You sit across the table from the other person staring blankly into space. Neither person talking, and even if they did, they doubt the other person would listen, not really listen. It's hard to imagine how things have got to where they are now, the two of you, living two separate lives. The spark has left the building, those spontaneous dates, the surprises, and excitement are all gone and all that's left is going through the motions.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar relationship? If your answer is no, then you might want to ask your dog?
In some instances, single incidents can trigger an emotional change which can then lead to a dramatic change in behaviour. However it's more commonly a slow erosion. The full extent of how bad things have gotten is only clear to the owner, when the behaviour starts to severely impact on their day to day life or because of a major incident.
Are you having fun?
In a broken human relationship, it's rare that only one person is unhappy and the other person blissfully unaware. This is also the case with broken relationships with humans and animals. If you dread going out with your dog or have certain situations that send your stress skyrocketing, then there is every likelihood that your dog is also not having the time of its life. Our automatic reaction, a lot of the time, is to get frustrated which leads to us accepting such notions as ‘having to be the alpha’ or ‘being the boss’. Such strategies and mind frames only serve to add more fuel to the fire and escalate the problem. Below are a few things to consider when evaluating the state of you and your dog’s relationship.
Why does my dog not listen?
A breakdown in you and your dog’s relationship has more in common with a failed human relationship that you might think. A comment that I hear often from clients is: “the dog just doesn’t listen anymore”.
Dr Stephen R Covey’s, in his international bestseller, * advises people to, ‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood’. This is as valuable a lesson within dog training, and fostering a positive relationship with our dog, as it is in an interpersonal relationship.
How well do we know our dogs? Do we understand their language? Do we study them with purpose, with the intention of being able to understand the dog as a whole? Our dogs are constantly communicating to us, mostly via nonverbal communication but vital communication non the less. Dogs, like humans want to feel heard and understood, if this is lacking from our side then we can expect our dog to start to disengage from us. This answers the question ‘why is my dog not listening to me?’, because: we are not listening to the dog.
The spark has gone
It is a basic fact that dogs need a reason to do things. That reason can be habit, reward and ‘sadly’ fear. If your dog is doing something, as a result of it being a habit, at some point in time, the action or behaviour will require reinforcing. It is often the case that we undertake a lot of training when we first get our dog, usually as a puppy. Once we feel the dog has learnt what we have been teaching it, the training and reward (reinforcer) stop. If the reinforcer is taken out of the equation or withheld for too long then the behaviour or action becomes inconsistent, to the point that it will stop.
If we are caught in Groundhog Day, doing the same walks, and following the same routine, day in and day out, then we give our dog little reason to pay attention to us. It knows that you will be taking a left after the post box and after the bins he will start pulling like a dog possessed in anticipation of the dog that barks at anyone that passes. There is no spark, no spontaneity, no need to focus on your movements to anticipate direction changes and no requirement for you to work together as a team. The dog is taking itself for a walk and you are a weight, attached to the dog via a lead. A good test to see if this is the case, count how many times your dog looks at you (checks in), in a minute, while out on a walk, either on or off lead. If the answer is zero or rarely then there is a good chance that the spark has gone.
As well having a dog, that acts as though you are invisible, a bad relationship can also lead to further issues. As your dog continues to feel unheard, frustrated, and alone it is often the case that your dog no longer looks to you for help or as a source of relief (often the very opposite). The dog starts to work independently and no longer see’s you as a source of help and or relief when they are under stress.
All work and no play
When was the last time you played with your dog? Play as in real play, not throwing a ball or half-heartedly dangling a tuggy while looking at your phone or thinking of work. If you find your dog is more interested in playing with other dogs than coming to you when called, then the answer might be right in front of you. The next time your dog is playing with other dogs (preferably when all parties are in agreeance and not because your dog has legged it) watch and take notes. When dogs play, they are engaged, there are rituals and it goes backwards and forwards, with each member taking it in turns to be the one hunter or hunted. It is physical and gets the heart going, then slows and then back to heart thumping. The question is – how often does our play with our dogs mirror this type of play? The reason your dog plays like it does is because this is what it enjoys doing and is comfortable with, otherwise, it would not do it. This play builds bonds and creates balanced relationships, all of which we should be looking to build within our relationship. If you are missing real play in your routine, then it is likely that you are stacking the odds against yourself when trying to compete against distractions. Done right, play has zero drawbacks but the potential positives are numerous and game changing.
During a training weekend that I attended delivered by Kamal Fernandez, he spoke about the importance of avoiding labelling our dogs. It is something I hadn't really thought about before but looking back, was very guilty of. Our little Jack Russell terrier, Vinny, named after Vinny Jones, did an excellent job of living up to his name sake. Before meeting anyone new we would announce “he’s a rescue”. This one line was used to set other people’s expectations of his behaviour and to excuse us of any possible blame for his behaviour – which we fully expected would be terrible. On reflection, what the ‘rescue’ label did was subconsciously set our and other people’s expectations of the dog. In doing so, we would take any behaviour exhibited by Vinny and use it to validate our perception that this little dog (who is loved to bits) was hell spent on causing anarchy and would start a riot in an empty room. Now Vinny has never been an angel, he has a short fuse and marches to his own drum, but he is also a working terrier. Because he has at times been reactive to some dogs, in certain settings, does mean that he is dog aggressive? The answer is no. Just because the dog is exhibiting a behaviour, that we do not like, the reality is that he is being true to his ‘breed type’. By having a better understanding of the innate attributes that come with his breed I am better able to reduce how often he feels the need to react, by not placing him in situations that leave him with no other options. As soon as we label a dog, it becomes exceedingly difficult to take that label off and very often the dog will be pigeonholed for the rest of its life.
Training your dog and building a happy and robust relationship with your dog takes time. It is a lot like a bank account. We can make deposits and we can make withdrawals. Deposits can be big and little and can come in many forms such as, negative exchanges with our dog, missing when your dog communicates it is uncomfortable and still proceeding, screaming at the dog when he finally comes back after legging it. Likewise, deposits also come in different sizes and come in a variety of ways from spending time playing through to picking up on your dogs’ cues and helping to reduce its stress.
There are no perfect dog owners, we all get it wrong sometimes and take out a big withdrawal – the important thing is to keep your eye on the balance and look to make as many deposits as possible,