I was deathly afraid of dogs as a child. According to my parents, I could spot a dog blocks away and, as only a 3 year old can do, have a full blown meltdown. They suspected my fear began when a friend's German Shepherd nipped me, but they don't know for sure. When asked at church about my little scratch, I did proclaim "that damn Corky did it".
After several years of dodging dogs and hoping this stage would pass, my wise parents decided that a more proactive approach was in order. Enter Snoopy, an 8 week old beagle puppy, who wiggled her way into my heart and transformed my fears into a lifelong passion.
With the exception of college and a couple of post-college years, my home has always been shared with one or more dogs. I could fill pages and pages with stories of how special they have been to me and how much laughter, joy and affection they have brought to my life. And I love how people just open up and share great Dog Stories of their own when they meet my dogs or find out what I do.
Dogs have a way of reminding us that simple things, like a lively roll in cool green grass, can bring great joy. Or that showing those we love that they're special every time they walk in the door should never be forgotten.
But to me, despite what you read on wall plaques, dogs are not really just "four-legged children". They're dogs. An entirely different species from us. Amazingly intuitive animals whose emotional and intellectual lives remain a mystery to us in many ways. They have the ability to forge deep emotional attachments with their human companions and perform incredible feats of bravery and heroism. And yet, when left to their own devices, they will also do things that make their humans crazy because the world is their toilet and nothing quite beats finding wonderfully fragrant stuff, devouring it or squirming around in it and being SO proud! Even though they are typically social creatures who are happiest in a "pack", they don't inherently understand our rules or how to negotiate their way peacefully in our world. So they watch, listen and learn what works for them....and that's how they train us.
Yes, our dogs are masters at figuring us out and getting what they want. It's beautiful, really. They know things about our habits and routines that we probably don't even know ourselves. When I rescued my puppy Snickers at 6 months old, she really dreaded going in her crate, but could not yet be trusted out in the house when I wasn't home. (The world was still her toilet!). It was uncanny how she just seemed to know when I was going back out after we got home from a day at Savvy Dog and would not come in the house, even for her dinner. At first I thought it was because I was changing clothes and freshening up my makeup on those nights before calling her in to eat. But on nights when I was staying in, she would just come on inside and go upstairs with me while I changed into "less doggy" loungewear.....no hiding in the backyard, no dinnertime drama. I finally figured out that it was the car - I didn't pull it into the garage when I was going to be headed back out and that was her tipoff. And I had no idea I was that predictable.
So how do you go about getting what YOU want out of your relationship with your dog? The answer to this question has blossomed into a multi-million dollar industry that is both fascinating and frustrating in it's complexity and competing philosophies and techniques. There is amazing research being done on the human-animal bond and new experts with their own "X Steps to the Perfectly Trained Dog" popping up all the time. For a dog-geek like me, keeping up with it all can be fun and fulfilling but even I get overwhelmed at times trying to process it all and relate it to my everyday life with dogs.
Which leads me to the heart of what having a "Savvy Dog" is all about for me. If we spend just a fraction of the time on "figuring them out" that our dogs spend on us, quantum leaps can be made in having a great relationship. I'm not talking about agonizing analysis of how they're "feeling" in human terms. Nor do we need to debate pack theory or dominance theory or any of the other politically-charged philosophies on how to train them. For most dogs and most people, I believe it boils down to these generally undisputed facts:
- Dogs will do / seek out what feels good to them; food, play, attention, physical comfort.
- Dogs will avoid what does not feel good to them; pain or discomfort, the unknown or uncertainty.
- Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell.
- Dogs are masters at reading our body language.
- Dogs are highly skilled at perceiving the world around them through smell, observation and most likely in ways that we still don't really understand.
- Dogs do what works. Taking into account all of the above, they will manipulate their world (that includes you!) to get what they want.
Now, the people part:
- Decide what you want. No dogs on furniture at all? Couch cuddling OK but only when invited? Or "mi casa es su casa" when it comes to the furniture? Make your rules and vow to consistently enforce them. Every time.
- Determine what specifically motivates your dog and what specifically they try to avoid. Understanding how they are approaching their world will establish trust and help you shape their behavior to benefit you both.
- Don't let "bad" behavior (defined as what you DON'T want) work for them. Ever. Not even "this one time". And if you relent, DON'T BLAME THE DOG! They are hard-wired to do what works for them. It's your job to figure out how to make it work for you both.
- Go for the win-win as much as possible. Does your dog love messy treats but you don't love the mess? Designate a specific spot, easily cleaned or outdoors, and train them to go there on cue for the treat. They may prefer to eat it on the couch, but if you make sure their only choice for success is on the deck, they'll adapt. They get their yummy treat, you don't have a sticky couch and you've added a cue to your common language.
Of course, all of these things are much easier said than done. Real life gets in the way and sometimes the path of least resistance is very hard to avoid! But I firmly believe that time spent becoming "Dog Savvy" by observing and "listening" to your dog is the key building block to having a "Savvy Dog". All of the training books, shows and classes in the world can't take the place of you making the commitment to understand your dog, setting your own expectations for their behavior and then motivating them to live happily in your home and share your life. It's an investment that is well worth the effort.