This is the third post of a 6-part series. If you haven't read the others, here are links to the first and second posts. This post discusses the second of 5 meta-lessons that form the basis of the training I've done with my youngest dog Wyrm.
I am the source of everything he wants in life.
Or, I make it easy for him to get what he wants.
This can be a tough one for many dog owners. On the face of it, it seems like a self-serving, egotistical goal for an owner to have. In reality, however, if you want to build a strong relationship with your dog, it is to your benefit for the dog to see you as the unique source of all the things he likes. This isn’t about withholding the things your dog wants, it is making it clear that you are the source that provides access to those things. This is the second aspect of the “Alpha” concept that is so misunderstood by so many. The leader provides for the pack, and controls access to resources. Doing so doesn’t necessarily involve denying them the things they want, just making it clear that the resources flow from you, not others or the environment. This makes the dog’s life much easier, as they don’t have to figure out how to interact with the whole world to get what they want, they only have to figure you out. Paired with the previous concept, you begin to see a pattern - I will protect my dog from negative outcomes and help him conquer fear, and at the same time I will be the source of positive outcomes. When one person fills both those roles, the dog forms an extremely tight bond with that person.
There are lots of reasons I want my dog to have this kind of relationship with me. The biggest one is that doing so minimizes the stress in his life. Whatever he wants, he knows where to get it. Whenever something is scary, he knows that I’ll handle it, or show him how to. Building a strong bond in this way isn’t easy, as it puts a lot of responsibility on me. I need to be disciplined and responsive to his needs and emotional state. I have to put those things before my desires. I fail often, but I’m always trying to do better. It’s a wonderful practice. Recognizing how you want to be, knowing that you can’t possibly succeed but trying anyway, and embracing your failures as learning opportunities is the path to pretty much anything worth having in this life.
Instilling this lesson requires me to figure out what Wyrm wants in life, then providing them while ensuring that it’s clear that those things come from me. If it’s clear he wants something, and It’s appropriate and safe to let him have it, I figure out a way to provide access to it in a way that makes it clear that access to the resource comes through me. For example, if he obviously would like to say hello to another person, I ask him to do something (more on that in the next couple of posts), then tell him to go say hello. I don’t prevent him from enjoying other people, I just make it clear that his access to them is mediated by me. This can sound strange, but what is happening is I’m setting up a way of life for him that causes him to look to me for what he wants rather than looking at the environment.
The human world our dogs live in is too complex and dangerous for them to navigate on their own. Teaching Wyrm to “ask” me if it’s ok to check out something he is interested in keeps him safe. Over time, he also learns that I won’t let him interact with anything that is scary or dangerous, so he’s able to be much more relaxed about meeting new people and trying new things.