3 rules of relationships for pets and people

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Every month, another 40-plus pet owners enter our dog-training facility. They are nervous that their dogs will be ill behaved, and anxious about their own ability to train them.

As each new group begins, I make certain that all the instructors remember the three basics of building relationships among the dogs, the owners and ourselves.

  1. Get behind the eyes of another, and see the world as he does.

I received a video of a 9-week-old puppy exhibiting intense aggression. The puppy was chewing a rawhide, and a gloved hand reached in to take it from him. He ferociously attacked, snarling, attempting to shake the glove, and eventually holding on with such force he was lifted off his feet.

I agreed to meet the puppy, and upon arrival, he trotted into the building, tail wagging and offering completely appropriate behaviors for a puppy his age.

I explained to the owner that when one puppy tries to steal from another, aggression is a reasonable response. When we naively reach for an object possessed by a dog, from his point of view, he has two options: acquiesce and give it up, or defend it. It took no time to teach the puppy that when a person came near him, he was to give up the object and back up, offering his prize.

It seemed reasonable from our human experience that the puppy should allow us to remove the bone. That was not appropriate from the canine point of view.

That principle applies to knowing the perspectives of the people I teach. Once, a woman’s dog growled at me as I approached. I simply took the dog’s leash and walked him away from her, and he was soon allowing me to pet him. The owner was in tears. I explained that her dog’s intention was to keep me away, but I wanted to be sure he knew that his growling would not work. I learned that the owner had previously owned a very aggressive dog and her tears came from fear that she might have another dog that behaved the same way.

  1. Find a character trait about your student that you like.

The owner entered to sign her dog up for training. She suggested we go outside to get him, because his aggression was so intense that she was afraid to try to remove him from the car.

Expecting a large and ferocious encounter, we approached the car to find a 14-pound dog sitting in her husband’s lap. He said he could not touch the dog for fear of being bitten.

All the trainers here know the rule, “If you cannot tell me something you like about this dog, you are not allowed to train him.” There was very little to like about our first encounter with Titan. However, without fanfare, we simply took his leash, pulled him out of the car and brought him into school.

We took a very no-nonsense approach. As much as we wanted to understand why he behaved the way he did, we all agreed it did not matter. He simply could not treat us, or anyone else, in such socially unacceptable ways. By the end of the week the owners were stunned to see the change in his behavior.

Likewise, one of my favorite fifth-grade teachers started a school year telling me about the size of the file on one of her incoming students. “I simply stopped reading it,” she told me. “It will color my opinion of that child, and I am determined, within the first week, to find at least three things about him that I absolutely adore.”

Abraham Lincoln is credited with the quote, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” What a lovely attitude.

  1. Assume ignorance.

At the most stressful times of our lives, people say the dumbest things. We can all tell tales about what others have said or done when we were in the depths of grief or despair.

Rev. Jake Foglio, a longtime family friend, was quick to counsel that we should assume ignorance, referring to John 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

When I hear owners complain about their dogs by saying, “He knows he shouldn’t…” I pay attention. Dogs do not purposefully do what they know will irritate or enrage us. They are dogs, and they do dog things.

Chewing our possessions, digging holes and urinating on the carpet are all behaviors that are completely natural to the dog — perhaps as natural as we find it to talk instead of listen, judge instead of consider another’s perspective and dislike instead of getting to know one another better.


Connie_headshotConnie Cleveland, a nationally recognized dog trainer, is the founder of Dog Trainers Workshop, a training and boarding center in Fountain Inn. Visit dogtrainersworkshop.com or facebook.com/DogTrainersWorkshop.

What Do You Think?

2 thoughts on “3 rules of relationships for pets and people”

  1. I always marvel at Connie’s perspective on our dogs. She goes way beyond training dogs, she trains people and gives us a fresh look at our own situations. Treat yourself to training sessions at Dog Trainer’s Workshop. It’s about way more than an obedient pet!

  2. I drive 4 hours to train with Connie every other month. I don’t know anyone that reads a dog better! And I’ve seen her with a lot of different people with many different types of personalities. She is fantastic with all of them. After reading this, I can see part of the reason why.

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