“You cannot share your life with a dog…and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings” — Jane Goodall.
If you are a dog owner you probably agree with Jane. In fact, dog cognition science supports the idea of dogs thinking. Like us they understand object permanence, the idea that just because something is out of sight it is not out of mind, and can intensely anticipate when something they desire is hidden from view. It has been proven that dogs have learned to read our actions and predict what we are going to do next. They can read our body language, our facial expressions and intently watch us for clues about our next move. They know how to use their gaze, vocalizations, and act in ways to get us to respond to them.
However, as endearing as it is for your dog to communicate with you, letting them do so can undermine their training and decrease the likelihood of obedience!
Who’s training whom?
When it comes to living with a dog, you must listen to them and respond to their needs without letting them think they are in control of the relationship.
Teaching your dog to ring the bell to “go” outside is a great example of how you can unwittingly teach your dog to stop listening to you. You may want the convenience of having your dog tell you when they need to go to the bathroom outside, however, with their one-track minds, dogs learn that ringing the bell gets them outside, period. Once they figure out you can be manipulated, they “ask” to be let outside whenever they want, for whatever they want. Setting up the dog/human relationship where you respond to your dog like this, teaches dogs that they are in control!
Most dogs taught to ring the bell to go to the bathroom do not learn the complete lesson. They only learn that they can make you open the door and let them outside by ringing the bell.
Take dog training to the next level
People can and should recognize when their dog is trying to tell them something. Having a dog protect your home requires actually looking into what has them barking. Puppies that have trouble learning to be house trained often have fear or anxiety issues that need to be identified and addressed.
In order to go to the bathroom outside, your dog has to feel safe and comfortable. Dogs that are timid, or nervous outside may never relax enough to feel comfortable to “go” outside.
When it comes to dog training, the first thing my trainers and I look for is how frightened or uncertain a dog is with people, new environments, city noises, loud noises…a dog can not be trained if they are scared or feeling anxious.
At Zen Dog Training we have a great training plan to improve your dog’s confidence, our training comic, Helping a shy, fearful, or protective dog is available in our shop, and included in our Puppy Boot Camp.
Knowing when to listen
When it comes to puppies and training basics, such as house training, solving separation anxiety, and listening to you in general, you must understand your dog’s needs, yet not seem like you are responding to them on their terms.
Separation anxiety can be devastating; in some cases it looks like a panic attack. Dogs can become so attached, they cry, whine, howl, bark, even scratch at walls, doors, and sometimes injure themselves when they are left alone. There is no doubt, these dogs are suffering when left alone.
The root of this kind of anxious behavior goes back to the early relationship you establish with your dog. Ask yourself, does your dog think you set the rules? Have you taught your dog that listening to you is important? Is your dog used to accepting situations where they don’t get their way? If you answered No to any of these questions, your dog may think they are in control of your relationship.
Training should happen on your terms
You are the “leader of the pack” and need to create a relationship where you control the outcome and encourage your dog to listen – nothing in life is free.
Use daily rituals like meal times, going outside, going through doors, or getting up on the couch to your advantage. Insist your dog asks permission for things they want by doing simple obedience games like: sit/stay, down/stay, or wait. Instead of just giving your dog their bowl of food, you make a habit of turning meals into a mini training session that builds obedience and impulse control in your dog, and encourages everyone in your house to take training seriously.
This kind of nothing for free is a win/win approach to dog training, which we highly recommend. However, for puppy and new dog owners, the first step is even more basic. You need to just notice situations where you give away control by responding to your dog on their terms.
How to make sure your dog listens to you
At Zen Dog Training, we teach that obedience is the result of the type or relationship you have with your dog. To have a Zen Dog you need to teach your dog to listen to you on a daily basis.
You need to look for situations where your dog acts in demanding ways: jumping up, crying in the crate or confinement areas, barking for attention, and demanding meals. We’ve had many dogs who have learned how to wake their owners in the morning to get breakfast. Noticing what things your dog wants and how they are asking (or demanding) that you respond to them is the best place to start changing the relationship.
Do you gush and coo every time your dog figures out how to give someone “paw,” and reward them with attention, treats, and touch? Teaching a dog to “shake” people’s hands this way encourages the wrong kind of relationship, one where the dog is in control.
Most people want to be in control and have a dog that listens to them. Teaching a dog to reliably come when called, especially in a distracting environment, is the highest level of training and requires establishing a relationship of obedience.
How to listen to your dog without spoiling them
There are times when you need to listen to your dog. As Jane Goodall pointed out, they have minds, personalities, and feelings. There is a unique joy in encouraging your dog to communicate with you and a wonderful connected feeling when you have mutual understanding with your dog. There have been times when my dog has barked, or cried in a way that made me realize she urgently needed to go outside. Seemingly random middle of the night barking turned out to be an alert to the coyotes visiting our backyard.
As a trainer, I encourage dogs to communicate with owners with a quiet down/stay. If your dog learns that doing a down/stay at the back door gets them let outside you’ve successfully trained them to politely ask for what they need.
In countless situations my dog has communicated to me that she really need to go to the bathroom “now!” Luckily, in most cases I have been sensitive enough to respond. The secret is to never respond in ways that encourage demanding behaviors.
When my dog’s favorite toy gets stuck under the couch, I insist she comes all the way over to me first. I say, “Yes” to let her know she pleased me, and only then do I reward her by getting the ball. Similarly, with crying or whimpering at the door to go out, instead of saying “Do you need to go pee-pees?” and acknowledge her, I take note of her need to go out and either ask her to come to me, or distract her for a few seconds before deciding to take her outside on my terms.
Benefits to taking control of the relationship
The common idea here is to support having a trained dog by encouraging a relationship where you are the one calling the shots. The more your dog is in the habit of listening to you, the more often they wait for things that they want, and the more likely they are to obey when you really need them to listen.
In over 15 years of training dogs and their humans, I have found that doing things this way does not eliminate dogs communicating their needs, it just reduces the number of times they do it. In the long run they still tend to communicate with their owners, but try to take advantage of people less often.
Solving separation anxiety is the perfect example. Success comes by breaking the connection between your dog asking and you responding. The more often your dog accepts your rules and listens to you, the less they worry and the less anxiety they experience. Dogs that understand there are times they are seen, but not heard when you are home, have an easier time settling down when left alone.
You have to listen to your dog
Dog training requires being sensitive to your dog’s personality and individual needs. As with every good relationship there is healthy communication and give and take. When it comes to training your dog, it is important to notice your dog’s needs, but attend to them in ways that do not perpetuate demanding behavior or inadvertently make things worse with too much attention.
Unfortunately, many people act too sympathetic when their dog is feeling anxious or nervous. Coddling your dog, protecting them from potentially nerve-wracking situations may make things worse, because your dog never learns to cope with their fears. I’ve seen countless cases where a dog’s unwanted behavior was rooted in fear, and owners had no idea how nervous or anxious their dogs were feeling.
People need to act confident and lead by example to show their dog they have nothing to fear. Gently exposing their dog to their fears in acceptable ways, while acting jolly and relaxed, takes work, but in many of these cases, phobias can be turned around in as little as one month. If your dog is shy or fearful, getting the help of a professional, positive reinforcement trainer can be helpful.
Raising a Zen Dog
Your dog’s boundless curiosity, energy, and joy for life is contagious. Interacting with my dog and witnessing her goofy antics constantly makes me laugh, feel happy, and experience so much love.
Having a well-trained dog does not require acting mean or angry. You can teach your dog that you are in charge by making small “tough love” decisions every day. Ensure your dog becomes a Zen Dog without reducing the love you give them, but by developing a relationship where your dog is in the habit of listening.