As I looked into his fixed, steely eyes, I could hardly believe this was the dog we had raised from a puppy. He stood over the food bowl we had just put down and he wanted my wife and I gone from his area. That much was clear. How we had gotten to this point is a story for another day, but it was one of those defining moments. The dog we raised was threatening us.
My wife and I were forced to consider that our nearly 20 years of dog ownership and training had failed utterly, and that we might have to return this dog to his breeder and hope he could be placed in a home better capable of managing him. In that moment it would have been easy to blame the dog or the breeding or even the breeder for bringing an aggressive dog into the world. It would have been easy to minimize our role in creating a situation that was clearly not working for the dog or us. It would have been easy if we were not the ones who had created this.
A few months before this incident, my wife had started taking our dog to agility classes in hopes that having something to do together would improve things. It was a phone call to one of the agility instructors that would forever change our lives and the lives of our dogs.
After patiently listening to our dilemma, this trainer suggested that we pick up a book called Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. Already at our wits’ end, it seemed worth a try. We were ready to phone the breeder and surrender the dog if we couldn’t find a solution. One more book, one more viewpoint – maybe it could help. It turned out that Culture Clash was the best single source of information on dogs we had ever come across.
Opening that book opened a whole new world to us. Much of what we knew about dogs and dog training had been written decades before or passed on to us from obedience instructors who likely worked from the same sources.
What we thought we knew was that dogs needed to be controlled; that their behaviour left unchecked would turn our lives into chaos. Dogs needed to be shown who was boss – who was “alpha” in the household – and that they were to obey us or face the consequences.
Culture Clash showed us a very different picture of dogs with well-defined needs and consistent behaviour patterns. Trainers could work with what dogs TRULY were and achieve great results without treating them like small furry humans.
So stark was the contrast with what we thought we knew about dogs, so clear and logical was its presentation, that it shocked us into taking a fresh look at what dogs were and what they might be capable of, if given the chance.
The information in Culture Clash led us to other books, including Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog and Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash. It was Karen Pryor’s book in particular that led us to a new understanding of what working with dogs could be.
Don’t Shoot the Dog described a style of training that involved rewarding the dog for desired behaviours, a marked contrast from what we had been doing – trying to control unwanted behaviours by punishing our dogs.
It was a way of working with dogs that set the dog up to be successful and making us proactive partners in helping our dogs do the right thing, instead of just reacting every time they surprised us by doing something we didn’t want.
These new books, and others we have discovered along the way, led us into all of the great information that science and researchers have discovered about dogs and dog behaviour.
It seems strange in retrospect that we had simply accepted information that was decades out of date, passed on to us from old books and dog trainers. It just never occurred to us to find out more about the animals we lived and worked so closely with. What we discovered was a whole world of information about dogs, information that has been researched and compiled in the past 15 years.
And it changed us. Learning what science has discovered about dogs instead of believing the hearsay of others changed not just the way we went about training our dogs. It changed what we understood dogs to be. It changed what we always thought of as the limitations of our dogs’ intelligence. Discovering positive reinforcement and clicker training changed our philosophy of living and working with our dogs. It was something so simple.
What if we spent our time trying to catch our dogs doing something RIGHT instead of trying to catch them doing something wrong? What if we tried to teach our dogs the things we wanted them to know rather than telling them all the things we didn’t want them to do?
What if we saw ourselves as educators trying to teach our dogs, rather than wardens trying to keep our unruly charges from causing mayhem? What if the challenge was to see how much we could teach our dogs to do, and not to make sure our dog DOESN’T do things? What would happen? How far could this take you?
Well, my beautiful younger dog, Tiramisu, is teaching me all about that. You see, we started her out with clicker training and positive reinforcement from 11 weeks old. As all of these new books were telling us, we started her training right away and her ability to learn was nothing short of astounding.
She’s turning six years old this month. She knows nearly 50 distinct behaviours on cue, she’s earned over 30 titles in the sport of dog agility, and she is the easiest dog we’ve ever had to manage in our lives. I wish I could tell you what those limitations of dog intelligence are, but as yet we haven’t found them. I’m happy to report that I’m still learning about dogs and they never fail to surprise and delight me.
And that snarling dog across the kitchen? He turns 10 this year. He’s an agility trial champion. He’s sleeping happily on his couch right now and he’s happy to move if I ask him. Our relationship is much better — no more growling at dinnertime.
The road back from a damaged relationship created by force and intimidation training was relatively short once we knew what to do. Our journey to a new way of living with our animals has been full of fun surprises and new challenges that we have overcome as partners with our dogs, instead of adversaries.
That journey continues for us and I look forward to sharing what we discover with all of you.
For more tips on how to communicate with your dog, please read Eric Brad’s Life As A Human article “Three Reasons Why Your Dog Isn’t Responding“.
All photos courtesy of Petra Wingate © 2009