Take it easy on ourselves and our dogs

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Life with our dogs could be so much easier if we just tried to reduce the pressure on ourselves and on our dogs. To take a step back and work out what is important in the grand scheme of things. Our dog's happiness and comfort, or our need to over-control, or maintain our standing, ego or respect with our dog and with others, and for what? Who really cares at the end of the day? It's really about us and our dogs and our relationship with them.   

A familiar scene played out a few weeks ago at an event. A dog on a lead walked past another dog who had been commanded into a down stay. Let's note this was not an obedience trial, but more a relaxed environment of preparation for a fun activity to come. The dog was nervous and broke the down stay to move away from the dog walking past. The human punished the dog for being disobedient (verbal correction). Later that day, the exact same scenario replayed itself. This time, the dog did not break his down stay, but instead, from his position, lunged and barked at the dog walking past. The human punished the dog for reacting (very loud verbal correction).   

Let's ask some important questions for starters, some concepts around them, and then look at some possible solutions to what we consider is a very common situation. 

Let's assume the human already understood the dog was nervous around other dogs. We know this because the event was attended by professionals in the canine behaviour industry. Pet parents who are just learning the ropes would not necessarily know all the nuances of this, so blame/fault is never with them.  

Some questions

1. Was it fair on the dog to punish him for his need for space/distance, given that he chose to move away from an uncomfortable situation, without reacting?

2. Knowing the dog had learnt he will get punished if he breaks his down stay, was it then fair to punish the dog again, this time for reacting?

3. As the human already knew the dog has space issues with other dogs close by, was it fair on the dog to have placed him in a situation (twice) where he could not cope, had no support nor input from the human or was not allowed more freedom to make better choices, in a relaxed environment where it didn't really matter if dogs were moving around and not being obedient?

Some things to think about:

1. The notion of rewarding the dog for moving away from the 'scary thing'. Being pleased with the dog for making the better choice to avoid conflict and at the same time us learning to honour the dog's natural need to move.

2. The options that this dog had left. As the dog had learnt he will get punished for breaking a down stay AND punished if he reacted to a scary thing, his remaining options could have been to put up and shut up, to tolerate the stress or pressure applied to him, for the sake of respecting his human and not having the human's ego damaged. They could have been to shut down or learn helplessness. They could have been been to blow up so aggressively one day, like a pressure cooker needing to let off steam,  due to the human not listening to his needs, that he is then banished from group social and learning environments all together.

3. Realising that aggressive displays are a last resort and an outward demonstration to an emotional state within the dog.

4. The effect of the verbal corrections on the dog's body language and how the correction and resulting body language could affect the other dogs around.

5. The long term effect on the human-dog relationship.

6. Trying to halt our automatic reaction to a dog disobeying.  The simple thing is if the dog could do a comfortable down stay with other dogs walking around him, then he would do it, if down stays had been taught nicely in a variety of environments and distractions, and he had the support of the human who showed him that nothing bad was going to happen and only good things instead.  A lot of dogs can't do down stays for physical or pyschological reasons, or we don't have the time or the desire to teach them with distractions - and that's fine, but we often impose such high standards on our dogs, they are often bound to fail and so it never then ok to punish a dog for not knowing what he did not know. It is not their fault. Neither is it a pet parent's fault if they have not been taught or they don't have the knowledge of how to help their dogs out in these situations. However, in the above situation, it was a seasoned trainer whose dog could not cope.

Some things that could have helped that dog in that situation:

1. Rewarding the dog for his excellent decision to keep himself safe, rather than reacting aggressively, and therefore empowering the dog to have more skills in social situations, in the future and then resetting him in a cued down stay, rewarding frequently for that position.

2. Being proactive and feeding the dog great treats as the other dog on lead walked by (or moving away quickly to a greater distance , where this can take place, without reaction). This would have had the dual effect of maintaining the down stay, if the human was proactive and prepared, and conditioning the dog to seeing another dog walking past as a good thing.

3. Making it a duty to understand the dogs' body language and what it means.

4. Recognising that sometimes, despite our best efforts, life happens, that we can't prepare for everthing and to not beat ourselves up over a blow up, but learn how to train a 'positive interrupter' or learn how to silently use body blocks between dogs, rather than shouting.

Take a step back. Unless we're training and competing in formal and competitive Obedience where dogs are not likely to be crossing the path of dogs doing a down stay anyway, we can perhaps shrug off or even laugh off a little 'disobedience' and recognise there may be competing emotions and needs and instead see this as a chance teach our dogs ways to cope and enjoy what life throws at them. 


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