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— April 2, 2013 —

“I Don’t Want to be my Dog’s Boss! I Want to be His Friend!”
by Patience Hayes

I once had a client with a little pistol of a dog. Her dog, “Buttons” was a high-energy, mixed breed with a defensive-yet-bossy nervous quality that sometimes resulted in people getting bitten. This is where I came in. Funny thing: Buttons was, of course in love with her human “Mama”, but not so much fun for her “Mama’s” friends, yet “Mama” was a very reluctant participant, early in the game of obedience. She voiced her concerns: “But, I don’t want it to be all about work; I want him to have fun!” Usually, my clients get on board with my program, but for some, unless their interactions with their dog is anything other than cooing, stroking, cuddling, feeding, baby-talking, and snuggling, they simply feel that they are depriving their dog. Why can’t all of our communications with our dogs be like a lovely, flowery, sunny day T.V. commercial? In this article, I will try to make some sense of the answer to this question, but, for now, what if I told you that you will actually get a closer, deeper bond with your dog if you don’t do that? What if I told you that your dog will be more relaxed, more fun, if you train him?

Some of it is in the language. Words like “leader” make some people think cruel “task-master.” Dominance is another scary word for people who think that dominance necessarily means using undue force or having to “talk mean” to their dog. Some people believe that even asking their dog to sit is too bossy? You’ve heard it, haven’t you? “Can you siiiiiiiiit???” they say, with a pleading in their voice. To me, it sounds like they’re saying, “I do hope you sit, but you don’t have to if you don’t feel like it; I was just hoping you would…” Oh, barf! If I am describing you, let me tell you that depriving your dog of leadership is really cruel. As much as we tend to think of our dogs as furry humans, there is a very important area where dog and human diverge… Two things: 1. What is good for the pack is good for the dog, which is why pack members obey the leader, typically without question or resentment. The pack works as a unit. 2. Most dogs are not cut out to be a pack-leader; there can only be one. (One per pack!) Yes, I am referring to a natural “world o’ dog”, which hardly exists anymore, but evolution has yet to eradicate this dynamic. It is in your dog’s DNA.

You bring home a new rescue dog, and you love him and do everything you can think of to give him a good life — lots of love, good food, toys, a great bed, so why, oh WHY is the dog so nervous? What went wrong?? My first guess is that you didn’t provide a leader for your dog. Huh?! Yes, your dog craves leadership so much, that if he doesn’t sense one, he will become one. I’m going to steal a most brilliant analogy to this situation. (Thank you, Daniel McElroy!) Provided that you are not a pilot, ask yourself how you’d like it, if, while in flight, the flight attendant came to you and informed you that, now YOU had to go fly the plane? Would you not be nervous? Can you imagine trying to fly that big jet! I think you’d be a nervous wreck! That’s what happens to lots of dogs; having to take over the job of Top Dog is beyond your dog’s capabilities, like you at the controls of an airplane, when the most you know of it is how to ride in it, not fly it! Really, should your dog make the decisions in your world? For your dog, just because you came home with the food and the toys, that doesn’t make you the leader. He has to know that you’re in control of the situation. If you’re asking your dog to sit, instead of telling him, he will know it. It’s not about how bossy or mean you sound; that’s how you feel about it. If you feel as if you’re asking too much of your dog, so will he, which naturally knocks you right out of the leadership role. Game over!

Let me address my former client’s specific concerns over the “fun” issue. Keep in mind that the actual training part goes on but for mere minutes a day! When you were nothing but a tender child, you were going to school 5 days a week, for at least 5 HOURS a day! But, I still haven’t gotten to the best parts… Many dog breeds were created for specific work. Think herding dogs, retrieving dogs, or guard dogs. They cannot shake what is an integral part of their being. For them, having a job is nearly as important as having food to eat. It’s essential, period. Without it, lots of dogs get in into all kinds of trouble, like destructive behaviors or separation anxiety, for example. For most dogs, giving them a job, is a reward in itself! This here is the best part! When you invest in dog training, you will achieve a bond with your dog that no special toys, massages or treats can ever, ever compare! You may not see it on your first day. In fact, you may not see it until after “graduation”, but if you are sincere in your training, you will see it. There will be a moment — oh, I just LOVE this! — you will tell your dog to heel, or sit or down, he will do it, you’ll tell him what a good job he did, and, then you will see it. The moment is this: Your dog will understand what you wanted and know that he DID it and that he did it WELL. THAT is the moment! You’ll see it in his eyes, and once you are able to recognize it, you’ll see it over and over again. Your dog is incredibly turned on by this phenomenon! Anyone who tries to tell you that dogs have no pride have never experienced this! They’ve never seen it. Granted your dog loves you, already. Surely he thinks you hung the moon, but even so, unless you can be that kind-yet-strong pack leader, and let your dog know exactly when, how, or what he’s done right, the two of you will never know this joy. There is no replacement for this bond-strengthening experience!

So, when you find you may be in need of a professional dog trainer, do not fear the obedience! Even if your trainer tells you to reward calm behavior, don’t worry. Your dog will not loose his fun, silly side. There’s always time for that — AFTER school!

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