“He is our friend, our partner, our defender…our dog. We are his life, his love, his leader. He will be faithful and true until the last beat of his heart. We owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.” — Author unknown
Most of us can’t imagine life without dogs. We adore them for their unconditional affection, playful exuberance and zest for life.
However, dogs and people are very different animals and although officially “man’s best friend,” dogs do possess some innocent but irksome tendencies like jumping up, barking, and “not listening” that can make it downright difficult to live with them.
That said, it certainly makes sense to teach our dogs the important life skills they need to live harmoniously with us in our human households.
So before we rush off, dog in tow, expecting a few weeks of obedience school to create the perfect house pet, we should fully understand who our dog is, who he is not, what drives and motivates him and how he learns.
Only then can we embark on a successful training program that will improve our life and his while enhancing the bond between us.
So who exactly are our dogs? The domestic dog as we know it today is unique species of canid that has been virtually “hard-wired,” through thousands of years of domestication and selective breeding to live agreeably in social groups – specifically ours!
Dogs are by nature, affable, resourceful, persistent, patient, and highly opportunistic scavengers. And although they share a common ancestor with the modern grey wolf, they certainly are not little wolves in cute doggie clothing!
Domestic dogs do not display a number of behaviors that wolves do, and just as importantly, do display a variety of behaviors that wolves do not – specifically the unique ability to read our facial expressions and body language better than any other species and to naturally look to us for assistance when problem solving.
After all, we’ve had more than 15,000 years to refine and tweak their characteristics to suit our human preferences.
In other words, our dogs come fully equipped “right out of the box” to cohabitate successfully with us. So then why all the angst, hand wringing, and conflict?
In my experience it is the propensity of well-meaning owners to anthropomorphize (“to assign human attributes to animals”) that contributes to our troubles.
At best, this tendency can put us on a slippery slope where training is concerned and at worst, run the car completely off the road and into the ditch of unmet expectations, frustration, disappointment and often a sad trip to the shelter where the “untrainable, incorrigible” pooch is surrendered.
So you might be thinking, “Don’t insult my intelligence! I am perfectly aware that my dog is a dog!”
OK, but hold on a second. Have you ever taken it just a little personally when your dog seems to “blow you off?” Perhaps you were at the vet’s office, PetSmart or just in your own backyard? You ask him to “sit, lie down, or come here!” and he pays absolutely no attention?
You might have said to yourself, “He knows better! He’s just being stubborn. I rescued him from the side of the road and gave him a great life for God’s sake! He should be grateful!
Oops, there we go again – anthropomorphizing our beloved pet and setting him up for failure.
Why? Because even though our dogs love us to bits, they are not little humans in fur suits who behave out of a sense of obligation, gratitude, duty, morality or guilt.
That said, if we can arm ourselves with the knowledge we need to align our expectations with the reality of who our dogs really are and what makes them tick, we will eliminate most of the frustration that can undermine the human/canine relationship.
For it is the relationship we build with our dog and how relevant he perceives us to be (all of the time, not just when we’re the “only game in town” and nothing more exciting is going on) that will determine whether or not we are successful with any training program! But this is a topic for a future article. Stay tuned!