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From Pitfalls to Trust: Navigating the Dog-Human Relationship

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Dog-Human Relationship

Building the Human-Dog Relationship

Building trust with your dog is the cornerstone of a lasting and fruitful relationship. Mistakes, even made with the best of intentions, can erode this trust. Often, these errors stem not from malice, but from a simple lack of understanding. Education is key. In a recent interview, Robert Cabral, a renowned dog trainer and friend of mine, discusses the significance of the human-dog relationship. He notes that a dog, when it implicitly trusts its owner, becomes more receptive to training and commands. This trust is a two-way street. Dogs read our body language, respond to our emotions, and require consistency. Recognizing common missteps and learning how to avert them can pave the way for a more harmonious bond.

Emotional Reactions: Understanding Their Impact

It's a natural tendency for humans to reflect their emotions outwardly. However, our canine friends may interpret these emotions differently. Reacting to frustration or anger by yelling is a common human instinct. Dogs too express frustration, often through barking. But here's the crux: yelling can deeply damage the trust between you and your dog. It introduces an element of fear, making you seem unpredictable. Over time, this unpredictable environment can erode their confidence, leading them to be skittish or anxious around you. Remember, dogs, much like humans, thrive in consistent, predictable environments. So, when frustration bubbles up, step away. Allow both yourself and your dog some breathing room, ensuring interactions always occur in a calm state.

Training: Setting the Right Expectations

Beyond the emotional reactions, our approach to training plays a pivotal role in trust-building. Training sessions serve as pivotal moments of bonding and learning between you and your dog. However, they can sometimes be marred by the pitfalls of high expectations or stringent goals. It's a common scenario: a handler sets a precise goal or harbors a specific expectation about their dog's performance. When these aren't met, disappointment can quickly turn to frustration. But remember, dogs are sensitive to our emotions. They can pick up on these feelings, which might deter them from being receptive in future sessions. So, when you sense this emotional shift, it's not a sign of defeat. Instead, view it as an opportunity to take a break, recalibrate, and approach training with renewed positivity.

Outdated Techniques: The Alpha Roll

Methods of training evolve over time, and some old techniques no longer serve the best interest of our four-legged friends. The Alpha roll, once championed by certain TV dog trainers, involves forcing a dog onto their side to assert dominance. Its decline in popularity doesn't deter everyone, and some handlers still adopt this outdated approach. If you find yourself inclined towards this technique, it's a pressing sign to re-evaluate your methods. Not only does the Alpha roll fall short in addressing undesirable behaviors, but it also sows the seeds of mistrust. Instead of striving for dominance, it's beneficial to adopt a partnership stance with your dog, ensuring mutual respect and trust. This approach fosters a bond where your dog willingly looks to you for direction and assurance.

Ownership and Possession: Respecting Boundaries

Ownership and possession are concepts not just limited to humans. Dogs, too, can develop a sense of ownership, which we must handle with care. We should also avoid forcibly taking things away from our dogs. Such a mistake often stems from an ill-informed desire to assert dominance, which can lead to resource guarding issues. If necessary, trade an object with your dog, teach them the 'out' command, and then divert their attention. Continually seizing things from a dog can compromise their sense of security. To clarify, it's permissible to take items from our dogs, but by asking them to 'drop' the item or 'leave it' before we retrieve it. This involves training the dog to comprehend our desires and expectations, while teaching them ways to fulfill their own wishes. The essence is to avoid forceful removal. Some individuals might yank items from a puppy's mouth if they pick up undesirable objects. While this won't invariably lead to resource guarding, my preferred method involves holding the puppy vertically, head down. I achieve this by cradling one arm around the puppy's chest and the other around their abdomen, ensuring ample support. This almost always induces them to release the item. Once the object is out, I set the puppy down and remove the object if necessary. This strategy secures the object without forcibly extracting it from the dog's mouth. A demonstration is available in this video.

Addressing Fears: The Importance of Adaptation

As with any individual, dogs have their own fears and anxieties. Understanding them is the first step in helping them overcome. If your dog displays signs of distress or fear in social settings, pushing them isn't the answer. Gradually introduce them to these situations, giving abundant positive reinforcement. This approach is known as counterconditioning and desensitization. It's one of the most effective strategies for addressing fear-based behaviors. In essence, we expose the dog to the stimulus at a level they can perceive, but it's not overwhelming enough to trigger fear. Typically, this involves minimizing the sound or distancing the stimulus. We then associate this exposure with something the dog enjoys, such as obedience training, fetch, tug, or any other favored activity. Gradually, we intensify the stimulus based on the dog's comfort level. If we advance too swiftly, it's not a problem; we simply revert a few steps, ensuring the stimulus remains manageable. Given enough time, the dog will form a positive connection, associating the stimulus with enjoyable activities.

Communication: The Power of Clarity

Communication is central to any relationship. And when communicating with our dogs, clarity is the name of the game. Avoid inconsistent commands: Using different words or commands for the same action can confuse your dog and delay their learning. Consistency is key in training. While this may seem straightforward, it's a frequent mistake. It's not just about changing words or commands but also about the intonation and emphasis we put on these commands. Remember, dogs don’t have dictionaries to reference what we say. They discern the meaning of our words by their sound and the actions they predict. Thus, we should be as consistent as possible when communicating with our dogs. Avoid varying the rise and inflection of your voice when giving commands. For instance, each time you say “down,” make sure it sounds the same. The more consistent you are, the quicker your dog will understand and respond appropriately.

This leads to another prevalent error, which, although not harmful, can delay a dog's learning. I mention this regularly in my YouTube videos: overshadowing, also known as pairing. It happens when two cues are given simultaneously. If you say "down" while pointing to the ground, your dog may only register the gesture, ignoring the verbal command. Similarly, if we mark a behavior with "yes" while presenting a treat at the same moment, the dog might just focus on the treat and overlook the marker. To avoid this, remember that our words should predict an action. In other words, the command must precede the expected behavior. I often use the analogy of "questions and answers." Consider commands as questions to your dog. After posing a question, such as "down," provide the answer by guiding them into the position. Just as we can't simultaneously ask and answer a question verbally, we shouldn't do so with our dogs. This is challenging, so consider filming your training sessions to review and ensure you aren't pairing commands.

Walking in Sync: Addressing Leash Pulling

Lastly, never let your dog pull during walks: Ensure your dog doesn't pull on the leash to dictate pace or direction while walking. If pulling starts, stop immediately and only proceed when your dog calms down and the leash slackens. This approach ingrains the idea that pulling doesn't get them anywhere. While we want to teach the dog the finer aspects of loose-leash walking in upcoming training sessions, adhering to this principle early on sets a solid foundation. If you want to allow your dog some freedom, consider a harness. I often begin with a new dog in training using both a harness and a flat collar, each with a leash. This permits the dog to explore their surroundings without stringent expectations. The additional leash prevents unwanted behaviors, like barking at other dogs or scavenging. Once the dog has advanced in their training, mastering markers, luring, leash guidance, and at least one 'stay' command, that's when I introduce loose-leash walking. With adequate training, we can minimize errors and know exactly what to expect based on the dog's current training level.

Conclusion: The Journey of Trust

Guiding a dog through life is an art and a responsibility. Each interaction, each command, and each shared experience are brushstrokes on the canvas of trust. By recognizing the pitfalls and staying the course of understanding, we create a masterpiece of a relationship—one that stands as a beacon of unwavering trust, mutual respect, and enduring loyalty.

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Great insight as to how relational building is key! For those of us working at stay & trains with limited time working with so many dogs, is there a "fast-track" method you can suggest? Especially, for those dogs who are extremely fearful when they arrive?


Sylvia McNeill
Sylvia McNeill
Sep 01, 2023

This article resonates with me. As my consistency and clarity have improved under your guidance and the abundance of information you share, the bond between Rusty and I has strengthened. That, in and of itself, is the best reward for all the effort that goes into training.

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