Being Your Dog’s Enabler

Published Friday, February 19th, 2016 by Erin Kramer

We all know that when a dog comes in for training that a good trainer will talk about the “human training” aspects of dog training. But what does this really mean in the scope of a dog’s training program? For me, the owner and lead trainer of Tug Dogs, the biggest and most important element of human training goes far beyond obedience commands or training equipment, it is about creating the right type of relationship between dog and owner. Sure getting this relationship on track is a vastly more difficult subject to tackle than simply instructing about obedience commands or how to hold a leash, but at Tug Dogs we don’t avoid a challenge, we face it head on if it means getting the best training possible.

As part of our human training I take great strides to try and understand where issues arise from and how to tackle them. Sometimes inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources! While flipping through TV channels I happened to catch a particular series about extreme weight loss surgery and one of the overriding themes was about how one, if not several, of the people around these individuals struggling with obesity were enabling this lethal behavior by providing the very thing that was killing the patient, unhealthy food. The enablers knew full well how unhealthy it was but seemed unable to stop themselves. It became crystal clear that this enabling behavior was not logical, but emotional surrounding feelings of affection, guilt, pity, weakness, sympathy that had become misguided with devastating consequences.
The fact that humans would enable someone they love, literally to death, really spoke loudly to me as a dog trainer and immediately helped me to have some insight into how challenging it can be for dog owners to change their own enabling habits without an understanding of how that behavior negatively affects everyone in their household, dog included.

So just what is enabling and how can we define it in a way that relates to dogs? Google Definitions defines an enabler as, “a person who encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behavior in another.” Think back to the interactions you have had with your dog and what you have taught him or her by rewarding with attention, petting, food, access to things, play, and more. Were you helping your dog to practice self control, maintaining calmness, capping impulses, polite greetings or were you simply enabling your dog to make bad choices and get rewarded for them? Keep in mind that you and I have to practice all of these skills on a day to day basis to function in society from driving a car to waiting in a line to taking turns and sharing, these are skills we even expect from young children. If you don’t help your dog to maintain these important skills they will never have access on their own to learn them and instead you will likely enable impulsive, demanding, and stimulated behaviors. No training program will ever make meaningful changes without you learning how to stop being an enabler. If you use a training program that relies on any tool from treats to an electric collar without addressing how you interact with your dog, then you have missed one of the most important steps in training and are asking your dog to make all the changes while you stay the same. Expecting your dog to somehow learn how to be calm, control their impulses, focus on a task, and conduct themselves politely by themselves is not realistic, they need and must have your help.

Time For Your Human Intervention

I will only gather your friends and family to talk about your enabling if I have to…lets hope it doesn’t come to that! Let me start by saying that I consider enabling behavior to be an innately selfish drive…it feels good to give love (in fact studies show it releases oxytocin in our brains) and conversely it isn’t the most fun part of dog ownership to provide leadership and structure through consistent enforcement of rules for your dog or ignoring the often cute and affectionate behaviors that your dog offers while manipulating to get what they want. To be clear, I know that this selfishness is rooted in the best of intentions and from some of the most giving, affectionate dog people I have seen. But it can be incredibly frustrating as a trainer to watch people who I know undoubtedly care deeply for their animals, not give them what they need to thrive and be successful…much I assume the same way it is frustrating to be a doctor and watch an obese patient be enabled to over eat by family members.

Often times I see people are willing to trade happiness in the moment (petting my dog when he is most excited to see me) for long term stability and happiness (petting my dog when he has calmed down into a relaxed state and can greet with appropriate behaviors). There is no secret to stopping enabling, the answer is simple…don’t let your dog do things they shouldn’t do. This may mean having your pup wear a leash in the house so that you can quickly guide them away from inappropriate activities or often times it’s just as simple and sticking to your guns and ensuring that you aren’t letting them reward themselves for bad behavior.

So it’s time to ask the tough question, are you willing to put aside what you want from the relationship you have with your dog/s to give them what they need to be their happiest and most stable? Keep in mind that enabling pushy, nervous, or unstable dogs contributes to a host of unwanted behaviors which can include:

  • Increased likelihood that your dog will be reactive
  • Fighting between dogs in the household
  • Poor manners
  • Inability to maintain training
  • Increased anxiety
  • Resource guarding
  • Problem behaviors like jumping, door dashing, nipping…
  • Hyperactivity/the inability to calm down

I know that as a dog trainer I cannot be successful with your dog’s training without you on my team, and without your understanding of what it takes to help your dog be his or her best. Instead of being an enabler, I ask you to be an empowerer. Where enabling was about giving into negative behavior because it’s what the dog wanted, empowering will be about creating an environment that makes your dog stronger and more confident by earning through manners. Where enabling gave into fast, cheap, feel good moments, during empowering you will understand that gratification may be delayed but that the victories will be that much more meaningful when they occur. When Fido insists that you pet him, you don’t instead choosing to give him attention when he has practiced waiting instead of demanding. When he demands that you share you food or feed him treats, you ignore and wait for the right moment to call Fido over and ask him to do something so that he may earn that food reward.

Making these changes are far from easy to do and the only real way to put them into action is to make the commitment to change and to frequently check in and be aware of what you and other household members are doing. Much like a diet, the initial changes are hard but as you grow accustomed to empowering your dog to make good choices, it will become second nature.

There is a reason why alcoholics leaving rehab don’t hang out at bars, drug addicts following treatment do not meet up with their friends who are still users, and gamblers after addition programs cannot got to casinos…rehabilitation requires the appropriate environment that supports change and healthy surroundings. If you expect your dog to continue with positive changes while coming back to the exact same environment, you are setting them up for failure. Take that love and affection that once made you an enabler and channel it to offering empowerment that will be a huge part of your dog’s success.

Fear, anxiety, and aggression specialists