I’ve recently been thinking a lot about trust. Trust is a two way street but it’s imperative, in my opinion, that our dogs feel they can trust us. Without trust you have a dog that can become leery to comply with our cues, they can become defensive, they can appear to be “disobedient” when just possibly they are actually apprehensive or downright fearful that if they do what they are being asked to do it will result in something bad happening to them.
For instance, let’s look at the all too common game of “Keep Away”. There are multiple reasons for dogs to play this game but most of them are caused by humans not realizing what message they are sending to the dog. A scenario may look like this: new cute little puppy is so cute carrying about that slipper. Oh my gosh, look at that, the slipper is bigger than the puppy. We oh and ah and laugh. Because it IS cute!! I love it too. But then the puppy grows a little more, the adult teeth start coming in and now the puppy starts chewing not only on slippers but OMG my best pair of party shoes! We run at the puppy so that we can prevent further damage and angrily take it way. At best we scold the puppy, worse we give him a swat and lock him in a crate or a pen. The puppy is thinking (ok, I don’t really know but am making a wild guess here): “OMG that hooman has flipped out. Just yesterday I was laughed at and the center of attention for being so cute. Now I’m spanked and thrown in a crate?! WTF?”
The next few days are filled with instances of the puppy getting into things it shouldn’t. At least according to human standards the puppy shouldn’t. Puppy however has no way to know that tissue in the trash is off limits, or books and magazines don’t exist to be shredded. What the puppy is learning though is that when his person has ‘that look’ and ‘that body language’ he better run!! If he doesn’t he’s gonna get it, and not in a good way! Your cute puppy, now entering adolescence is learning how to avoid you, how to keep from being caught. And in a desperate attempt to keep their treasure from being snatched away they may swallow it–the opposite of what we really wanted. And some puppies may even find this game of dashing and darting fun! “Wow, I’m faster than my hooman, ha ha, this is a great game and they are paying attention to me too”.
Yay–a monster has just been created because you taught your dog not to TRUST you. And this is just one scenario. Other common mistakes are calling the dog to you and then scolding them for something they did away from you. Really? Why should a dog come to you if they are going to scolded for doing so? Dogs are not dumb-they figure this out quickly. Never call your dog when you are going to give them a bath, cut their nails, or any other thing you know they dislike. Instead, go to them, praise them while putting on their leash and then simply walk them to the area that you need them to be.
Inconsistency can also lead to mistrust. Sometimes it’s ok to jump on furniture but other times not, or it’s ok to jump on you when it’s sunny out but then it rains and suddenly it’s not ok. People are generally an inconsistent lot. And often that’s ok–with other humans! We can talk, communicate, to each other about why we are doing something differently and what we want now. We can’t relay that message in the same way to our dogs-they don’t speak our language even though we often act like they do. Dogs can read our body language though, even small signs you may not be aware they are reading. Try to keep both body and language as consistent as you can and your dog will benefit.
We can however train our dogs and in that way we can communicate with them. I am a proponent of teaching a dog what TO DO instead of what not to do (leaving them a choice of what to do instead that may be as equally as bad to us). Below are a few examples of ways to improve trust and communication:
- Whenever you call your dog and he complies–PRAISE HIM! Regardless of what he was doing prior to the recall!!
- Train your dog to bring you contraband and trade him for a treat! Then when he has a ‘prize’ that he shouldn’t, he will happily bring it to you instead of running away, destroying it and/or eating it.
- Teach your dog a “go to” cue that can be used even when he is very excited. Many trainers use “Sit” for this default behavior. HIGHLY reinforce this and use it often in early training days. Sit at doorways, sit before meals, sit before throwing a ball, sit sit sit. Once the dog is really good at sit you can use it BEFORE the dog jumps on you or your guests.
- Instill a solid “Wait” or “Stay”. Invaluable behavior! A good Wait or Stay can be combined with any stationary position (sit, down, stand are the most common) to further enhance your relationship and decrease frustration. Imagine a dog that will not bolt out the front door, will wait in the car until released, will stay sitting to allow a guest or stranger to pet your dog. Wait/Stay can truly be a lifesaver in many ways!
- Be fair to your dog. Stop and examine what you have taught your dog. Does your training match your expectations? If not, train some more! It is not fair to ‘get after’ your dog for doing, or not doing, something that you haven’t actually trained him to do. Dogs are not mind readers-help them understand how to co-exist by giving them the tools they need to succeed. Both you and your dog will be much happier if you do.
Allow your dog to TRUST you by being consistent and fair and treating them with respect and you will have a Good Life with your dog!