Being Relevant With Your Dog

Relevance.

It's what we all desire in any relationship, being relevant to each other in everyday life. Who doesn’t want their canine companion looking to them for guidance in regular, real world situations and not just because they have a piece of cheese or steak in their hand? Many of us fail to realize how easy this is to accomplish.

We’re talking about coming when called, no matter what, even if they’re mid-chase, playing, eating etc. We’re talking about looking to you to see how to act in new situations. Is it time to relax and be chill, or is it time to run around and be nutty? Is it time to play rough or gentle?  If it's okay to roam free, is it cool to do so at full speed or calmly?

Being relevant means your dog looking to you to see what time it is.  Asking respectfully for permission or making choices on their own while respectfully following your lead if you choose to disagree.  There is a time and place for everything, and you can be the dog’s clock. You want him to understand that he can’t constantly be crazy or constantly playing, while also reinforcing the idea that you’re there to help him know what time it is and how to behave.

Most people can't fathom that this relationship can be achieved between their dog and themselves; but it's easier than one might think.

Teaching dogs that their choices matter is key. You need to ensure that what they do or don't get depends entirely on their actions.  It usually means controlling access to resources and rewards based on their choices. That's the big one right there!  Stop allowing your dog to regularly do as he pleases when he pleases. Get him to realize that there are rules, and listening to you benefits him. This way he’ll learn that he ultimately controls whether or not he gets rewarded, while also shifting his focus onto you.  This is operant conditioning 101.  Few are aware that operant conditioning actually means “learning by consequences”.  Those consequences might be extremely beneficial or potentially detrimental, very rewarding or even unpleasant.   

When dogs realize that what they do matters, it is, simply put...a game changer!

Becoming Relevant and Gaining Your Dog’s Respect

When you can trust your dog to make good choices on and off leash, while also following any direction you provide, the hard work has paid off. But in order to reach that point, some fundamental lessons need to be in place. Before allowing any amount of freedom, we make sure the dog fully understands the following:

  1. Responding to pressure communication (leash, spatial, remote etc). He learns to move towards and/or away from the pressure to turn it off, and that the tools provide guidance, so he follows them without protest.

  2. How to relax and hold a place (both physically and mentally) without getting up every time something new happens around him.

  3. Understanding the verbal markers, “Yes,” “Good,” and “Nope” and how to respond to them no matter the surroundings.

  4. Basic commands such as sit, down, and recall that are useful in all situations.

  5. How to take parental/coach like direction both when you want to along with when you might want to choose otherwise.

  6. Understanding that their choices matter and affect what they get and don’t get in life.  Another way to look at this is that good and bad consequences are directly related to their behavior and the choices that they make.

All of the above deal with impulse control, but numbers five and six are huge. Five is the ultimate test of all other steps, where you’ve built a desire within him to work for you.  Without number six you can easily fall victim of becoming a handler that gets compliance purely out of force, or a handler that simply gets put on the backburner when you need your dog to listen to you the most.  Will your dog listen to you sometimes or every time? It’s exciting when you see the enthusiasm you’ve created, but there will always be a time when you are less rewarding than something else. That is when you will discover whether the dog respects you more, or whether the other attraction (a bird, other dog, person, etc.) has more relevance.

This process cannot be rushed. Freedom is the final reward. Freedom to chase squirrels, to run through the park playing with other dogs, to actually go places with you. But it can only be achieved once the dog is making good choices on his own. Why leave it up to chance when you can control those decisions?

Think about raising children. The ultimate goal is to mold them into adults who can succeed no matter the circumstances, but they start out as babies who lack decision making skills. As they grow and learn from their parents, teachers, neighbors, relatives, and others, they can have more control over their lives. Dogs are the same. But it’s unlikely they’re getting additional advice from anyone else; their success depends entirely on you. Without your input, they will remain in those early stages.

If you put yourself in a position of respect and relevance, the possibilities for what you can achieve with your dog are endless. So make sure you have the foundation in place and you can build on it throughout their entire lives.

Links to Additional Information:

Dog Behavior Question Tuesday Episode 32/33: Blake Explaining Some of the Initial Steps to Have in Place(2:34)

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