Almost fifteen years ago; I fell head over heels, instantly, for an unwanted dog. One look at Finn and I felt my face light up and my heart soar. And, when my Lug tackled me and smothered my cheeks, eyelids and forehead with kisses; I saw a glitter gaze wash over his joyful eyes. Finn had no choice, but I knew he would have chosen me too. We had the most amazing time together until a couple years later, my Lug was attacked by another dog. It was heartbreaking to hear him whine and watch his eyes dart back and forth while we did what brought both of us so much happiness and bonding time, walking around the neighborhood.
That’s when I fell in love again; with dog training. I worked really hard to teach Finn that dogs were not so scary; that I would protect him. As we tackled each behavioral hurdle and bump together, what also happened was amazing. Our bond grew stronger, his smile widened and; oh, when he looked at me, I could see glitter fluttering and dancing around his cocoa brown eyes like stars in the Mljet sky. Because, even when he was at his naughtiest, most embarrassing, even frustrating; I never gave up on him. I know with every ounce of my being, Finn knew that.
Recently, I began working with a wonderful family, who brought home two puppies. Yes, TWO puppies. And, their very well-behaved daughters are so engaged and excited to show the puppies every behavior I offer to them. I was holding the youngest pup, Spike and showing their youngest daughter, Chloe how to teach him to lay down outside. When I passed the leash back to Chloe, I saw it again. Spike likes me, A LOT. But, his big puppy belly grazed the grass as he melted and his whole face lit up with the glitter gaze when Chloe took the leash again. And, as I watched her happily say “YES! THAT’S MY BOY!” for EVERY. TINY. LITTLE. thing Spike did right; I was reminded how much adults can lose track of the moment and get in our own way with training. While Spike sat and laid down for Chloe, it was clear that she was not thinking about the fact that he peed near the elevator door earlier that day nor fretting if Spike was going to jump on one of the 15 people we would pass on our way back to their place. Chloe was focused on and cheering Spike on for being good, in that instant. And, with every “yes” she chimed, Spike’s glitter gaze shimmered more and more.
So, what’s the lesson here? Sometimes I find that when dogs are behaving badly, the bond between human and dog has completely broken or is in the process of being destroyed. And, that breaks my heart. When the human gives up, the dog is not going to get better, ever. If you are struggling to rebuild the bond with your dog or know someone who is, here’s a little insight I have learned by helping a kind, happy, young girl train her puppy:
- Be in the moment. Sure, your dog may have pounced on someone five minutes ago; but you just walked past another ten people he did not jump on. He should know he did the right thing by you for every one of those ten good behaviors.
- Use your tone and body language to convey when your pup is a good dog. Chloe was beaming at Spike. And, every nuance in her posture and demeanor towards him was warm and inviting. I watched Spike so eager to please her; and have seen enough folks hovering and shouting at their dog to know that the latter encourages avoidance, not cooperation.
- Talk to your dog. When I am driving around the city, I can not tell how many times a day I see a dog at a street corner sniff the air while their guardian stops. Then, for no obvious reason to me, the person barely looks away from their phone to yank their dog into a “sit”. The poor dog looks dumbfounded but does it. Why not just say “sit”? It’s a simple word and a whole lot kinder.
- If you like your dog, chances are he likes you too. And, vice versa. If you do not like your pup, you will not be successful at redirecting those annoying and pesky behaviors. First, focus on bonding exercises before you tackle the cumbersome ones. Then, make a list of all the things you like about your dog. What do you think your dog would list if he made one about you?
- Stop being so fixated on the dream response or goal behavior. Yes, it would be amazing if Spike did a sit/stay for every pedestrian that passes him and his family. But, he is improving all the time because Chloe and her family praise and reward him for not tackling each person who “oohs” and “ahhs” over him and his adorable puppy sister.
***The names of puppy and human have been changed to protect the privacy of this family.***