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In any relationship, both parties bring their past experiences to the table. No one — including your dog — is immune to baggage and habits from years gone by. Every individual is shaped, profoundly and often unconsciously, by what he or she has learned in life. Moments become memories, and memories become ideas. Certain actions pay off and become useful strategies that, over time, become habitual responses. Life provides a million opportunities for some kind of take-home message for your dog.
What will the message of the moment be for your dog? Is it that first monumental discovery that the appearance of the leash may mean a walk is coming? When you sit down at your computer, does that indicate a great opportunity to eat cat poop out of the litterbox? Maybe a mental note that small children are grabby and have little regard for personal space? The possibility that biting your pant legs when you walk through the house is the best way to get you to throw the ball for her? That little fuzzy, doe-eyed cutie at your feet is a whole lot smarter than you may be giving her credit for.
Since learning arguably provides the greatest window of opportunity for change and adjustment in your dog’s behavior, it is important that you understand how your dog learns on a practical, day-to-day level. In this chapter, you will be introduced to this critically important element of your canine partner’s behavior. You will learn to recognize your part in shaping her adorable little rituals as well as those irritating cycles of misbehavior. This will prevent you from projecting false motives onto her and becoming unnecessarily resentful about her sock stealing and kid chasing. You will see how events can take on strong meanings for your dog, however random her associations may seem (people wearing white coats don’t necessarily have sharp objects in their pockets just because the vet does; and the sound of the cupboard door opening doesn’t always mean she gets a treat).
If I had a dollar for every time a wife sarcastically asked me if I could also train her husband at the same time as their dog, I would be a very rich woman. The thought of taking someone who is driving us crazy to be “trained” and getting them back as a cooperative, pleasant replacement who no longer exhibits those annoying behaviors is appealing indeed.
Many people come into therapy with their dog (or with any partner, for that matter) with the goal of fixing or controlling unwanted behavior. But the reality is that all relationships are a two-way street, even when it appears that one party has the upper hand or that one is inherently more dependent on the other. Between you and your dog, there are two individuals trying to negotiate life in harmony. No one is “bad” for failing to align with the other’s expectations. No one is in service to the other.
A common misconception is that a dog’s learning is simply about “training.” If only it were as simple as attending a six-week obedience class and emerging with the perfect pet. Here is a big pill to swallow before we begin our conversation about learning: “Dog training” is a misnomer. Your canine pal is no more “trainable” than your spouse. What dogs and spouses are is teachable by life, and you are obviously an important part of life’s experiences in both cases. Under the right set of circumstances, and with the right set of tools, learning can be easily guided. But there are also limitations and ethical constraints in light of the fact that your dog is having her own life experience. She is not a minion.
She might follow you from room to room and literally lick your feet, but that does not mean your dog is at your beck and call. Yes, she will look at you “that way,” and it is really tempting to think that she’s solely interested in doing what makes you happy. But that sincere look you see in her eyes after she’s committed a crime is just a creative strategy of making good with the boss so that things work out in her favor. We can call it an apology, but your little puppy is just instinctively — and logically — stacking that deck. Her appeasing gestures that look like fawning have another function: they trigger cascades of a satisfying chemical called oxytocin to promote bonding and reduce aggression — in both of you. She’s getting trained, all right. She’s doing the math that will add up to better results for her.
You do make a great difference in your dog’s learning. You are providing her with on-the-job training for this “pet” gig every day. But make no mistake: Life is the great trainer; it’s not you. What you want her to learn is not necessarily what she will learn. You cannot simply program her according to your wishes.
You can and should, however, provide learning experiences that will influence her behavior. You are the one with the opposable thumbs, upright posture, and bigger brain. These things give you the ability to navigate a modern life filled with doors, latches, cars, and money for the family. Because of this, you do have to be the one taking the lead — not unlike how a parent does for their child. She is simply not equipped to navigate the restrictions and demands of a pet life and make good decisions on her own. She needs you to be proactive. Though you should work diligently to create as many appropriate opportunities as possible for her to make choices and have control, there will be many circumstances in which her own ideas could get her into big trouble.
To conclude the essay, learning is not an event; it is a constant process, and it is your responsibility to foster experiences that will be beneficial to her perpetual learning. Each of those small mental notes she takes (“coming” to you when you call from the bathroom is a bad idea because you only call her in there when it is doggy bath time) and every big learning moment (particularly the traumatic ones in which her very life seems to be in danger) can deeply influence her perceptions and reactions down the road. She needs you to help her to make sense of it all.
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