Don't let go of the steering wheel while driving your dog

I have heard it again and again, at last I finally made sense of it.  Why is it that so many people struggle with dogs that seem "out of control" or even dangerous at times, when deep down inside their dog is actually a really good dog?  The answer is this, nobody is holding the steering wheel.  People have forgotten that dogs cannot really "drive" themselves.  I already know what you may be thinking, "hey but there is that one dog I saw it just seemed to make all the right choices on its own". 

     It's true, there are many dogs who seem to just know what to do when it comes to acting in the world.  They know who is a friend, or who is a foe.  They can tell which dogs to approach and which ones to stay away from.  They can even take themselves on walks and come back home safely every time.  These dogs are for sure very capable of making decisions on their own, but they are the exception.  In my opinion, many dogs are struggling because they are expected to be able to "drive themselves".

    Imagine you get a knock on the door one day and it is the police, they are wondering about an accident your car was involved in.  You tell them "well it was the strangest thing, the car just turned left and hit that pedestrian, then it just drove me home and parked itself in the garage like nothing had happened."  Most likely, you would get arrested for a hit and run, even though you thought the car just did some action mysteriously and entirely on it's own.  Strangely, this is how many people who struggle with their dogs see them.  Dogs are seen as these mysterious animals that just make choices on their own to do things that sometimes end up being really bad.  The truth is, there is no mystery to this.

     The truth is, unless you have Old Yeller, or Lassie, or one of the dogs from Homeward Bound, most likely your dog just doesn't have the ability to "drive" themselves.  It is possible that your dog is actually asking you, begging you, pleading with you, to please put yourself in the drivers seat.  As much as it may be more fun or exciting or simply what we are used to, letting our dogs have too much freedom can often times have disastrous consequences.  Without a human who understands this complicated world, directing the show, things might just never work out as we plan.   It's hard, I know.  I once thought that the person who was seen making their dog sit at the corner was an evil controlling maniac.   Now I see that they were just teaching their dog to never cross a street on their own, or at least to be aware that there is something about the street they must alway be cautious of.  To some people, there is no relationship once you have to spend your time with the dog "telling it what to do" all the time.  I would beg to differ.  The thing that I find, is that as time goes on I realize that in truth I am simply communicating with the dog.  I am forging a deep connection with the dog that humans have been forming for thousands of years.

    For thousands of years we brought our dogs with us and we showed them what they needed to do to be of value to us and the pack.  We allowed them to live with us, but we made sure that they performed the tasks necessary to ensure that they would be a benefit, and not a burden.  We spent countless hours mastering the art of communication with these animals so that eventually, we could even create breeds that were masters at performing a particular task.  Now we have the whole thing flipped topsi-turvy.  Instead of most dogs performing the tasks we bred and taught them to perform, they are usually expected to do the opposite. They are expected to stay away from dangerous wild animals, instead of chase them off or kill them.  When it comes to strangers, we are pressuring them to accept and trust every person they meet, instead of being naturally weary of strangers.  In meeting other dogs we think that the dog should "play" with every dog they meet, instead of work together.  Lastlym we are teaching them to trust and like every dog, even though many of them instinctively know that not all dogs are nice or friendly.  

     At the same time the emotional bond most people love to have with their dog is as their "equal", their "friend", their "baby, or even their "boyfriend" or "girlfriend".  These bonds that we seek with our dogs mimic the bonds that we have with humans.  The only issue is, the dogs are not humans.  Many of them simply cannot handle the level of "equality" and lack of clear leadership that these relationships entail.  Without a clear leader, they are left unsure of what to do, and with all the affection and attention from their human, they have a tremendous pressure to perform.  They are constantly trying to find out how to please, how to make the master happy, how to be a good dog, but not really given clear guidelines.  Many times, all the dogs really need is someone to tell them what to do in order to be content.  All they need is to know what not to do in order to keep things peaceful.

     So where do you start and will you ever have a "friend" in your dog again?  I would say start right now, and yes, you can have a dog "friend" again.  In my opinion, it is in all the little things we do with the dogs that create a deep bond of trust in our ability to lead, not really any one big thing.  You can start with making your dog wait calmly for their food, for the door to open, for the leash to go on, or even to be pet when you come home after a long day at work.  In addition you can start noticing the times your dog seems to be acting "crazy" or "silly" or "goofy" and realize that your dog may actually be begging for you to help them calm down.  They may need to be told to go to their bed to take a little nap, or maybe they just need a calm focused walk around the block to get their anxious unfocused energy out.  Regardless of what you do, it is never to late to start teaching your dog that you are going to be in the drivers seat whenever they need you to be.

    In conclusion, dog training is a way of life more than a few tricks you teach a dog with treats and toys.  Having a well behaved dog; is more of a choice as an owner than a matter of just getting a "good dog".  Sometimes, it is as simple as the energy we carry with ourselves when we spend time with our dog.  Other times, it may be noticing that the dog seems to always want to be in front of us or "answer" the door for us or force us to pet it endlessly.  During these times it is up to us as the humans to ask ourselves, "am I in the drivers seat right now or is the dog?".  In addition we have to ask ourselves, " Is this working?".  Even though it may seem unrelated to the problem behavior we are faced with, a little leadership in a lot of areas will go a long way.  

    So next time the dog messes up or makes a mistake or just does something that we have accepted as "just the way they are".  Let us ask ourselves, "was I giving my dog clear guidance as to what was expected?".  Also, "am I setting the dog up for success or failure?".  Lastly, "If I was setting the dog up for success and clearly communicating what was expected, did I react as a leader, or a follower?".  A leader will never hesitate to tell the dog "what you did was not ok and I will expect you to do differently next time".  A follower will never confront an action the dog is doing head on, they will usually just get upset, but rarely at the dog for making a bad choice.  It is as though the follower doesn't think that acting in complete opposition to the dog is even possible.   Believe it or not, simply setting our dogs up for success by being leaders in the first place, gives our dogs the tools they need to succeed.  Reacting honestly when our dog has let us down, lets our dog know that they need to be more careful the next time they encounter the same circumstances again.  Remember, if you love them, lead them.  Don't blame them, train them.  

Eric Stokell