Reread the title of this article one more time. I choose it carefully because as a professional dog trainer with a lot of experience in working with dogs and owners I have found one consistent fact in dog ownership that is almost always true: Dogs are often out of control because they have no control.
If you have ever sought training for your dog, watched dog training videos, listened to dog trainers talk, or really spent any time around dog training, then you have likely heard over and over again the statement that owners need to control their dogs. And it’s true. To live safely with you, your dog needs to be in the habit of looking to you for guidance and following your lead.
But control is not the whole truth. Training shouldn’t alleviate you from listening to what your dog has to say and preparing them for how to better make their own choices. The topic of less control is almost never discussed because it flies in the face of most training methodologies and because it addresses a much bigger (and more challenging) problem to solve. That problem is, the way we relate to our dogs. In all of my training and writing, my goal is to help dog owners learn to see the world from their dog’s point of view and gain a better appreciation of why dogs behave in problematic ways. When you understand your dog, you can make the real changes it takes to modify your dog’s behavior in a way that positively impacts you both.
So lets really put your empathy skills to the test to examine the issue of control between you and your dog. Imagine a world where you spend your entire life having nearly all decisions made for you. You don’t control when or what you eat, where you go, what access to healthcare you receive, how much and what type of exercise you get, what doors you can go through, how often you are alone, who you meet, how you meet them, what you can touch, what you can climb on, how much you can talk, and how others can interact with your body.
Even further, consider an entire life where you can only leave your house/yard with a guide while wearing a short leash (if you’re lucky enough to have a guide who will take you out). You cannot decide to run, which direction you move in, how long you are out of the house, who you greet, when you stop, or (with some training) where you can look or sniff. Your guide will try to control how your body moves by giving you verbal instructions that you are supposed to follow each and every time. But most importantly, picture not having the freedom to react to things that happen to and around you in the way that you want.
It is a frightening thought to have such little power over the day to day actions of your life and to be so heavily dependent on someone else to make the right choices for you. (Especially someone who doesn’t speak your language!).
This is the life of most of our dogs and yet, I have heard many wonder as to why we are seeing dogs with increasing levels of problem behaviors like aggression and anxiety. Without being able to have some basic control over what happens to and around us, there is no doubt our emotional well being would quickly disintegrate. I have to believe that the same is true for our dogs.
So, Why Do We Need So Much Control Over Our Dogs Anyways?
- Owner Education: Because we consider our dogs family, the well-intentioned dog owners I work with often forget that there are distinct differences between how humans and dogs experience the world. And we do our dogs a disservice by not making it a point to educate ourselves about what our dogs need to live their best lives. When you make the effort to learn about who your dog is and what they are experiencing, it becomes a motivating force to make changes in how you live with them. If you are able to work with a skilled trainer, for example, you will learn the importance of not just teaching your dog to follow your commands, but instead, you will realize how critical teaching your dog cooperation and focus is. Creating a team relationship with your dog produces a companion who chooses themselves how to successfully navigate situations by your side instead of under your thumb. This is one of the most rewarding and amazing parts of training that I experience and it makes me sad to think so many dogs and owners are missing out on this truly special bond.
- Lifestyle Choices: Dogs may be one of our most obvious warning systems that the way we are living is ultimately unhealthy for us as their behavior can stem our own. Spending time with the amazing dogs and dog owners I work with has lead me to completely change my own life. I get 8 hours of sleep every night. I moved from city to country where there is fresh air, quiet, and a calm space to just be in. I refuse to rush anymore. I pay attention to nourishing my body by eating good food and getting regular exercise. I balance my work/life better. I notice when I am stressed and take active measures to address it. In short, I prioritize self-care and living a life that is not just about working and rushing to meet the next deadline. In case dogs haven’t given us humans enough, your dog’s behavior problem may actually be an incredible gift to you if it causes some self-reflection about how you are living.
- Unbalanced Relationships: It makes sense that we aren’t very aware of our dog’s emotional states because, the reality is, most of us are not even aware of our own. Working too many hours, not practicing self-care, getting lost in technology, and not fully connecting with other humans can quickly leave a void that dogs so wonderfully fill. After all, who is excited each and every time you step through the front door? Who always wants to snuggle and cuddle with you? Who is always there when you have had a bad day? Who is always ready to party with you without any hesitation? Your dog! But when we only look at our dogs only through our own emotional lens, we miss out on forging a relationship that is built on what both parties need to live their best lives. Yes, your dog wants to be your best friend and constant companion but they also need you to think about the other elements they need to live a fulfilling life too.
- Body vs Mind: One of the most troubling trends I see in modern dog training is the focus on what a dog’s body is doing. A dog growls and so we focus on stopping them from growling. A dog jumps on guests and so we focus on not allowing them to jump. A dog runs off so we focus on a command that makes them come back. If this is how you are approaching your dog’s training, you’re missing the big picture! The best dog training is not primarily focused on changing what your dog’s body does but instead, is most interested in changing what your dog’s mind does. I absolutely love being a coach to a dog as they learn how to problem solve and work in tandem with me to change how they feel about different situations. If a dog I am working with is growling, I work hard to alleviate whatever fear or negative association it is that they have. If a dog is wildly jumping up on guests, we master the art of calm brain together. If a dog is working on getting off leash, we practice focus and cooperation drills that are all about making being around their human an awesome experience. When you focus on shaping a dog’s mind to want to work with you, when you change their expectations of what they believe to be true, and when you teach them to be free of fears and anxieties, you no longer have to dictate what their body does to arrive at good behavior.
- Cultural Stigma: The truth is, there is an alarming cultural stigma that extends far beyond how we look at our dog’s health, right into the human realm. If your dog suddenly started limping or wincing in pain, you would not hesitate to take them to the vet. After all, your dog’s physical health and well being is a top priority. Yet that same focus on mental and emotional well being just isn’t prioritized (not for our dogs, and not for us). But if you start looking at how your dog behaves with the mantra that, behavior is language, you will shift how you view treating your dog’s fearful, aggressive, anxious, or otherwise out of control behavior. Remember that dogs have no consistent way to communicate inner, emotional turmoil. They are relying on us to notice the signs that they are increasingly depressed, anxious, or fearful and then to take action. Treat your dog’s mind like you would their body and you will have a much happier and easier to live with companion.
Austrian Neurologist Victor Frankl once said, “Everything can be taken from man, but the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance and to choose one’s own way.” We must carefully proceed as dog owners to thoughtfully balance the control that is needed to keep our dogs safe and to invest the time into teaching our dogs the skills which will ultimately allow them more freedom.
-Erin Kramer, Tug Dogs Owner