Relationships, with people, or with your dog, are always in motion. The relationship can change minute by minute, day by day, and they will. Whether for good or ill, that is the very nature of how living beings interact. Maintaining a “good” relationship is a permanent state of activity, not a pathway with a destination that ends the journey. If people would recognize this simple truth, the divorce rate of more than 50% of marriages in the United States would plummet precipitously. The marriage relationship requires minute by minute attention and constant maintenance. Many marriages end because, as some will say, “We just grew apart…” Maybe you know this all too common reason personally… I don’t mean to put Dog Training on the same level of importance as your marriage, but the principles involved are intertwined without doubt. Simply stated, most marriages break up because “Balance ” in the relationship is lost, abandoned, or discarded by one or both individuals. I’m not here to be a marriage counselor, but the same mind-set will help you in the daily relationship you have with your four-legged companion. If you happen to glean a way of improving your other human relationships, then I am pleased that I’ve done more than I set out to do with this post.
Power is a much abused and misinterpreted word. It always seems to be given on the negative connotations of control, dominance, or even abuse. In a relationship, both parties have power to improve, or damage the relationship. When both parties realize and acknowledge this, then “balance” can be achieved. Balance is knocked askew when “power” is ignored, denied, or abused.
Many dog-trainers/owners are sent into a roiling, emotional, reaction to the notion that Power is part of training a dog. “My dog receives no negative reinforcement from me! It’s cruel, inhumane, and unenlightened!”
That’s a very human reaction to a concept and arrangement that our dogs accept without questioning. Dogs know and accept that they are part of a hierarchy, an organization of Leader and Followers. It comes to them naturally. They are most comfortable when the Leader leads, and the followers follow. To deny, and attempt to circumvent this natural inclination is to deny the instinctual behavior of the dog. Why popular, scientifically minded dog-trainers think they know better is a great mystery to me. Our dogs are NOT our equals. We must be Leaders to them, or risk allowing behaviors in them that are at best annoying, and at worst, dangerous. We must have authority over our dogs, give them structure and rules, or face creating a dog in mental crises. We must have power over their behavior to achieve balance. Those convinced of the “Purely Positive” methods will recoil at the very idea that we must say “NO!” to our dogs occasionally, or deny them something they want. But balance and the use of power are not to be mistaken with cruel dominance or punishment. And the use of body language, and touch are neither of those things. Your dog understands that you have the power to care for him, feeding him, tell him where to eliminate, and many other daily demands for proper and acceptable behavior. Taught well, you will have a well-behaved dog. Taught insufficiently, you will have a frustrated, four-legged terror.
Observing a mother dog with her litter provides a window into the Truth of a dogs-eye view of Power, structure, and Order. A bitch may at times appear to be very rough and even “mean” to some that are sensitive without being educated. She will refuse to nurse puppies until they are calm and passive, she may give them nip if they stray too far from safety. The truth is, she’s using her Power to teach them lessons that they will need as adults. Dogs don’t understand or particularly care about “human” standards of fair or unfair. But they are structured to understand a balance of powers. Puppies grow up with a sense of proper and improper behavior by this proper use of power from their mother. It is up to you, the Leader, to continue developing and maintain this balance of power. And let there be no question, if we do not provide this balanced, leadership, the dog will take it on himself. Whether or not he wants the job, because it is his canine nature to need it. But problems always develop when a dog is not provided with Leadership. If he finds himself in the superior position, over the human element, discipline and correction (Two more dirty words to the OC crowd, who misinterpret them badly) become nearly impossible. He has learned that the human expects nothing from him, and therefore he gives nothing. The dog, in this elevated and superior state of mind, may even judge some of your actions as improper, and discipline you in the process!! A small growl if you approach his toy, or food. Walking away from you as you plead for him to sit. You are now a subordinate to your dog, and it’s your fault.
Your Power, Your Balance, Your Leadership…these things free your dog of stress that causes inappropriate behavior.
Your dog has a full-time job just observing you. In fact, he works lots of overtime as well. Every minute of every day, he watches your actions, or indeed, your inactions. The instant he detects leadership waning, he will take up the slack quickly. Not because he is looking or wanting to dominate you, but because that role must be fulfilled in his mind. There must be Leadership. Balanced, kind, and strong leadership. Hopefully from you…
As you pursue training of any methodology, or are just living day-to-day with a dog, fulfill his need to take comfort in being lead. Subordination to a leader is not a negative in the canine mind, as so many humans seem to think. Get over any notion that your dog is your equal, as this is not his desire. Accept and develop the traits of a kind, and benevolent leader yourself, always recognizing that this is what makes your dog happiest.