For tens of thousands of years, humans have bred dogs to accentuate characteristics that are useful for us and eliminate traits we dislike. That is why dogs integrate so easily into our families and are called “man's best friend.” They can help us navigate streets if we cannot see, pick up the phone for us if we cannot reach it, hunt with us, herd our livestock, guard our homes, play sports with us and be loyal friends when we have had a lousy day.
Science regularly sheds light on what we have suspected all along: dogs are brilliant at deciphering our facial expressions, body language and verbal communication. They can follow the point of our finger, which even chimpanzees struggle to do. Sometimes it seems they understand us in an almost human way.
We bond with dogs in a primate kind of way: admiring their beauty and abilities, desiring their affection, becoming emotionally attached to them, grieving them when they are gone. They bond with us in a canine kind of way: seeing us as providers of resources, settling into their places within our family structures, figuring out what behaviors give them access to the things they want.
However, the most amazing (and, in my opinion) fulfilling evidence of their bond with us is the way they look to us for guidance (which wild canines, even when raised from puppies, tend not to do). The herding dog, chnages directions on a whistle, the bird dog looks to where the barrel of the gun is pointing, the agility dog goes where the handler points. When properly trained, they become part of us – an extension of our minds and bodies, fluidly responsive. They even psychologically follow our lead.
If we are scared, nervous or tense, the dog's demeanor mirrors our own. If we are happy or excited, they respond in kind. We are two species, very different and yet very linked.
Understanding this link is paramount to being an effective trainer, leader and friend to your dog.
• If you train when you are happy and upbeat, your dog will enjoy the session. Like human children, they learn best when they are having fun.
• If you train your dog while you are upset, he likely will be wary of you or shut down instead of trying to figure out what you want him to do.
• If you are stressed or tense when working on aggression, reactivity, or fearfulness issues, your dog will feel anxious and become more likely to act out.
When training, always bear in mind your dog is not a furry, four-legged robot. He is an intelligent, emotional creature that has been bred to mesh with you and work alongside you. His psychology and demeanor take their cues off of yours.
If you find yourself becoming irritated or displeased with your dog's progress, stop working and do something fun with him to lighten the mood. Project an energetic, light-hearted demeanor, and he will shine for you.
Photo Credit: Dan Plimpton
About the author: Thomas Aaron is a certified dog training instructor and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC in Denver, Colorado. He is a strong advocate of positive reinforcement training, believing it provides the most humane path to a well-trained dog and nurtures an appropriate and strong bond between people and their dogs. He has trained hunting hounds since childhood and currently specializes in off-leash obedience training, behavior modification and positive gun dog training. FetchMasters.com