Dog owners always ask me “how do I get a well trained dog?” or “how do I get my dog to listen to me?”
Sometimes I wonder to myself, “Are dog owners asking the right question(s)?” I understand what my clients are asking me and why they are asking me these questions. However, one of the first questions that should really be asked is “how do I develop a relationship with my dog?”
The reason this is an important question to me, is because once you can build a relationship with your dog, the rest will generally follow. Developing a relationship and a connection is so important for overall success in my opinion. The same is true with people isn’t it? The deeper connections and relationships you develop in your life generally hold more meaning and hold more value. In many respects they impact your life much more.
The same is true for our dogs! The reason we love dogs so much is because of the connection we as human-beings feel we have with them. For example, when we come home from work our dogs run to greet us happily! Our dogs look to cuddle up on the couch with us (assuming you allow him or her to lol). When we grab their leash to go for a walk, they get excited. What about when you are feeling down in the dumps? Many of us may look for our dogs to seek some comfort. And many dogs will react in some way towards our emotions.
Journey & I on a hike in Victor, NY (Finger Lakes Region)
Dogs are Emotional Creatures & Sentient Beings
We have to remember that dogs are emotional creatures and sentient beings. It is ultimately why we love them so much. To me, being an emotional creature means that they feel emotion such as happiness and sadness. And to be a sentient being, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means to “be responsive to or conscious of sense of impressions” or to be “aware”. And again, to reiterate what I have already said, this is generally why people love dogs! We love their happiness, we love that they bring us happiness and we love that they sense when we are sad when we need comfort.
The reason I am saying all this is because we need to take the time to build a relationship and create a deeper connection with our dogs. If we know they are emotional creatures and we know that they are sentient beings, then why don’t we create a deeper connection and relationship with them? This is ultimately how you can have a “well trained dog” or how you can “get a dog to listen to you”.
According to the dictionary, a relationship is “the state of being related or interrelated”, “the relationship between two variables”, “kinship”, and “a passionate attachment”.
Like most dog trainers, I am always told by clients “my dog loves you”, “my dog is obsessed with you”, “you are my dogs favorite person, do you want to move in with us” or “why does he listen to you and not us”. The relationships and connections we as professionals make in a short period of time greatly impacts many of the dogs we work with. I find this generally occurs because we as training and behavior professionals have the tools, the knowledge and the understanding of dogs, their emotions and the things they as an individual being need.
Developing a Connection & Relationship
If as a professional, I can develop a connection and a relationship with a dog relatively quickly, then so can a dog owner, as long as you are willing to learn, make some changes and look at things a little differently. So, instead of asking the question “how do I get my dog to listen to me” or “how do I get a well trained dog”, you need to first change your mindset and ask “how can I develop a connection and relationship with my dog?”. Doing so, will allow you to start looking at your relationship with your dog at a deeper level and it will allow you to appreciate who your dog really is as an individual.
Relationship building can come in many forms. For me, relationship building generally comes in the form of play! I want to have a relationship where there is shared joy and happiness between both me and my dog. (And just as a side note here, I am not saying we cannot have rules and boundaries with our dogs. In fact, I think setting clear rules and boundaries is very important in building a relationship and connection. But that is a conversation for another time!)
Hiking our secret spot!
Relationship Building v. Training
When I first started training dogs, I was always just going in wanting to train “skills”. As I have grown and developed as a trainer and behavior professional, I have come to realize that relationship building is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT in the beginning. For my own personal dogs, I don’t even really care so much about training in the beginning. Creating joy and a relationship is much more important to me. For example, with my currently puppy Quest, I found it more important to take her off leash hiking with me, playing with her on those hikes and having fun.
My dog Journey hated training in the beginning as a puppy. There were a few factors for this, but one of the main factors was that I was just wanting him to learn and do these specific skills. It was hard for me to accept that my puppy didn’t like training. But taking a step back, the reality is that dog training is very arbitrary, especially in the beginning stages. “Sit”, “lie down”, “watch me”, “go to your place”…what does it all really mean to the dog? It is not like our dogs come preprogrammed to know what all of it means, we need to teach them. (And as a side note, we look at training as this “drill” session, when we should be looking at it as a relationship building experience.)
Finding Joy Together
As soon as I stopped training sessions and started implementing more relationship building sessions and experiences, my connection and relationship with Journey blossomed! The way I did this was through:
- hiking and playing on hikes
- playing more at home
- walking around our neighborhood and going on little adventure outings
- and eventually sheep herding
All of these activities were things that we both enjoyed doing together. Finding activities and experiences that your dog actually enjoys is the first step in building a connection and a relationship. Once this is developed, you open so many more doors for you and your dog. This is ultimately how you can achieve success with having a well trained dog who happens to listen to you!
I also want to just briefly say that it is important to keep in mind that each dog experiences things differently. Just because your last dog enjoyed hiking, doesn’t mean you current dog enjoys it. Or just because your second dog in your house enjoys going on outings around town, does not mean your other dog will enjoy an outing around town. Think of it like with children. Each of them may have a preference on what they like. One might enjoy playing sports, while the other might enjoy playing an instrument. And the one who likes playing sports might actually find playing an instrument boring or aversive. So remember, each dog is an individual.
It might take some digging and some exploring, but once you can figure out what your dog truly enjoys and you can capitalize on that, you will start to develop a deep connection and relationship together.
If you want to learn more about some of the ways I integrate play into my training to create a connection and relationship, check out my blog on Toy Rewards & Play. In this blog I explain how I use toys as rewards, how it helps develop a relationship with my dogs and how I using them to teach skills like coming when called. PLUS, there are a few videos at the bottom of that blog with me and my dog.