Its hard to know you have moved along in your thinking, learning and relationships with your animals (or people actually) until something hits you hard in the face or heart and makes you react, even if the reaction is internal and emotional. This has happened to me recently.
For the last 18 months I have been reading, researching, asking questions, listening to replies, sifting through the answers which fitted and made sense, trying out some, discarding some and adopting others, in an effort to learn about Fear Reactivity (leash reactivity) for Genghis my Tibetan Terrier. I have had some amazing support and advice and some I now realise was emotionally dangerous for my guy or just plain unhelpful, rude or bullying.
At a recent event I was approached and given unsolicited advice on what I should do to “stop him disrespecting you and behaving badly.” Apparently I “needed to MAKE him submit to others”. Actually that’s the very last thing he should be being MADE to do. His emotional safety was already stretched, but still within safe limits. He was looking to me for his choices and begging me to stay calm and keep him calm too.
And that was the moment, my breakthrough, for the first time I really heard him, heard his pleas, his trust, his respect and love for me, through a glance up and eye contact, returned with a smile, a pat and his chicken delivery, our agreed sign his choice was correct. All this as I was dealing with the rudeness of the human bullying me into following the advice which I was assured from another person was good and the results of the persons dogs were testament to the skills and knowledge expressed and being demanded of me. I was in mental turmoil, untrained as a trainer, I still knew this not to be the case, all my research and support told me otherwise. So I hadn’t registered his communication, it just occurred.
As we moved about the event I was complimented on his behaviour again and again, amongst so many dogs he was calm and happy. I realised that actually the compliments were warranted, he WAS so much calmer than before and so much more in tune with what choices he should make, checking in regularly and us agreeing together intuitively what we would do next, who we would avoid or choose to meet.
I have thought about this event and my moment of enlightenment and how my understanding of animal communication, “training” (how I hate that word, but I am struggling to find and alternative), performance of behaviours requested by a human to a cue, and the huge diversity of expectation, understanding and knowledge, there is amongst animal owners (especially dog lovers) at every level of ownership, from dogs as family members, to pet owners (dogs have their place and are not included in the everyday family activity), to working dogs, to breeders or show dogs. Of course none of these are mutually exclusive categories, I do not suggest they are, but it is an example of the difference in perception that we have of our relationship with the dogs within our lives.
I have watched other relationships between animals and their people and my personal observation is this. I realise that not everyone has experienced the communication I have with my two dogs. I think back and realise I probably “heard” my other dogs too, but I was not in a spiritual, or cognitively emotionally literate place to recognise that was what was happening. Some people have dogs , believe they are part of their family/pack but actually show them otherwise by their lack of communication and bonding. They are kind and loving and care for them well, but they do not understand the emotional and spiritual needs of each particular animal. The people I watched “training” or “asking for performance to a cue” formally in the event activity or as part of their movement around the event, did not seem to communicate at all. The dogs carried out a learned task, to a verbal or visual cue achieved through many many repetitions, in tiny steps no doubt, in many many sessions, to perfect the result, whether that is a show ring trot and stand, or a trick to entertain, or a recall or a sit/stay. What I could not see in my observations were any sign of a communication, innate, intuitive recognition of what each party was expecting and achieving, the kind you see so often across a huge field with Collies herding, or between a person with great horsemanship and their horse.
So my reflection outcome is this. My work and play and downtime with my dogs will now be shared, we will decide together, I can guide and suggest and encourage, using the well researched psychological tools that are so successful in getting the dog to do what is expected, but we will communicate about it, decide if its working for us all, not just me. We will be faster to ditch the stuff that is not good for our learning and adopt the stuff that we enjoy, love and helps us bond more deeply. For any one reading, please listen hard to your dog. They all communicate, its a two way thing, hear what they say and respect it. if they have to resort to howling, whining or barking or jumping up to tell you what they feel or want or they get the cue wrong or ignore you, that is because you haven’t listened, not because they haven’t learned.
PS … Since this experience He has hardly left my side, glancing up to say HI or to let me know the time ( tea time, walk time). He responds faster to the cues for behaviour expected and looks straight at me to be sure he has got it right, I think he as is surprised to hear me as I am to hear him.