Saturday, 3 November 2012

Trust – or Why You Should Spend Time Doing Stuff With Your Dog

Many people find that they have a perfectly good relationship with their dog – until they ask them to do something the dog really does not want to do. Neither cajoling nor threatening seems to work, eliciting only a response of fear or aggression, and the dog “digging its heals in”. It is difficult to advise what to do in these situations, because the quickest solution is not always the best in the long run.

Immediate results can be achieved by simply forcing the dog to do what you want it to do, using the lead, physically moving the dog or punishing it in some way, for example by spraying water on it to make it move. Certainly a stand-off involving aggression can be quickly diffused in this way.

However, in the long run applying only these quick-fix solutions may make things worse. Some dogs will give up future struggles if “overpowered” in this way, but to many this will simply be a confirmation of the negative associations that led them to refuse in the first place, worsening the problem the next time the situation arises.

If you ever get into a situation like this with your dog, it is time to consider the problem holistically, whether you decide to use a quick fix solution or not. The problem is essentially one of trust. If your dog trusts you enough, it will not refuse to do what you tell it to do. Indeed, building trust is central to a good relationship with all dogs, whether you have problems with them or not. Many problems will never occur if you have built a good relationship of trust with your dog.

Best way to build trust.

By trust I mean a lot of things that are difficult to put into words, but I will try. If a dog trusts you, it sees you not only as a leader, but as a friend. It is not simply a matter of dominance. A dog may be cowered into obeying, but at some point it will decide that a command is simply not in its interest to follow. A dog that trusts its owner, will be safe in the knowledge that commands issued are all in its best interests and will lead, ultimately, to good things. This, of course, cannot be simply explained to a dog. It must be demonstrated, again and again, for the dog to place its trust in you.

Trust is also a two-way street. You should also learn to trust your dog. If you trust your dog, your commands will carry so much more force for the dog. If you don’t, the dog will sense either that it can get away with it, or that there is something to be unsure or scared about in the situation. Neither will make it more likely to trust in you and do as you say.

So how do you build trust? What is absolutely imperative is to spend time with your dog. Doing stuff. Sitting on the sofa next to a sleeping dog does not count! (Although downtime is also good time, sometimes, more about this elsewhere) Trust cannot be declared, or bought, it has to be earned – by both you and the dog.

The very best place and time to build trust is when walking your dog. Games and play also help, but always staying at home in your garden will not cut it. In order to build trust you must experience the world with your dog. You must negotiate new and unusual, even unexpected situations together. Note my emphasis on with and together. Walking along oblivious to your dog because you are checking your mobile phone is not walking with your dog. Taking your dog to the same small park three times a day, every day, does not set you up for new experiences.

Of course we all do these things occasionally because of our busy, modern lives, but it is important to properly go out and walk with your dog, exploring new and exciting places, at least once in a while. The walks don’t have to be long, and the new places don’t have to be far away. The most important thing is to pay attention to your dog, and explore the world with him or her. The emphasis is on active walking with, and encountering the new, together.

Friends exploring together, Finisterre.

Talk to your dog when you are walking together. Tell him or her where you want them to go, tell them where you don’t want them to go. Use your voice and your body to guide them, first and foremost, then the leash. When your dog sticks with your or comes to you, praise them and pat them. Often give them a very tasty treat. Make sure listening to you, and sticking near you, is always rewarded. Don’t just call your dog when it is distracted or running away, but periodically call it back when you know it will come, then reward with praise, pats, play and treats. Do this every walk.

Calling the dog’s name and rewarding even just attention at short distance and recall at longer distances is vital to building trust, and which is why I tell people to keep on repeating this apparently easy and pointless exercise. Why keep on calling a dog that you know will come, rather trying to “teach” it to come when it is being naughty? First of all because you have no chance of recalling your dog when it is being naughty if you have not taught it well in advance to come when you call. Second, because it builds trust.

Every time your dog comes to you and gets a overwhelmingly positive response, it understands a little bit more that listening to you is a good thing, and that you are a friend. If you only ever offer your dog sausage when trying to lure it to the vet’s, it soon learns that your sweetest voice and your best treats are simply devices to trick it. Don’t “burn” your treats, by using them only in bad circumstances. Makes sure you train recall and attention in positive situations only for the vast majority of instances.

Figuring out some modern art in France

You don’t always have to control your dog’s every movement on a walk. Most of the time it isn’t looking for trouble, just for something interesting to sniff. A little bit of give and take is good in my opinion. Go and check what is behind that tree with your dog, then take two steps back and call its name and reward it with something very tasty when it comes. Make sure you don’t only ever call your dog when it is time to stop play, or put the leash on. Convince your dog that being with you does not mean doing something it doesn’t want, or being prevented from doing something it wants, all the time. Simply put, just spending a nice relaxed walk together with your dog will make it trust that you are a nice person to be around, not just someone that shouts commands, and berates it for having fun.

Same thing goes with meeting other dogs. It is not just fine for your dog to meet other dogs, it is something that makes their lives richer and better and teaches them something about doggy interaction every time it happens. It is also an important experience that builds trust. You should guide all dogs, especially those with fearful or aggressive tendencies, through meeting other dogs. I will post at length about this elsewhere, but the most important thing is that you also greet the other owner and the dog, showing confidence and calm.

Going new places - Scotland.

My absolute favourite way to build trust, however, is exploring new places. Taking your dog away on holiday is a fantastic way of building trust, but even a trip to a different park will do. Faced with a new environment, you provide a constant and reassurance to your dog. With both my dogs, I felt that I reached a new level of trust after we went on our first holiday together.

It is often on holidays, or days out, that we have had our best “team-building” experiences. I remember some of these very clearly, and it is not by chance that they relate to situations where my dogs have had to face things they do not like or fear.

Eddie is not keen on getting his paws wet, so he was a little perturbed when we had to cross a stream during a forest walk on holiday in France. There was a narrow plank bridge, and he could quite happily wade across the small stream, if it wasn’t for his dislike for water. There was a narrower place slightly further upstream from the plank, too. We humans crossed swiftly via the plank, but Eddie hesitated. The plank was too narrow for his taste, and the water to cold. He paced to and fro and whined. After trying to cajole him over the plank or through the water for a while, all I achieved was increasing his agitation.

However, this was where I had a chance to solve the problem, not with pleas or with force, but with a little guidance. I went back across, and asked Eddie to follow me along the stream to the narrower place. There I jumped across, in effect showing Eddie the easy way. He quickly came after me, evidently relieved that he didn’t need to go any of the other scary ways.

A simple story, but one that I feel was crucial in our relationship. Now when we come across tricky bits of overgrown path, fallen logs or streams, Eddie looks to me to tell him where to go. If I tell him to come a particular way, he will follow closely behind me. He trusts that I will show him the easiest way. Obviously it wasn’t simply that one time that convinced him, but is a moment that sticks in my mind.

Together on quite a scary bridge!

With Cassie there wasn’t such a defining moment, rather I recall several encounters with gates, fences and similar obstacles. For some reason this extremely relaxed little girl can work herself into a real panic in the face of a low fence or a tight gate. Something about the sensation of being caged scares her. When walking in Scotland with my mother and both dogs, we had to cross the occasional gate. I soon realized that trying to drag or push Cassie through a kissing gate only made her panic. Rather I took it slow and made her walk next to me or very close behind me. Eddie also helped, by going first, with me, and showing Cassie that it wasn’t so bad after all, as long as you stuck with mum.

Cassie still needs to be guided closely through these gates. If I can I try to find her an alternative, like when we encountered a large log on the path, too high to jump over and too low for Cassie’s taste to squeeze under. She keenly followed me the long way around through gorse and shrub, just to avoid the log. She, too, trusts me to guide her, now.

What IS it?

If we walk somewhere unknown to the dogs, they keep much closer tabs on me and listen to me much more than when they are in the same old park. It is at times like these that I feel we have finally made a team, built on mutual trust. I trust them not to go to far away, they trust me to show them the best way around the new place.

However, we wouldn’t have got here without walking together, experiencing the world together, and facing some problems together. Because you can't stage these trust-building moments, the best way is simply to go out there and experience the world with your dog as often and as much as possible. Building a relationship with an animal takes time, just like getting to know a human. If you don’t give your dog and yourself ample time and opportunity to earn each other’s trust, the process will take a long time. Do your dog and yourself a favour and plan a good walk in a new exciting place for the weekend! 

Friday, 2 November 2012

In Memory of Cassie

This week we lost Cassie to bone cancer. She was only seven, and it is hard to accept that we were only allowed to enjoy her company for a brief two and a half years. I want to write more about her and our experience with the disease, but can't do it quite yet. Instead I want to post an extract from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry.

The passage is not the least an excellent description of how to gain an animal's trust (a little closer every day, observing the proper "rites", "words are the source of misunderstandings"), and a reminder of our everlasting responsibility to that which we tame, but it also tells us, how and why out of thousands of people and thousands of dogs, our dog becomes unique to us, and we to them. And however brief our friendship is, and however much we cry when they depart, it has done us good, making us see the world a little differently, and appear a little more wonderful. 

Chapter 21

It was then that the fox appeared.

"Good morning," said the fox.

"Good morning," the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.

"I am right here," the voice said, "under the apple tree."

"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."

"I am a fox," the fox said.

"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."

"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."

"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

"What does that mean--'tame'?"

"You do not live here," said the fox. "What is it that you are looking for?"

"I am looking for men," said the little prince. "What does that mean--'tame'?"

"Men," said the fox. "They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?"

"No," said the little prince. "I am looking for friends. What does that mean--'tame'?"

"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."

"'To establish ties'?"

"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."

"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower . . . I think that she has tamed me . . ."

"It is possible," said the fox. "On the Earth one sees all sorts of things."

"Oh, but this is not on the Earth!" said the little prince.

The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.

"On another planet?"


"Are there hunters on that planet?"


"Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?"


"Nothing is perfect," sighed the fox.

But he came back to his idea.

"My life is very monotonous," the fox said. "I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . ."

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

"Please--tame me!" he said.

"I want to, very much," the little prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand."

"One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . ."

"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . ."

The next day the little prince came back.

"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . ."

"What is a rite?" asked the little prince.

"Those also are actions too often neglected," said the fox. "They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all." 

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near--

"Ah," said the fox, "I shall cry."

"It is your own fault," said the little prince. "I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . ."

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"But now you are going to cry!" said the little prince.

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"Then it has done you no good at all!"

"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat fields."