since learned that it’s just not that black and white — not everyone who knows behavioural science loves dogs and not everyone who loves dogs knows behavioural science.
A Million Ways to Love a Dog
There do seem to be a million ways to love a dog. Every time I see a photo of some eight-year-old girl asleep in her bed with her trusty golden retriever snuggled up close, I’m reminded of the intimate place our dogs have in our lives. And the intimacy and love is just as great between the sheep herder and his border collie who sleeps in the barn and often works hundreds of feet away for long hours each day.
What I’ve learned about dogs has fundamentally changed the way I see them as beings. I hold a much greater respect for their intellectual capacity, their personalities, and their need to be stimulated mentally as well as physically each day.
Not everyone sees dogs the way I do, and I’ve come to a place where I don’t think others have to see them from my view point. What I’ve learned about dogs has been deeply satisfying and has given me such a wonderful sense of understanding with my dogs. It is something I wish for everyone to enjoy with their dogs. And perhaps they do, each in their own way.
All I would ask is that dog owners consider what life is for their dogs — and from their dog’s point of view, is it enough? Or could there be more? Could learning about dogs and behaviour give your dog a better life without taking up more time in your daily life? Could changing the way you train and interact with your dog make both of you happier? Could a new approach to training and living together mean less work and more fun for both you and your dog? That’s how it happened for me.
So love your dogs the best way you know how. They are with us for so short a time but they are such a gift.
Happy holidays to all of my readers and your four-footed companions. I wish you all a warm and safe holiday season full of good things. Give your dogs an extra cookie for me.