This is Part 3 of the Your Dog is Your Life Coach series.
Part 3: Change takes time. Pace yourself and allow your dog to pace himself too
People rarely embrace change. Has anyone other than me stayed in a mediocre relationship longer than you should’ve because the unknown was scarier than the known? Have you ever had a friend who lost weight feel that her family was sabotaging her by offering her cookies? That doesn’t happen because the family doesn’t want her to be healthier, it happens because on some level, many of us resist change and would prefer to keep the status quo no matter how messed up it might be. Be prepared for the fact that your dog may feel the same way! Changes you initiate may be scary for no other reason than because they’re change. You may decide you want to change or deepen your relationship with your dog, but he or she has to agree to that change in order for it to happen.
Remember, there’s no chance that you’re going to be perfect 100% of the time when interacting with your dog, so please don’t expect your dog to be perfect either. I make mistakes with my dog all the time. I don’t clearly communicate what I’m asking. I misunderstand him. Or I miss what he’s telling me. Your dog is going to misunderstand or ignore you sometimes. Sometimes, she’s going to say “no.” You’ll have some hits and some misses. Part of understanding your dog is accepting that she has her own thoughts and feelings, and making some space to listen to how she feels.
Where to start? Here are some ideas.
First, if you’re prone to losing your temper with your dog, you have to stop. We’re all human. It happens. But you can undo a lot of good relationship work by screaming at your dog. It makes you unpredictable. No one likes being around someone unpredictable. Especially when they’re introducing change.
Second, make a point of noticing your dog more. Notice what she does when she gets up in the morning. Does she tend to lay in the same spot or move around during the day? Is there something that causes her to move? Maybe the sun stops shining on a spot, maybe one of your kids comes home. Whatever it is, just notice. It provides insight into what she’s thinking. When you take her outside, does she want to sniff everything for a while before taking off on a walk, or does she charge out the door? That will tell you a lot about whether she’s got pent up energy or may feel she’s getting plenty of exercise.
Third, if you aren’t familiar with dogs’ nonverbal skills, educate yourself. A tail going around in a circle like a propeller is the happiest tail of all. A tail that is standing straight up and vibrating can indicate stress. A tail tucked between hind legs belongs to a dog who is feeling scared or intimidated. In order to understand your dog better, you need to learn his language as much as possible. That means paying attention to ears, muzzles, and body posture.
Also, make your first change easy and small. Try practicing basic commands to sit, stay, and down. (Come is often harder.) It doesn’t matter if your dog already knows them; spending five minutes a day going through those requests in different places around the house and outside, especially if there are distractions, reinforces the rapport between you and your dog. Spending time with you is probably at the top of your dog’s list of things to do, so time spent working on obedience is fun time together. It means you’re valuing time with your dog above anything else, and that is its own reward. Treats or some play time with a special toy when you’re finished makes it even more impactful.
Remember, your dog is a master observer. He could tell you things about you that you probably don’t even know. So, your dog is going to start noticing you noticing him. That’s good. He’s probably going to be happy that you’re paying more attention. Make a point of trying to catch him doing things right. It can be small things like waiting to get out of the car until you say “okay,” or releasing a ball when you say “drop it.” Reward him with affection, your tone of voice, or a cookie. Ideally, you want your dog looking to you for affirmation that he’s a good boy. Don’t we all feel good when we’ve done something to make the people that we care about happy? Your dog is no different.
Lastly, make sustainable changes. If you go on a 1000 calorie a day diet that requires you to change everything about what you eat, you know it’s not going to be sustainable for very long. Same goes with these subtle changes with your dog. Commit to doing things that are sustainable in your relationship. That can be a little or a lot, but your dog is going to be confused and disappointed if you start interacting with him more and then just stop. In fact, he may decide that negative attention is better than no attention and start acting out.
To sum up, remember that both you and your dog have to agree for your relationship to change in order for it do so. Despite our natural resistance to change, if you show your dog that the change you’re introducing is good – it’s time with you, treats, trust, and playtime – you’ll likely find him receptive to your overtures.