“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” -Buckminster Fuller
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life studying, practicing and teaching dog training and behavior modification. I’ve also reached a point in my career where practicing my trade isn’t giving me the satisfaction it once did. Working with dogs is phenomenal, a literal dream come true. Helping people reach their training goals and solve their behavioral issues is extremely rewarding. What sucks the joy out of my professional life is the failure rate. People have goals or issues they want solved, but they either have unrealistic expectations of what it will take to produce the results they want, or they overestimate their ability to put in the work required. This can be frustrating for a dog trainer, and as you’ll find out in a later post, frustration is a signal that I pay very close attention to.
For a long time I thought I could solve or at least minimize this problem with being very upfront with people about what they would need to commit to in order to see results. It has helped somewhat, but not to the degree I’d hoped. I now think that the root of the problem is deeper, less a misunderstanding about the work involved and more an issue of how they perceive their dog’s behavior.
The way dog training and behavior are generally discussed is flawed. The focus is always on altering behavior by changing the dog. Just changing the dog, however, will not change behavior. The dog, the owner and the environment are elements of an interconnected system. The dog’s behavior is a function of interactions between all parts of that system. Changing the dogs behavior requires changes in the owner and the environment. Maintaining the new behavior will require those changes to persist. These facts need to be the foundation of all training endeavors, or the process will fail. Most dog trainers understand this concept. Unfortunately, many trainers, myself included, often fail to effectively convey this message to their clients. One of the main reasons we fail is that this message conflicts with a powerful belief most people have about their dogs.
Most people approach a training situation as though there was a flaw in the dog that can be corrected by engaging in a mysterious process called training. This initial assumption poisons the entire process. The fundamental truth is that the dog is always perfect.
The dog always responds to stimuli in a perfect manner, as mediated by his genetic inheritance, history of associations, and ongoing feedback. Assuming we are discussing an already existing dog, the dog’s genetics and history are already established. That leaves only one avenue for changing the dog’s behavior - changing present and future feedback to the dog. Most of dog training advice explores and describes that avenue. But before we consider that avenue, we need to circle back to exploring the perfection of your dog’s behavior.
How can your dog be perfect when he is soiling the house, biting the children, dragging you on walks and stealing from your counters?
It’s actually quite simple. Your dog is a dog. He is behaving in a way that makes sense to a creature with a canine brain, given the situation he finds himself placed in. The only way it could truly make sense to you is if you understood that canine brain. If your dog’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, or you can only explain it as a fault in his character, it’s a clear indicator that there is something going on outside of your understanding.
There’s nothing wrong with having difficulty comprehending the mental processes of a member of different species. We have trouble understanding other humans, and we share language and a common worldview. I have trouble understanding the canine mind all the time, and I’ve been playing at this puzzle professionally for most of my adult life. What is wrong is condemning the dog as flawed, bad, stupid or wicked simply because his behavior isn’t meeting your expectation.
Next week we will discuss the role expectations have on our relationship with our dogs. Before we do that, I'd like to invite you to try a little experiment.
Find the first picture you took of your dog. Stare at it for a bit. Try to connect with yourself when you took it. What did your dog represent to you in that moment? Could you sense the possibilities, the potential, the perfection of your dog in that moment? Even if your dog was a rescue with some known issues, in that moment you were connected to the potential in that dog and understood that his issues were products of his past, not flaws in his character. If you didn’t have these feelings, I’d have to wonder why you brought the dog home in the first place!
Now, next time your dog’s behavior frustrates you, think about that picture, that moment.
What happened to that perfect dog?
Where did he go?
Maybe he was never there.
Maybe you were just drawn in by big eyes and puppy breath.
Or maybe, just maybe, he is still there, right in front of you, completely perfect. This can be a wonderful realization, but can also be a bitter pill to swallow. If your dog is perfect, but you don’t like how he acts, it can only mean one thing. You need to learn more, need to update your assumptions and expectations, need to change your behavior. At first this realization can cause regret, a guilty feeling that you should have known or done better. You can just let that go. Just like your dog, if you knew better you would have behaved differently. Any mistakes you made are in the past. The only avenue for change lies in recognizing those mistakes, endeavoring to prevent them from recurring, and doing the work to get the knowledge you need and then putting that knowledge into practice.
For now, however, just practice seeing that perfect dog in those frustrating moments. Notice what bringing your attention to that perfection brings up for you. We will talk more about this exercise in upcoming posts.