Chasm opening up?
The more I see the adverts for “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics for every dog to be a well-mannered companion, the more I feel I am moving further and further away from what is general view of living with dogs.
Essential for whom?
Are we just making dogs compliant for people or should we give more consideration to what is going to be beneficial for that dog, living in that lifestyle and an uncertain future?
The methods used in securing this compliance are half a century away from what was being accepted as essential training in the 1970s. A tremendous step forward, even if the language has introduced “fur-babies” and pampered pooches. But the agenda is still the same: management, compliance and obedience. The message is the same: people are masters of dogs.
Training is something that is done TO the dog.
Learning is something that happens FOR the dog.
Dogs have been successfully learning for thousands of years, it is modern society that has imposed an acceptance on how they consider dogs should behave. This is often in conflict with the learning skills that dogs possess and, even with positive overtones, is about suppression of behaviour, compliance and easy management.
Is this the future of living with dogs?
I would be extremely unhappy if an onlooker described my dogs as “obedient”. This perception that a good dog is one that complies with every command without question, rarely needs rewards (because they do it for the love of you) and is never naughty. I sincerely hope that the onlooker, society-without-a-face, comes back as that dog. No personality, no joy in being a dog and running for pleasure, rolling in fresh grass and chewing to relax.
What about connection?
Instead of using positive whatever-label-is-the-current-fashion, we build connection out of which develops a desire to join in activities because we enjoy doing them together. We walk together, not in conflict, we adjust to each other, not find fault.
Recall training: the really reliable way to let your dog bugger off so you can ignore them until something goes seriously wrong and you need to recapture before you are mortally embarrassed. How about levelling the balance – why is the job of responding the dog’s and not the person’s? Wouldn’t it be more urgent, and safer, to ask a dog to stop when travelling away from you?
If you have ever seen two dogs out and about together there are signals that “call” the other dog through an increase in activity. One dog begins to become more animated by a scent in the air and the other dog responds and seeks to join them – to share the pleasure together. How often have you joined in your dog’s “call to action”, but you want them to always, be reliable, to your call to action?
I don’t expect to start rolling in anything to share the pleasure, but I do plan to be attentive and curious when my dog wants to stop a smell the breeze. I do expect to use safety equipment for all the conditions where my dog will never be near traffic without my guidance and holding my hand. I do expect to invest time and thoughtfulness into “wait there” for safety.
I do expect my dogs to bark at unexpected and potentially threatening changes in the environment, I plan to respond to this call, use my exceptional human skills to assess the situation and suggest a stand down, continued observation, or proceed further.
Sit is not, and has NEVER been, a life skill
It is just a management behaviour, a route to awards and social approval from society. Because all good dogs sit.
How do we move forwards and develop a lifelong companion that we can equally share enjoyment in activities?
Perhaps we begin with our new friend – that is our plan, a friend, not accessory, lifestyle image, fashion or means to social fame. Not a fur baby, pampered pooch, or temporary entertainment source.
This friend that we want to discover more about – what they like, their interests that we can share, what makes them grumpy, what makes them happy.
Activities that build our understanding of each other. As we share new experiences we look for beginnings of uncertainty or engagement, a change or development, progress or regression.
Daily, we collect a bag of Good Thing to Examine. This can be several items from your pantry, your rubbish bin, or your garage, or your wardrobe, or in your pocket. You sit with the bag, the puppy, the new friend and take out an item and cup it in your hands. You talk to the tins of peaches, bag of spaghetti, in a quiet voice, showing interest, turning it around, smelling it. Your friend shares this activity.
If they are eager to share with their teeth, then we begin with less edible or stimulating items. We can gently block with one hand as we turn the item around and encourage sniffing and watching as we talk. Everything will smell of something different – take a whiff yourself. Put that item away, and make a small drama of seeking another item from the bag or pillow case. Explore it together. Does it open and reveal something new? Perhaps a box will unwrap to a tasty surprise. Does it make a different sound as you turn it around? Perhaps open the bag and let your pal make the choice?
What learning has happened?
Your friend has experienced new scents, they are building their library of smells – with you.
Your friend has learned that your hands contain items of interest that can be looked at but not grabbed, your hands can serve as shields.
Your friend has learned to finish that activity as you put the item away. “That’s all”. They have learned to wait and anticipate something new to look at.
They have learned your voice has different tones that will represent interest, or disappointment.
They have learned that unique sound and join you when you are looking for the bag of treasures.
You have spent 10 minutes of quality time together that was not overexciting, over arousing but stimulating and interesting.
If you have other friends that also have new friends, you can exchange bags – see what someone else’s bag contains. Curiosity will have no limits – don’t you already want to see what I put in my bag?
Which class would you prefer to go to? Sit-Stay-Come, or explore a bunch of weird objects together? Learn what your friends find interesting or boring or fascinating? Learn to enjoy a conversation and learn to listen?
This bag of treasure is your dog’s world, their future outings. What scents do they follow, how long are they engaged. Can you pretend engagement in return for a quiet evening whilst you enjoy your entertainment? Can you learn how to connect and enjoy a moment together and then move on to seek more moments? This is your shared walk in the woods, a series of moments together.
If you have that connection at the core of your relationship the Stay, Come, Heel will not be required.
Let’s build a future where we have dogs that are confident and curious, patient with our lack of understanding and ecstatic when we respond to their calls to action. Dogs that are sharing a learning journey with us, travelling to outcomes that we can equally enjoy. Friendship that has resilience, allows us to at times take liberties, at times to put their needs secondary and special days and holidays that build memories of pleasure.
Build friendships and families, not compliance and good behaviour.
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