Your dog’s behavior is a reflection of you.
The young couple sat side-by-side in the training studio; their adolescent, mid-sized dog dithered between the legs of one owner while the other owner reached down to stroke the dog intermittently. As the dog’s movements became more agitated, the owner would stroke the dog faster, occasionally snatching at the leash in an attempt to get the dog to ‘settle’.
The owner actually holding the leash would alternately gather leash to inhibit the dogs movements, or allow leash as the dog weaved its way between their legs and the chair legs, or when the other person started tugging on it, which caused them to loosen their grip. Frustrated, that owner would also occasionally jerk the leash in an attempt to settle the dog down.
Four hands on one dog. None of them in helpful ways.
My husband’s sudden appearance from the doorway behind us set off a barrage of barking and hysteria, and both owners simultaneously tried unsuccessfully to console, reprimand, or redirect the dog’s behavior.
On multiple occasions, I gently suggested not petting the dog at all, and to control the leash length so the dog couldn’t continue to oscillate between each owner.
Predictably, the dog started to wind up like a kid’s toy. His behavior amplified by the realization that his owners were no longer paying him any mind. What was initially just simple movement between the two people became a bizarre carnival of clawing and jumping to seek that affirmation which had come without effort just moments before.
The dog would alternate jumping on each owner, causing the other to try and discourage the dog by grabbing at it, or by pulling on the leash. The victim would start with admonishing the dog, offering it treats, then eventually petting it because that was the only thing that seemed to calm the dog down.
After several re-enactments of the same scene, I took the dog from them, and retreated back to my seat. As the dog tried to scrabble back towards the owners, it didn’t take too long for the dog to figure out that comfort was no longer available from them, so the dog started on me. Nosing my hand, pawing my lap, trying to weave between my legs as I sat, crawling under the chair I was sitting in, etc.
Every attempt to elicit attention was met with emotional neutrality and leash management to keep the dog off of me and out of my personal space. I was not going to reinforce this dog’s emotional vampirism.
That nervous arousal is a feedback loop that creates an endless re-direct and affirms the dog’s behavior is a reflection of you and your response to its actions. What you allow does continue.
After about 25 minutes, the dog resigned himself to his fate, laid down at my feet and remained there quietly.
I cannot count the times this behavior reveals itself during most of the evaluations I conduct. The proclivity of owners to micromanage their dogs’ behavior is only matched by their desire to do it in stereo.
When I finally started to move with the dog, immediately the same behaviors resurfaced, alternating between escape and appeasement. Each of the owners alternated with a constant litany of “suggestions” until I had to remind them that they had come to me for help, not the other way around.
As I coached each owner on appropriate leash management, the other owner would offer an invocation of suggestions that were couched as support until I was sufficiently motivated to silence them.
Within the category of “Your Dog Is A Reflection Of You”, is the subtext of “Your Dog Is Conflicted Because Of You.”
I do not understand why there is a lot of variance in “parenting” styles between human parents with human children, as this is something I believe parents should have come to a consensus on, long before that kid ever entered the picture.
With dogs, it should be the same. Not that one ‘parents’ a dog, but the ways we interact with that dog should be universally agreed upon, accepted and applied.
Humans have the gift of a common language, opposable thumbs and other attributes that we do not share with dogs. Although culturally, humans may share a common language, our individuality and mannerisms are sufficiently unique that even common signals can be muddied and rendered incoherent by the dog. It doesn’t matter how clear you think you are being, the dog is the ultimate judge. His response becomes the litmus test for your consistency and clarity.
I cannot help but sympathize for the dog that begs for clarity and is denied every time. Compound that by adding two voices, two sets of hands and two sets of expectations and it’s easy to understand where things go south.
I cannot help but sympathize for the handler working the dog while their partner barks out suggestions for work that they, themselves have yet to master.
A dog’s behavior is a reflection of you. Multitasking is beyond them (with the exception of the retrieve, where they are capable of not only maintaining multiple thoughts, but manage to accomplish sequential tasks). Add the frustrating distraction of two externally competing entities and it devolves into an emotionally laden, confusing shit show.
As a human instructor it is annoying to have to remind people that dogs do not practice a verbal language, and if their constant soliloquies haven’t worked so far, what expectations do they really have for that to change? The conflicting signals being broadcast all over my training floor in this scenario is the problem.
Silence is the solution.
I tell this story often, because most folks have either done it or experienced it from their own children, significant others, employees, employers, etc.
You’re on the phone. Someone enters your periphery and just stands there. Soon they start to fidget. Maybe shifting weight from one foot to the other, or re-enacting the James Dean Lean in the doorway of the room you both occupy. Just enough to distract you. Just enough to break your concentration. Just enough to disorganize your thoughts to the point where you are easily confused and slightly disoriented.
Now have someone else, a spouse, boss, whatever, come in and start rapid-firing demands at you as you try to gather your thoughts to complete the one task you started out with.
Not easy, is it.
Now imagine you are a dog.
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