I've never understood using the phrase "it's a dog's life" to describe a dreadful, overworked, oppressive existence. Those adjectives do NOT describe the life of most of the dogs I know! Dogs just want to have fun and if you become the source of their fun, it goes a long way towards having that well-behaved dog who listens and does everything you ask.
But what about being the boss, the "alpha", the one-in-charge? Isn't it critical that your dog views you to be the pack leader, not the court jester?
Short answer - yes and no.
Yes, because I do believe that establishing rules, setting expectations and then following through consistently is critical to building a healthy and peaceful relationship with your dog.
No, because too often people's experiences and opinions on what it means to be "the boss" can lead them down a less-than-effective road.
"I had a really mean boss who was so strict, so controlling and nobody respected them. I'm certainly not going to treat my dog like that". So, no rules get set, the dog runs wild, their person feels hurt when the dog doesn't listen and guilty when their temper flares. The dog is confused, the person frustrated, the house is a mess....you get the picture.
Or...."I tried being a 'nice boss' at my last job and people walked all over me - never again! By golly, I won't make that same mistake with this dog - they will OBEY!!" So, the dog gets reprimanded constantly and their person rarely offers praise or rewards for fear of losing their "pack leader" status. The dog may learn to obey, but there's always a little hesitancy, a little fear and a relationship that never really reaches it's full potential.
But wait - being "the boss" or "the pack leader" or "the-one-in-charge" doesn't have to look like either of these extremes. You can establish rules, set expectations AND have an enjoyable, mutually beneficial relationship with your dog! All it takes is convincing your dog that everything GOOD for them is controlled by YOU. You are FUN! You are the source of everything they want - the food, the comfort, the toys, the walks....it all comes from you. All they have to do is follow the clear, consistent rules that you establish and the world, controlled by you, is theirs to enjoy.
So, since the semantics and emotions around terms such as "the boss", "the pack leader", "the leader", "the alpha" seem to be a hangup at times, I propose a new name to describe the ideal human in a dog's life: the "Ice Cream Man". Who doesn't get excited on a hot summer day when they hear that beautiful music coming from the Ice Cream Man? Heads turn, money is grabbed and out the front door you go so you don't miss him. But there are rules. You have to pay to get your ice cream. You can't jump in and drive the truck yourself or just get whatever you want out of those cool freezer boxes. You have to wait your turn. You really don't have a say on what time of day the Ice Cream Man drives down your street. But when he does, boy do you pay attention and show up!
It's not a perfect analogy, but ideally, that's how you want your dog to perceive you and respond. And yes, realistically there are times when you will also have to be the kill-joy, the dream-squasher, the one who keeps them from doing fun things. So I've found that striving for the 80/20 rule is a good standard to follow. At least 80% of the interactions with your dog should be "FUN".... from their point of view. Don't fall into the trap of only interacting with your dog when you're setting down their food bowl in a rush or telling them not to do something. BORING....and ineffective. Would you go running out to the street, barefoot on the hot pavement if the Ice Cream Man only had sauerkraut? (or insert your least favorite food here)
So how do you achieve this goal, which is more of an art than a science? Here are some general guidelines:
- Pay attention to what is "ice Cream" for your dog. Food...and what kind? Tug of War...or other interactive games? Balls...or other toys? Belly rubs? All of the above? Then make absolutely sure that you're never giving your dog "free ice cream". They should at least be calm and polite when getting a food treat. Not pushy when playing a game with you. And never demanding for a belly rub when you're working on something else. The Ice Cream man has his own schedule, but it's well worth the wait.
- Try to NEVER use your dog's name as a reprimand. You want them to think "YAY, the Ice Cream Man wants me!" when they hear you say their name. But don't beat yourself up on this one - it's very hard to accomplish so just do your best and be aware!!
- Figure out ways to make routine tasks with your dog into a fun adventure for them. Play a quick game of tug while you're watching TV. Ask them in an upbeat tone to do a quick trick for their food. Hold out part of their regular food and hand feed it to them when they're calmly laying in your office.
These are just a few suggestions to get the creative juices flowing on how you can have fun with your dog. And remember, helping us appreciate the simple pleasures in life is one of the great gifts a dog can give. So embrace it, enjoy it, make it work for you and....don't forget to share some ICE CREAM!
Other blog posts in this series: