I was asked a question the other day which made me think, the question was ‘ How do I build a relationship with my dog ?’ Well you just….. um.
When you think about it, teaching someone how to get a good relationship with their dog is not as straight forward as it first appears. Ok. Let’s see if I can break it down –

From the dogs point of view what does the relationship consist of?

After giving this a bit of thought I have come up with these three main points;

  • Stimulation
  • Trust
  • Respect

The first two are easy to quantify,
Stimulation - Excitement, Playing, tugging etc. Almost anything that invokes the dogs play/prey drive that comes from you – Self rewarding i.e. chasing rabbits etc. doesn’t apply.
Trust - I don’t think I need to quantify this but I include health care in this category.
The last is not so easy. How do we instil respect into a dog? It’s not as though the dog can learn to respect our abilities, let’s face it in 90% of what we ask a dog to do they can outperform us by a huge margin. In my experience the word respect in dog training circles usually means force, i.e. the dog has to do it – or else!
Now, me being traditional, come ‘born again’ clicker trainer I try to use positive methods wherever possible. This helps me instil the stimulation and trust part of the relationship but how the hell have I managed to teach the respect that all of my dogs seem to have for me. My oldest Mali is 13 and I take great pride in the fact that I have never raised a hand to him – to be fair to the dog, I have never had to. The same applies to my seven year old Mali.
As much as I dislike the “do it or else” statement after a bit of thought I have decided that it might be closer to the truth than I initially thought. I will try to give you a few examples as they have they applied to me.
When I got my first mail 13 years ago they were fairly new in this country and there were lots of horror stories going around about them, you know the type, handler aggressive, sharp, not social etc. etc. With this in mind I took a 6 week old puppy down to my local dog club working on the basis that the benefits of early socialisation outweighed the risk of any infection. I sat down at the back of the hall and started hand feeding the pup when one of the club’s GSD’s came over to say hello. You can imagine my surprise when this little pup sprang up and latched itself onto this GSD’s nose – well I reacted without thinking and immediately pointed out to the pup that this behaviour would not be tolerated by picking him up by the ruff and giving him a not so gentle shake. And yes, it did get me a few appalled looks from the instructor. I personally was just grateful that the GSD didn’t explain the rules to him. I do remember thinking to myself on the way home ‘What the hell have I brought’.
This pup was also the dirtiest little thing I have ever had, it seemed every time I took him out in the van he would wait until I drove up my drive before dumping in his cage and would systematically roll in it while I got out of the driver’s seat to get him out, the amount of times he got bathed in the kitchen sink was unbelievable – trust me when I say he didn’t sit there willingly. Talk about perpetual motion this pup had no concept of settle, another little thing that had to be explained. Another endearing trait was playing tugger with anything that was available, including the tea towels (while I am trying to dry up), clothes on the washing line and Oh, and your trousers while you were wearing them, but when he whipped the girlfriend’s skirt down in the middle of the high street it had to be dealt with. (I blame the breeder for this as he had ragged them all up to help him decide which one he was going to keep.)
I could go on (especially as the pup is only 12 weeks old at this point) but I am sure you get the picture that in all of the above scenarios I used some measure of force to impose my will.
So, just how did this end up as respect and not fear – it’s a good question and I am not sure I can give you a complete answer. While I will admit to using a measure of force to impose my will on this precocious brat at no time did I use sufficient force to cause a fear response, the brat was also immediately rewarded for any good behaviour.
Just because I was using firm handling at no time did I get cross with the pup, in fact most of the time I was trying not to laugh. (Ok. I might have got a bit cross when he bit the GSD’s nose) To my mind the occasional use of force was well mixed up with large amounts of stimulation and trust building. In other words I played with him, fed him and stroked him – Lots. The fact I was using a clicker to teach him his basic exercises didn’t hurt either.
After putting my thoughts down on paper I have come to the conclusion that a large part of building respect into your dog is teaching them that most actions have consistent consequences and that there are defined boundaries and you will consistently enforce them. If you think about it, they are not that much different from us, they push their boundaries as they grow up and without firm guidance they can easily get out of control.
If you notice all the corrections above come under the heading of domestic control, this is where most of your important conditioning happens. Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I advocating that you start using a lump of 4x2 to keep your dog under control, in fact if your actions cause the dog any pain, or to flinch, or provokes a fear response it can very easily undermine all of the good work you have previously put in. Just be sensible and accept that there are times when your dog needs to accept that No means No and that you are prepared to consistently enforce it. Just be aware that every time you have to be firm with your dog you will erode part of the trust you have built up – the trick is to balance it so the trust side is always prevelent.
In my opinion the above does not apply to the training field – (to be fair if you haven’t got some respect by the time you start training in an open environment you will probably be spending most your time trying to get the dog back) the reason for this is simple, we need them to WANT to do it.
The bottom line is that it matters not that you are excellent at training the exercises, without the respect earned from your domestic control it will all fall down eventually.
Now, In no way am I setting myself up as an expert in this subject and I am very aware that a lot of folk will totally disagree with this article – if so, please let me know what your interpretation is – I am genuinely interested.

If this article does nothing else I bet the thought of something as ugly as this

Belgian Shepherd Malinois Puppy

pulling the GF’s skirt down made you smile – have you ever tried to control an over excited puppy when you’re rolling about laughing?

I will leave you with this thought, back in 2002 I went on my first clicker training course, at the end of the day I questioned the instructors statement of never saying no to your dog –“ just ignore the behaviour and reward one that you do want, after all you never see a Killer Whale being told No” – I couldn’t help myself and replied “When was the last time you saw a Killer Whale chewing your table leg

Mark Skillin