My Smart Puppy

with Dog Expert, Sarah Wilson

More than Compliance: Building Connection


We’ve all known smart students who got great grades in school but were disruptive outside (or maybe even inside) the classroom. Or coworkers who were well-qualified as far as job skills, but were disrespectful and difficult in the work environment. Dogs can be like that too.

I know someone whose dog had been through several obedience classes, knew a bunch of tricks, and had his CGC (Canine Good Citizen), but he wasn’t actually such a good citizen when the leash was off and he was out of the class environment. My friend turned his back, and the dog jumped up and stole the leg of lamb off the platter right next to him. When my friend headed for the door, his dog barged past him, almost knocking him over. When impatient, he jumped on and mouthed my friend. At the vet, he was a nightmare to handle. This dog had impressive mastery of skills, but he didn’t have a relationship of trust and respect with my friend. What makes the difference, and how can we build relationship as well as skills?

First, we need to understand what this relationship looks like. If your dog is convinced that you can handle any situation and that looking to you for direction is always a good idea, then he will readily seek your guidance, rather than only cooperating when you first tell him what to do. The difference is your dog is taking the initiative to look to you, rather than you having to always tell him what you want him to do. Like a good friendship or family relationship, this results in teamwork and connection.

How do we get to this point? First we make sure that whenever the dog voluntarily looks to us, we respond with joy and praise. Not just with a treat, though food is often helpful, because we want the dog to have connection with us, not just motivation for food. If you praise and show your delight (yes, your dog can easily read your emotions) before giving a food reward, then the dog will learn to really value your praise. This will result in your dog will seeking you out more and more, even when you don’t have a treat in your hand.

Next, with the dog on leash, we teach him to look to us in the face of distractions, starting with easy ones and gradually increasing to more challenging ones. This way, you eventually get to the point that when your dog sees that leg of lamb, he will look to you, because he knows that all good things come from you, not from grabbing for them on his own. He will also look to you when he’s worried about something, because you’ve taught him that anything that distracts him is a cue to look to you. This is a foundational building block of a trusting relationship.

Another foundational aspect of relationship building is teaching the dog to respect our space and body. For this we use the Space Games—Mine and Off in particular, to help the dog understand that he should never barge into or push past us. We also use space games to teach the dog that certain things (legs of lamb on the counter, for instance) belong to us and are not fair game for grabbing. In all these cases, the dog learns that acting with respect for our bodies, our space, and our possessions is the way to “get to good” and he is more likely to want to choose respectful ways of behaving, even without you telling him to.

Finally, in all our interactions, we apply the principle “always pleasant, never optional”. By doing this, we create an eagerness to connect with us — the dog understands that is what causes pleasant results for him. Once the dog is fully convinced that this principle is a basic fact of life for him, he will gladly live in a way that pleases you, without constant instruction from you. And you will constantly be noticing and praising wonderful things your dog does, which reinforces the growing connection between the two of you. And that is a fun – and satisfying – way to live with a dog.

By Melissa Fischer,

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