Friday, October 1, 2010

Iron Lady Dog Training

Dog training can be awfully competitive for the humans. It appears that there is the expectation that you all are supposed to get us dogs to sit, come, roll over, wave, and generally respond to your ever whim on command. I guess that's why it's called obedience school.

The human and I had a rather long discussion about this yesterday while walking into the office. He's worried about my upcoming evaluation to become a registered therapy dog for the Delta Society. Part of that evaluation is the neutral dog test: on a lead, I'm expected to walk past a neutral dog without barking, playing, or otherwise tugging on my lead. I'm not so good at this. I like other dogs, you see. As much as I enjoy my companionship with humans, it's nice to hang out and play with my fellow canines.

The human was feeling annoyed with me and worried. On the way into the office we passed by several dogs. I wanted to play with each and every one of them. The human did a lot of comparisons. They weren't tugging on their leads trying to come play with me like I was. He thought those other humans were better. Better dog trainers, better people.

When the human gets like this I like to call it his Iron Lady moment. What follows is a whole lot of sit, stay, come, leave it, etceteras. I don't mind it too much: he generally pets me a lot when he gets like this and I get some major rewards. Food, attention, pets, and good girls. It feels good and does increase the likelihood that I will listen to him.

Where the Iron Lady goes wrong is his expectation that I'm always going to to listen to him. It's just not that simple. While I am a dog and very invested in pleasing him, I also occasionally have some ideas of what I might like to do. I might like to go eat a squirrel, for example. Sometimes the cute little fuzzy dog off into the distance might alert me to something that smells good and I'd like to go check it out. During these occasions I'm less likely to be "obedient" and listen to my human. Sure it's annoying. Sure, sometimes it's even dangerous. In the end, however, it's part of being with a dog. I'm not always going to listen--and it's not a failure of the human. It's simply part of what it is like to be in a relationship with another creature.

The human and I don't often consider the work we do together obedience training. Rather, we consider it relationship building. When he's got his act together and he's not being the Iron Lady he is much more invested in creating experiences that build our relationship together. The more we are connected, the more I'm going to want to pay attention to him and the more I'm going to be invested in filling his requests. Similarly, in a  strong relationship the human is going to know that sometimes the draw of a squirrel or a goose it powerful and I'm going to want to investigate. When we have a strong relationship we have one in which there is a willingness to take turns, to compromise, and to have mutual experiences.

Mind you none of this is to suggest that the human doesn't need to protect me. Sometimes he needs to say no to my desires. There might be things that I don't understand (like hurry up, we have a patient that is going to be waiting). There are things that I might not know are dangerous (like cars, which I am totally oblivious too). A good relationship means that both creatures are kept safe. The human does his part--he gives me limits (like I'm not allowed to chase geese across Memorial Drive where cars are zooming by at 50 miles per hour). I keep him safe by alerting him to unsafe situations that he might not able to smell.

It's a relationship--not a one sided dominance/submission situation.

The sadness of how wrong this can all go was highlighted to us this morning. I was playing with my friend Meadow, a gorgeous Sheppard mix. The humans were talking about a neighborhood dog. Meadow's human had seen a car park on the street and someone disappear into the back seat. It looked like the person in the back seat was punching someone. The woman ran out to investigate and sadly found that there indeed was a young man punching someone: he was punching his dog. Why did this man punch his pit bull? "He runs away from me and chases the cat."

This is the sort of thing that happens when we start to think that the relationship between dog and human is one of dominance and submission. Humans become angry when we dogs don't always listen--when we don't always respond.

It's about the relationship. Wanting to please one another, wanting to keep each other safe, having the awareness that two creatures often have different needs, and having the ability to find ways to negotiate those needs in a safe, sensible way.

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