The Ideal Dog
A new approach to training dogs.
Posted May 8, 2015
Though I have spent twenty-five years educating dogs, it is only recently that I realized that having the ideal dog really requires just one thing. It’s an intuitive concept for many, yet powerful beyond anything I’ve encountered in the traditional dog training world: unconditional love. That’s it – straightforward and exquisitely simple.
Much of modern dog training suggest that dogs should work for our approval. We’re told that we should reward them with food and affection only when they do as we say – that dogs should earn our love through their behavior. But based on my experience at Canine Assistants, the Atlanta-based service dog school I founded more than two decades ago, this way of thinking about our relationship with dogs is upside down and backward.
I discovered the importance of unconditional love after watching and talking to thousands of pet parents and partners, including those involved in our programs at Canine Assistants. As you might imagine, those who described their dogs as ideally behaved were the same people who professed to love their dogs the most. But further investigation revealed a fascinating truth: In every case, the love came first. The dogs weren’t loved because they were ideally behaved; they behaved ideally because they were so loved.
The message is clear; if you want a happy, well-mannered dog, love him as unconditionally as he loves you. Rather than worrying about training our dogs to mindlessly respond to our commands, we should be focusing on developing a strong bond with them before we do anything else, secure in the knowledge that appropriate behavior is a by-product of unconditional love.
Our dogs are already experts at giving unconditional love. Your dog’s love doesn’t diminish if you cut his walk short or feed him the rice that came with take-out Chinese because you ran out of dog food. He doesn’t hold a grudge if you forget to call to say you’ll be late or spend time on Facebook when you could be playing with him. Dogs don’t make us earn their love. They merely love us, period. Love like that is immensely powerful. And though often we fall short of the goal, we really do want to prove ourselves worthy of our dogs’ devotion. Just look at the amount of time and money we spend on them. Why do we work so hard to make them happy? Because, in our hearts, we know exactly how valuable they are to us.
Giving our dogs the same kind of love they give us means shifting our focus from what they might do wrong to all that they’re already doing right. This shift in perspective permits us to derive maximum benefit from our relationship. It allows us to relax with them, helping to lower our stress levels, and theirs. Dogs who aren’t stressed can and will instinctively direct their attention to what makes us happy. Dogs, like people, are social animals who intuitively seek the approval of their social group – the humans with whom they live. Indeed, the desire to get along with people is hardwired into their very nature, and it’s the reason that dogs have been so remarkably successful as a species, now spanning the globe in a myriad of sizes and shapes.
Groundbreaking new information coming out of canine cognition laboratories provides ample support for my argument. We now know that dogs form attachments to their human caregivers in much the same way that toddlers form attachments to their primary parents, and the security of that attachment has a tremendous influence on behavior. We’ve discovered that dogs, like humans, experience an increase in oxytocin—popularly know as the “bonding hormone”-- when they interact with loved ones. These surging oxytocin levels unlock a kind of social genius in dogs, increasing their ability to read and understand humans.
Realizing that our focus should be on bonding with our dogs, at Canine Assistants, we use an approach called Bond-Based Choice Teaching®. Although we developed and refined our program with the Canine Assistants service dogs, the approach is open to all. We focus first on developing a strong connection with our dogs, encouraging the bonding process with practices such as hand-feeding our dogs as often as is possible and speaking to them affection and respect. We play with them multiple times a day (tug being a favorite, though we’re careful to let them win more often than lose), we learn their favorite spots for scratching and massage, and we smile when we look at them so they know how happy we are to be in their presence. We respect their need for privacy and rest. We remember always how lucky we are to have them in our lives.
Once our dogs have trust in us through a secure bond, we help them develop trust in themselves. We do this by encouraging them to develop new skills, such as the ability to understand and communicate yes and no when asked questions, finding things using their amazing sense of smell, and learning the meaning of human words. This permits our dogs to follow our lead when necessary, while promoting a measure of self-determination that is vital to their mental well-being. A trainer friend calls this the “Roots and Wings” effect; we make certain our dogs are firmly rooted in their secure bond to us, while giving them the freedom to spread their wings and navigate the world around them.
We’ve all been working much too hard on this dog training business. It doesn’t have to be so complicated. All we need to do is provide our dogs the same unconditional love they so willingly give us, and the rest will fall into place. Imagine for a moment how much happier we’d all be if we learned to love unconditionally, not just our dogs, but everyone important to us. It’s a lofty goal – loving without expectation isn’t easy. But we can practice on our dogs. Who better to learn from than those who’ve long since mastered the concept?