For the last century, dog owners were told to view their dogs as adversaries. Scheming, manipulative creatures who were out to take over our lives by leaning on us, jumping on our furniture, and "not listening" to our commands.
Even in the early days of positive reinforcement training, we trainers still told owners that they must be leaders, giving away nothing, not even affection, unless the dog worked for it. Why? Because if they didn't, the dog was going to take over.
One of the most important shifts in modern training has been to view animals in our care as members of the same team. Instead of forcing our will on dogs like dictators or imposing strict rules to make them see us as leaders, we've started acting like leaders.
We've opened the lines of communication. In the old days, communication was a one-way street, going from us to the dog. When that wasn't successful, we devised all sorts of creative methods and tools to punish the dog for it.
Now, we can read subtle cues that tell us when a dog is anxious, frustrated, not ready for a certain environment or level of distraction, and even when they want to start or stop an invasive procedure like nail trims, vaccinations, and grooming.
These cues also tell us how a dog is responding to behavior modification for serious problems like aggression so we can be sure that our plans are creating long-term change, not just temporary suppression of symptoms like growling and barking.
And by learning that these behaviors are a form of communication that prevents bites and fights, we've begun to listen to what the dog is telling us and making adjustments to prevent the need for the dog to escalate.
We've also learned how to break behaviors into smaller steps, speeding the learning process and helping dogs figure out what we want more quickly. Oh, how the quality of my training and my clients' successes improved when I learned this!
We are better at inspiring dogs to be the best they can be, finding what motivates each individual dog instead of insisting their reward is whatever we decide it should be or working just to avoid an unpleasant consequence. Dogs' enthusiasm during training used to be rare 20 years ago, and now I regularly see dogs that can't wait to get to work!
I think most importantly, we have taken accountability for our dog's success and failures. After all, dogs only know how to act like dogs. It is up to us to teach them how to behave in human society.
A good friend of mine has always impressed me by asking, "What am I doing wrong?" when one of her dogs fails to get a concept. She never makes excuses because of their breed or labels them as stubborn. She acknowledges that it is her responsibility to help them learn and that when they struggle, SHE needs to figure out how to adapt to their needs, not the other way around.
This means making sure our skills are up to par, that we know how to teach behaviors, put them on clear, consistent cues, and that they have been reinforced enough that the dog is motivated to perform them without resorting to force or bribery.
Our dog's successes and failures affect us both. Labels and excuses don't change anything. Two-way communication, inspiration, and accountability do.
Dogs aren't trying to take over, they are simply behaving in ways that get them what they need to be safe and comfortable in our world. We need them to behave in ways that are acceptable in our society and meet our goals for life with us. By working together, we can ensure that everyone gets what they need.
20 years ago, I was your average dog owner who only knew what I had learned from friends until the day came when lack of communication with my dog landed a teenage girl in the hospital. Because of that incident, I was forced to learn how to listen to my dog and how to communicate with him to prevent further tragedy (I was lucky that I had that opportunity back then - I don't think I would have it now).
I've made horrible mistakes, followed even worse advice, and imposed my will on far too many dogs in the past. And I still feel every one of those dog's failures as my own, even 10-15 years later.
Like me, maybe you did it wrong in the past. Maybe you have regrets. Maybe you and your dog are still in the midst of a communication breakdown. We all do the best we can with the information we have in that moment. As long you keep learning and trying to do it better, you are a success and doing the best you can for your team.
Go, Team [insert dog's name]! I know you can do it!