He is loyal. He will walk beside you and protect you. He will comfort you when you need a friend and he will protect you when you need a guardian. He loves to be hugged and will happily lie at your feet for hours. He never begs for food but always takes the treat gently when it it offered. He is clever. He knows what you need almost before you do. He is always there when you want him and never in the way when you don’t.
She is eager to please. She is responsive and never misses a chance to respond to your cues with enthusiasm. She doesn’t require rewards like food and is happy to just work for you because she loves you. She always stops barking when you ask her to and never growls at the people you like but always warns you about strangers. She is smart. She learns everything you want to teach her quickly and never seems to forget. Her ability to understand you is uncanny and she will always do what you want even if you didn’t give her exactly the right cue.
We all know these dogs. We read about them in books and we see them in movies and watch them on our televisions. From Lassie to The Littlest Hobo to Beethoven the St. Bernard, we see that “magical dog” everywhere in our popular western culture. Disney offers us that “magical dog” in both real and cartoon varieties and in a wonderful assortment of shapes and sizes. There is the Taco Bell chihuahua. Spuds MacKenzie the bull terrier from Budweiser commercials. And the corgi, golden retriever, Australian cattle dog, and other breeds that talk to us about Pedigree dog products. They just don’t live in our homes.
Our dogs, our better selves
They are the idealized dogs. But they are not just ideal dogs, they are idealized versions of ourselves. Many of these “magical dogs” talk to us in very human voices with honesty and integrity. They have a child-like wonder and innocence. They are noble and kind and generous of spirit. In many ways, they are a reflection of what we aspire to be. And there are books filled with many tales of these miraculous canine companions.
We hear about how they are smart enough to look out for our safety. They are so loyal that they will stand guard over their master’s graves for years. They are brave enough to protect us from fire or attacking animals. They will run miles to get help should their master be injured. They rescue children. They are so sensitive that they can sense the presence of ghosts in our midst. They seem to have all the wonderful super-powers we would like to have ourselves.
As we gaze at our companion who is eagerly drooling at our feet at the dinner table in hopes that we will give them something, we are forced to wonder, “Where is that noble canine?” Certainly it can’t be this dog who can’t stop peeing on my rose bushes. It’s not this dog who insists on pulling me down the street on walks. And it’s not this dog who thinks it’s great fun to pick my underwear out of the clean laundry and distribute it around the house just before company comes.
We all want to unlock that special dog that we know is inside every dog. If we don’t have that magical dog, it must be something we aren’t doing right. We look around us and we see better dogs all the time and mutter, “Why can’t you be more like that dog?” It might be the dog walking politely on leash or the dog winning all the ribbons at the local agility trial. But somehow our dog just isn’t as good as that “magical dog.” And so we look for the secret. That special thing that makes the “magical dog.”
There are thousands of books, hundreds of television programs, DVDs, training classes, seminars, how-to articles, web sites, experts and techniques. It is the hope that one of these might be the key to that “magical dog” we are hoping to have one day. A dog owner is likely to try anything that promises to bring them closer to that “magical dog.”
It could be a special collar. Electronic collars, prong collars, choke collars, head halters, or harnesses are all available in various configurations and styles. It could be a particular technique such as keeping your dog in a crate unless he is working to encourage more enthusiastic performance. Or it could even be a whole methodology of training dogs such as not allowing them on furniture so that they will not become dominant. What ever it is, when things are not going well with our dogs, dog owners will very frequently look outward for some answer to their problems.
Architects of our own problems
In my experience as a dog trainer, most of the difficulties people have with their dogs are self-inflicted. Often it is a misunderstanding of the nature of dogs, the basics of behavioural science, or both that are to blame. It could be that the owner has misapplied some good training advice or has not done that training completely enough. It could be that the owner has been sporadic in what and when they train their dog. Or it could even be that the owner has bounced from one tool or technique to another too quickly in a search for the shortcut to the “magical dog.”
When a suggested approach to solving an issue with their dog fails, an owner will likely toss it aside and look for another tool to try and fix things. But what if it isn’t the tool that is the problem? Perhaps we should consider that even the finest guitar will sound awful in the hands of a beginner. Perhaps the solution to dealing with our dog issues isn’t finding the right tool or the right technique but learning and practicing our own skills as trainers.
Since moving to positive training and behavioural science over 10 years ago, my wife and I have raised 3 different dogs from puppyhood to adulthood. Each dog has been easier to manage than the last and has required less work on a daily basis. We attribute much of this increasing success not to using any particular techniques or tools but to making fewer of the mistakes that caused us such difficulties with our dogs in the past. It isn’t so much that we do the right things, it’s more that we stopped doing the wrong things.
Magic is in the eye of the beholder
Singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow suggests in one of her songs that “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” To me that’s the key to finding that “magical dog” in the bright and shining eyes looking back at us. The danger in comparing my dogs to Lassie or Benji or any of a hundred fictional dogs is that I’m comparing them to an ideal that just can’t be true. Dogs just can’t be a better version of ourselves. They aren’t human. They don’t have our intellectual or emotional makeup. They are dogs. They have a magic that is uniquely their own.
Almost nine years ago we brought our girl Tiramisu home and I began to train her as a puppy in a new way. I did a lot of things differently than I ever had before. And if you had asked me what she would be like at this point in her life, I wouldn’t have been able to describe even a small fraction of the miracle that she is today. She is bright and attentive, she is loyal and trusting, she is funny and independent. I didn’t set out to make her all of those things. It is just what she has become.
We have worked together every single day of her life. I have worked hard to keep challenging her abilities. It has been a challenge for me to continue to be consistent with her. We have struggled through miscommunications and misunderstandings. But there has always been love and support and teaching and rewards. There have not been expectations. No quest for the “magical dog.”
Instead, I have the dog that Tiramisu has become as a result of our life and work together. It doesn’t matter which tools or techniques you bring to your relationship with your dog. The secret to finding that “magical dog” does not come from choosing the right exercises or from any particular training style. It comes from being there every day and being honest and true to your dog. Teach them and encourage them. They want to do the right thing. And no magic bullet or secret technique can replace the time and love you share in working with your dog.
Until next time, have fun with your dog.
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available -
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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