There is nothing more beautiful and pure than a relationship with a dog. Dogs are loyal, playful, and love us unconditionally. They cheer us when we’re down and help to keep us safe and sane in this topsy-turvy world. I wish I could say that we dog lovers give as well as we get, but lately I’ve repeatedly encountered a naughty human tendency that we use to manipulate our best friends and it can really sour the bond. Sometimes we lie to our dogs.
Dogs are very honest creatures. Humans? Not so much.
Over the past several months, nearly all of the dogs that have come into my training program have the telltale signs of being tricked by their owners. Generally, the tell manifests as a reluctance to approach a person all the way for any reason, but especially when the person is holding a leash, near a door or crate, or has keys in hand. In some cases, it happens even when playing fetch or when the person is holding a treat. These dogs are ninja level evaders, experts at evasion, and their behavior tells me they’ve been tricked into compliance; they’ve been pursued and caught by trusting their owner and being deceived. Imagine how that erodes relationship over time.
I understand how this happens. You see, dogs are excellent discriminators. They don’t share a common language with us, but they do watch our every move and learn our intention behaviors extraordinarily well. In fact, they are so good at knowing our habits and intentions and behaving accordingly, that their responsiveness often passes for good training. This is mostly a very good thing and makes us feel as though we are excellent dog trainers and proud that our dog is so well behaved. However, it can also be bad news for us when our dog has figured out what actions of ours precede something that they consider “bad for dog.”
For example, every weekday morning, you follow the same routine as you start your day and prepare for work. Part of this routine surely includes caring for your beloved dog. Most of the things you’ll do—such as mealtime prep and getting dressed for a dog walk—are cool for your canine pal. Inevitably, though, the fun ends, either when it is time to go home from the park or time to go in the crate, etc. Your dog knows what is coming next: You are going to leave home and be gone for several hours. So perhaps Fido stops coming when you call when you hold the leash a certain way or after you’ve been out for the usual amount of time. Or, maybe your dog suddenly slinks away and hides in another room when you pull out your work coat or laptop carrier. Now, you are in a hurry, because it’s a weekday morning and you’ve got to go. So you understandably become impatient or frustrated with your dog because you’ve been down this road before, but you also know that showing your irritation only makes things worse. So, being a clever human being, you say that one word, you know, your dog’s favorite word, the one Fido can’t resist, and is sure to make him come running to you with speed and glee. Maybe, just maybe, you say it with zero intention of following through with the “thing” the word is associated with, but instead, when your happy dog comes barreling at you, you smile, lean down, and … tackle him like a linebacker and end the fun. Thus the doggy deception has begun.
Don’t fret. There is another way. You know where these tricky spots are, so instead of being a trickster, become a trainer. Train your dog in the exact situations where you need the proper response the most and most often. Teach your dog to want to do the things you’d like it to do; that is what training is all about. Of course, sometimes this includes behaviors that are unnatural to a dog, slightly unpleasant, or in direct conflict with inherent doggy desires. But if you train with a high rate of reinforcement (lots of fun, games, food) and practice the behavior at least 100 times per week with a celebration as a reward rather than only doing it when the result is the unpleasant, inevitable “thing that is bad for dog,” you’ll soon find that your pal actually likes doing the behaviors you need—or at the very least thinks compliance is worth the gamble. We all know that not every day or every situation is a bed of roses, and that sometimes we all have to just power through and do things we’d rather not, but really, a regular routine of practice sessions with rewards will make all of the difference.
Dog training is about relationship and must be built on trust. So please, make it your New Year’s resolution to stop being deceitful to your dog.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Lucas Lima 91-Creative Commons. Inset photo by Marchnwe-Creative Commons.