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What is your relationship with your dog REALLY built on?

One of the things we hear frequently from owners when they see us work their dogs is “I can’t believe they’re doing that for you, they would never do that for me”. There are a couple reasons for this, and some of them are pretty important.

1) Consistency

Our entire relationship with your dog has probably not been super lengthy (maybe a few hours/days) but during the entirety of our interactions we’re consistent in our responses. (Now, this is a bit of a cheat cause it’s easy to be 100% responsive and accountable when you’ve only been interacting with each other for an hour or two.) What this means is that every time that I’ve said your dog’s name the entire time they’ve known me, I’ve rewarded them for listening or responding. Conversely, if they jumped on me and I corrected them then they jumped up and I did it again, they’re less likely to try the behaviour again because my response was consistent. If you don’t want your dog to perform a behaviour, but you pet/reward them a percentage of the time they do that behaviour, that’s an inconsistency that they won’t understand. Similarly, if you want a dog to perform a behaviour more often but you don’t recognize and create value for them every time they do the thing you like, they’re less likely to understand you want more of that. The consistency of your responses to their actions also dictates the level of reliability your dog sees you with. If you inconsistently react to everything they do (both positively ad negatively) it leaves the dog potentially confused and less likely to know what you value/dislike. I’m not saying you need to deal in absolutes forever, but certainly while dogs are young and learning about the world, being as consistent in your responses as possible makes your dog far more likely to understand what you mean and stay invested in your opinion of their behaviours.

2) Skill

As trainers we typically train and interact with more dogs in a single week than most people own or train in a lifetime. Dog training on a professional level is very much a practiced skillset and to train many different dogs for many different things requires a lot of practice, timing, and understanding of behaviour. While many people have trained a few dogs for a few different behaviours, this doesn’t always translate to the ability to instantly know how to trouble shoot unfamiliar dogs and new behaviours. (Eg. Many people can fix or maintain basic issues on their own car, but that doesn’t mean they can strip an engine and reassemble it properly on a vehicle they don’t own.) As trainers we have practiced our skills for hours, weeks, and years, and when we work with your dog we’re putting a vast amount of experience into practice. Looking at this another way, I always take a client’s dog and try teaching any new skill first and put into practice what I’m describing to see if it’s effective. If a professional trainer is telling you to try something and can’t show you themselves (successfully) what they’re describing, I would recommend finding a different trainer.

3) Proximity vs Substance

Many people may spend a lot of time with their dogs, but how much of that is effectively building your relationship with them? Just like letting your dog into your backyard won’t truly get your dog well exercised and fulfilled, simply being near your dog is not the same as relationship building. It’s the difference between having a roommate and having a best friend. You may end up spending a lot of time and sharing the same spaces with your roommate, but that doesn’t automatically create a strong relationship with them. A strong relationship is based on substance; someone you depend on when things go wrong, share things with when things go well, and typically share life experiences with. You and your best friend likely have a relationship based on depth and substance, while you and your roommate likely have a relationship based on proximity. Which relationship would stand up to stressful events? Which would flourish on a two day road trip, or in a weekend seminar learning a new skill? When a trainer works intensively with your dog to teach them new skills, conquer their fears, or show them new life experiences, they are creating a relationship based on depth and substance. If the vast majority of your relationship with your dog is proximity-based and not shared learning/trying/experiences that relationship may not instantly be functional or productive when tested. Real relationships take effort to build, and consistent investment in maintaining. A lot of problems clients contact us about are actually symptoms of a less than stellar relationship between the handler and their dog. Focusing on relationship building between you and your dog is a great way to start working on most issues and is never detrimental.

Take a look at your relationship with your dog and evaluate what your relationship could be based on. What do you both find enjoyable and what do you both find difficult? Do you share experiences and activities? What have you taught each other and what have you learned together?

Good relationship builders:

- play together!!

- learn a new skill

- try a sport together or take a class

- explore somewhere new

- work together on something

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