There is a lot of talk these days about being kinder to our dogs. Blog posts, articles, and countless posts on social media like Facebook concern themselves with all the myriad ways we are unkind to our dogs, intentionally or not. It might be the equipment that is used or it might be the methods chosen to communicate or train a dog. But I wonder if we should consider something even more basic.
As humans, much of our self esteem and personal happiness is tied up in having a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Some of this comes from our social context like our families and friends. But some of it also comes from the skills we learn and using those skills in our community. The things we know how to do are valuable because they help us feel valued as part of that community. I think we can apply this same concept to our dogs, in a way.
I used to think of dog training as something you do to “control” a dog; to keep them from causing chaos around the house or in public. Having changed my training approach to more proactive methods using reinforcement, I have noticed something interesting in my dogs. They actually LOOK FORWARD to working with me! While it is impossible to know for sure how my dogs feel about working with me emotionally, I can tell by their outward behaviour that they enjoy the opportunity to both learn new things and to show off the behaviours they have learned. The rewards they get for their work seem to be the “icing on the cake” when compared to what looks like their satisfaction at getting a chance to work.
I think we have an obligation to train our dogs. Not to control them but to educate them. To provide them with skills that we will ask them to use. Whether it is heeling on a walk, coming when called, or the intricate behaviours required for dog sports like agility or obedience, these skills can give our dogs a sense of purpose and a way to feel connected to us.
I make the time to work with both of my dogs every day. It may be just asking for 4 or 5 behaviours at random during the day or even practising well known tricks while out for a walk. Other days it may be teaching them something new. What is important is that it is regular work. It shows my dogs that I need them to be part of something with me. Working with my dogs every day is a way to say, “I need you here. You are important in my life. I need the skills you have to offer.” As social animals, I think our dogs understand that sense of connection very well.
Maybe the kindest thing you can do for your dog today is just giving them a chance to do something with you!