I routinely fall in love with the strangers who approach me (as Sarah, the dog trainer) unexpectedly and without hesitation regardless of the situation, putting such great value and hope in my words that they’re blind to the company at my side or the cocktail in my hand. I see such people everywhere – in the movie line, at the coffee shop and it never ceases to amaze me how they cling to my presence like a life raft and hang on my every word. Some ask for advice on choosing a dog and others for a quick puppy tip, while some of the questions go much deeper. A recent conversation went something like this:
“Hi Sarah, can I ask you a quick question?” Before I’ve had a chance to answer, they divulge their wonderings:
“My dog has started to bark and snap at people when we’re walking in town, and I just don’t get it. Rexy (a Cairn Terrier mix) pulls toward people with his tail wagging, all alert and happy, and when they reach out their hand to pet him he lunges and snaps. I yell at him to stop, but it’s getting worse. He keeps going up with his tail all a-flutter – so that means he’s happy, right? – but then he snaps at them and that’s bad, right?”
The longest diatribe I’ve experienced went on for five minutes, but, as I’ve said, I have great empathy for people who feel so frantically desperate and equal gratitude that I’ve been granted the knowledge to help. I strive for an answer that will reveal some pearl of wisdom, a gem of truth to help them both empathize with their pets and see their own reactions in a new light. The first step in good training involves compassion, which in my situation extends to both the dogs and the people who love them.
In the case of happy-dog-snapping-at-stranger, I recall saying something like, “I’ve seen you out with Rexy, and I agree he’s very alert—but I see it as a little hyper-alert, like he’s trying to keep track of everything going on around him and it’s a little overstimulating. When dogs are held securely on a leash, they often feel more trapped than ‘happy’ as it contorts their posture in unnatural ways. As dogs are nearsighted, they approach unfamiliar people and objects to ‘scent’ them. When the person leans in for a face-to-face greeting, Rexy is translating this as confrontation, and this is why he snaps.”
My answer generally gets a moment’s pause, at which point I scribble my number on a napkin or hand the questioner a business card. For a full-fledged solution to dog problems I must meet the dog face-to-face.
There are other standard pearls I toss out, knowledge that is sadly not mainstream in the dog-training profession, where dominance tactics still hold too much sway. I leave you with my top three:
Children in Fur Clothing – Science has finally caught up with my belief, proving beyond doubt that dogs have the mental equivalency of a 3-year-old child. I laugh to think my toddler has more in common with dogs than he does with me. Regardless, it’s a wonderful launching point to begin training dogs and people. My clients are routinely amazed at just how intelligent their dogs are and how with little effort they can teach their dogs to do just about anything. If you think of dog training as teaching another kind of language and recognize that dogs, like kids, love attention, then you’ll appreciate just how powerful positive reinforcement can be.
Hip–to-Head Approach – Grasp this: Humans approach face-to-face. Dogs approach head-to-tail. People recognize each other through sight; dog’s through scent. Approaching a dog quickly head-on is as disrespectful as a dog jamming its nose into your crotch. You say – “But it’s a sign of affection.” And I say, “Likewise your dog is just feeling the love as he inhales your scent. But if you want to live in harmony, you’ll need to meet in the middle. The best way to interact with your dog is side-to-side. Next time you’re attaching a leash, removing a tick or administering medication kneel or sit next to your dog, reward him with treats and move calmly. Greeting a dog you don’t know? Stand sideways or with your back facing their head, not in front.”
Don’t Dominate, Communicate – This phrase is my new slogan. Although some training and behavior modification models have taken giant steps forward in the scientific world, many dog trainers and training franchises still extol dominance theories. They claim that since dogs are related to wolves, you must act like a pack leader. These trainers are misinformed.
Natural wolf packs are organized by a set of parents, who direct their cubs. Wolves have about as much in common as dog we do with apes. Dominance is situational, not universal. I dominate my dog when I hold the food bowl over his head as I have the resource he wants, but when we hike, his nose is superior and when chasing a deer, I don’t even try to keep up. In those instances his natural ability both dominants and dwarfs mine.
Good dog-training is about good communication. I encourage my clients to think of their dogs like children in fur clothing and parent them as you would a toddler, with structure, love and patience. Sometimes, you’ve got to let them win a game. In a word, benevolence. It makes the world go ’round.