Detrimental Mindsets in Dog Training
Updated: Feb 27
"Your dog is a great dog...he just sucks at being human. And you aren't the best dog."
- Kerry Stack
I love my clients. I really do! I learn something from each and every one of you. Some of you come to the free pack walks after your sessions, and I love seeing you grow and strengthen your bond every week. Some of you have even become my friends, and I'm truly grateful for that, for I've learned from you the most.
But there's something I need to address: all those unhealthy mindsets you've been cultivating are detrimental to Piloting your dog. So let's start at from the top.
I have a client, one who I have become friends with. We will call her Peggy. Peggy shows up to the pack walks regularly with her dog, Sailor. I had worked with her about 2 years ago, and was impressed with her dedication to her dog, who was severely reactive to...well, everything. She took it slow and easy, working with him non-stop, but never getting frustrated with Sailor. Never blaming him when he reacted, merely addressing the issue before moving on, with the same air as one giving an order to a waiter. Kind, concise, and direct. Unemotional, yet polite. She has brought Sailor so far. The problem? Anytime there is a natural bump in their path, she blames herself. When I met her, she could barely pass another dog on the other side of the road with Sailor, and now she's fully integrated into gen pop during our pack walks. I actually have new people at the pack walk watch Peggy as she Pilots her dog. She's that good.
Yet just today she sent me another message. She was comparing herself to our mutual friend, who has two dogs that she's had since they were puppies. We will call her Lisa. Peggy and Lisa both recently got treadmills so as to treadmill train their dogs to help with high energy demands. Lisa shared a video of both of her dogs walking on the treadmill, doing quite well. Peggy's response? "They're so much further ahead than Sailor!"
Um, no. They aren't. You cannot even compare them. Dogs, like humans, each have their own quirks. Don't ever compare your dog to others. Rather, compare your dog to how your dog was previously. Also, Lisa had the luxury of having these dogs during their important developmental phases. Peggy adopted Sailor as a full grown dog full of anxiety and fear. There is no doubt in my mind that Sailor would have been euthanized if it weren't for Peggy. So who has come farther, Peggy or Lisa? Both. A flower doesn't compare itself to other flowers, it just blooms.
Keep track of your dog's behaviors if you need to (this is especially helpful when it comes to housebreaking). It can be hard to see how far you've come without some kind of bench mark. Keeping a list of how many accidents in the house this week vs. last week can give you a better visual of your progress. Otherwise it can be difficult to see beyond The Here and Now. So stop comparing your dog to other dogs. Because perhaps that dog can pass quietly by other dogs during a walk, but pees on the carpet like a garden sprinkler running in the dead heat of July. In Texas.
The Blame Game
Much akin to the comparing is the blaming. Now, I like to think that I get it out of my client's heads immediately that a dog is not to be blamed for being a dog. Their behavior is normal, and when we think about it logically, we aren't training them to be dogs. We are asking them to conform to being human. Which is a lot to ask. So FiFI peeing on the rug is a normal thing for a dog to do, but not normal for a human. Your dog is not capable of being bad. It's just the answer to their question ("Can I pee here?") is a no. Not bad, not wrong, just....no. Most of my clients accept this by the time I leave our session, and the few who had been blaming their dogs stop the blaming. If they don't, they're assholes. And probably think pineapple belongs on pizza.
But it's so hard for me to get people to stop blaming themselves.
For instance, I met the most wonderful couple and their dog Princess recently. Owner Meg has anxiety, which she disclosed to me. After observing Princess for a bit, I informed Meg that most of Princess's unsavory behaviors are due to anxiety. "Oh great, I gave my dog my anxiety! You know what they say about dogs and their owners!"
Oh boy....lets unpack this.
A dog can indeed read their owner's anxiety, and can become anxious themselves, you did not cause your dog's anxiety. That's the reaction your dog chose. Not your fault. It's nobody's fault. It just happened. It's merely something that needs to be addressed, that's all.
So perhaps you haven't been walking your dog the best way previously. It's not your fault the dog is a twerp on the leash: you were doing the best you could. It's not your fault your dog is dog-reactive, you didn't understand what socializing your dog meant. So let's get past the fault finding. Reality is reality. Let's not rail against reality.
Now responsibility, that's different. It is indeed your responsibility to work through these behaviors, and to do the best you can. But like Maya Angelou said:
For some reason we humans tend to believe that blame must always fall somewhere. Who to blame when power goes out? Who to blame when there's a car accident? It's all about pointing the finger at someone (usually ourselves).
Do you want to know what I love most about dogs? They don't believe in blame. They know everything they do is correct based upon the information they currently have. You stepped on your dog's tail? They don't blame you. It is merely something that has happened. But now they possibly know better than to sleep in front of the bedroom door where you may step on their tail. So don't blame yourself for stepping on the dog's tail.
So can I get rid of your anxiety? I'd like to, but I'm not qualified to be a psychologist for humans. Can show you how to alleviate your dog's anxiety? Absolutely. And seeing your dog in a more balanced state will lessen your anxiety about your dog at least, leading to a virtuous cycle.
"Hi, my name is _____, and I'm looking into obedience training for my puppy. Basic commands. She won't come when she's called."
When clients call me and the conversation always start like that, I always ask them why their dog should come when they call. Usually they start laughing. Or they jokingly say, "Because I told them to?". But occasionally I get my favorite answer: "Because I'm Alpha."
I hate the concept of Alpha. Pack leader. It's steeped in toxic thoughts and behaviors. Even the best leaders rely on advisors and trusted individuals around them. And the greatest leaders know when not to lead, but when to follow instead.
There is absolutely no good reason why your dog should ever obey you. They don't need to "respect your authority".
What they need is someone to communicate with them to help them understand why they need to come when they're called (hint: it has to do with Piloting.) "Because I told you to" is not an answer. It means you don't understand why, either. Or at least can't articulate an intelligent argument.
I always tell the story about a family member calling my daughter, River, stubborn. River was about 8 years old at the time, and I made sure she thanked her for the compliment. Because stubbornness is just determination in an opposite direction. Nobody just magically sees your point of view, you have to communicate, not bully. And guess what? Your point of view may not be the best. Intelligent disobedience is to be celebrated, not punished.
I called my dog, Ellis, when he was outside this morning. He ignored me and started sniffing. I called him again. He ignored me and went about still sniffing around. Rather than get angry, I waited a moment to see why he wouldn't come when I called.
My stubborn dog hadn't relieved himself yet, which he did, and then promptly ran inside where I had called him. Good dog.
Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs
In-home Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio