Having a new foster dog I really like reminds me how much easier it is to follow an involved behavior modification program when I like the dog. Of course I have a general love for dogs, but I admit that I don’t necessarily like every dog I meet. I like about 98% of them.
This foster dog is the reason for three weeks of lack of sleep. She has very high activity needs, a nanosecond attention span, and can be relentlessly unruly. No matter. I like her and we’re working on stuff. This morning she woke the house at one a.m. with alarm barking. Besides listening to find out that she was basically okay, I merely marveled at her ability to growl and bark at the same time. Eventually, we all went back to sleep and I was groggily glad to see her a few hours later. When she wakes the house an hour earlier than my usual early rising time, I just think, “Oh well, this gives me more time for myself later since I’ll be taking her out every fifteen minutes for the first two hours.” She sliced her “indestructible” Kong into three round pieces and I said, “Oh, look, you created your own ball toys.” Okay, maybe I don’t merely like this dog; perhaps I’m in love with this dog.
It’s much easier to focus on solutions instead of problems when I’m smitten with a lovely creature. Frustration might be blazing across my emotional landscape if a different dog continued to show these same behaviors. But since it’s Lovely Creature, my perception is colored with rainbow hues of humor and optimism. Sappy, but effective, because endless patience is attained without mental discipline in such a situation. It’s just there, even when I’m too tired to think.
Working with a dog one doesn’t like requires conscious mental discipline and preparation to remain objective, yet sensitive to the dog’s emotional barometer, while also remaining focused on the overall goals. Whew. The work is functionally the same as with other dogs, but it doesn’t start out fun. For either of us.
When clients are frustrated with their dogs, we spend some time talking about the things they do like about the dogs. Funny stories and memories of puppy cuteness are great. When those lighter emotions are flowing and perspectives are opening up, we can work effectively with the dog. Often, seeing how talented their dogs are when given the chance to show off their brilliance will begin to soften the “bad dog” filter. Human and dog start to work together as a team. When that bond of mutual appreciation and communication forms, it’s magical. But if it doesn’t form, we’re doomed. A bonding necessity is simply liking the dog.
What can you do if you need to work with a dog you don’t like? Shift your perspective. If she is your dog and you chose her because you liked her, recall those happy feelings you had in the beginning. Look at the photos you took. Remember how you felt cuddling her and watching her learn new things. List all of her qualities that you liked and especially those you like today. She is the same dog.
If he’s a small dog, look at just how small he is. He’s way down close to the floor compared to you. He can’t even see your face unless he bends his neck way up. How would you feel to be so small when all the humans are so large? Do you think some of his behaviors are due to simply getting scared or nervous being a little guy in a big world? Are you sure he’s being stubborn or could he be trying to cope with being so small? He needs you to look out for him and help him understand more acceptable ways to share your world.
Here’s a trick that has worked for people who get frustrated easily. When you’re interacting with the dog and both of you are feeling good, take a mental snapshot of how she looks. Take an emotional snapshot of how you feel, especially if you’re not particularly visual. Or take a mental snapshot of him while he’s sleeping. He looks like an angel, right? Practice bringing that snapshot to mind before you work with the dog. When working with the dog, pay attention to your body as well as the dog’s. As soon as you feel the first hint of frustration, bring that snapshot into your current experience while breathing slowly and deeply.
Remember that dogs don’t have the same motivations people can have. Review the adjectives you use to describe your dog. Now delete the descriptions dogs don’t actually own such as spiteful, vicious, and . . . bad. Also, most of what you’ve heard described as “dominant behavior” isn’t.
Most importantly, remember that your dog is not his behavior. Behavior is something he does, and always for his own good reasons. Behavior is not who he is.
Ask yourself if you might be scapegoating the dog. A person can have issues with the family member who is closest to the dog, and then direct the hostility they feel toward the family member onto the dog. Dogs can get blamed for preventing activities that people deep down don’t want to do anyway, like have Aunt Sally over for a visit or take a long walk during prime time. Dogs can become repositories of blame for couples who are actually unhappy with each other.
Your dog training time (and your life!) will be much smoother if you can train yourself to keep looking at your dog through the eyes of love, or at least like. As for me, I’m enjoying training my new foster dog. I already like her.