June, 2011

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Becoming your own dog’s Whisperer

I often here the phrase “dog whisperer”. What does that really mean? Usually people refer to someone as a “dog whisperer” or “horse whisperer” because that person seems to have a special way with connecting to animals.  But is this some inborn trait or is it something that can be learned? Personally I believe it not only can be learned but must be learned.  It is important to understand our dogs’ perception of the world, to understand how to relate to them and how they learn, so we may be their teachers and friends. We need to have confidence in our deep bond with our own dogs and in their desire to be our best friend.

During the 10,000 or more years of our dogs as our working partners, companions and friends, dominance struggles  between dogs and humans have not played a role.  Working partnerships and mutual respect have forged this unique relationship over the centuries. These partnerships have been built between individuals and their dogs.

So what are the qualities of a “whisperer”? First would be someone who is quiet, calm relaxed and happy around dogs.  It is someone who accepts a dog for who he/she is with an open mind. This doesn’t mean a dog gets to do anything it wants to, but you do always need to start with understanding a dog’s basic personality traits. Are they naturally reserved or outgoing? Sensitive or carefree? Protective? Loyal?  A one person dog or a dog who loves everyone? Speed demon or couch potato (or both?). Needs space or loves a crowd? What are things that this dog loves? What motivates them?

Other  “whisperer” qualities would be someone who takes the time to observe dogs and how they are relating to their surroundings.  Is the dog relaxed and confident?  Or wary, anxious, or defensive?  Is the dog showing normal instincts such as chasing, digging, barking, smelling, exploring? Are these behaviors appropriate to the environment the dog is in? Do any of these behaviors put the dog in an unsafe situation (ie, chasing cars), or cause annoyances (barking dogs with neighbors?) What are things in the dog’s surrounding physical and social environment that could be causing their behavior? What are past experiences a dog has had that may be causing the current behavior?  What are biological causes (instincts or health related issues)?

A “whisperer” will also ask how does the dog’s human currently train their dog? Do they see themselves as a friend, parent and teacher or do they think they need to be an “alpha”? Do they just not know anything about dogs or dog training? Do they use confrontational, harsh or aversive methods or do they use positive reinforcement? How is their timing in responding to a behavior? How much about modern training techniques does this person understand? Where are they learning about dogs and dog training?  Which canine television shows do they watch?

Another area for observation would be are there other dogs around? How does the dog relate to them? Are there things that the dogs could perceive as resources that could create conflict? Does a dog understand and use proper body language with other dogs and have good dog manners?

A “whisperer”, then,  starts with quiet observation. It’s as though they were silently asking the dog to tell them about his/her life and listening without judgement. The “prescription for change” is based upon each dog’s individual situation. Often it is changing something in the dog’s surroundings and lifestyle…including asking the human part of the equation to change as well. It may be helping a dog to gain more confidence or changing how a dog feels about something he/she may find frightening.  It also requires education about how dog’s learn and perceive, and a willingness to accept that how dogs perceive the world is very different from how humans perceive it. Everything I have mentioned so far is something every person is capable of doing if they are motivated, patient and willing to learn.

Training a dog is not a mystery.  It’s pretty straight forward.  It has nothing to do with some mystical “alpha in the sky”. Personally I am concerned that many people like the “alpha” idea because it gives them justification for what is really a harsh and physical expression of frustration on their part with their dog.  However, it is important to note that research is showing that confrontational training based on the incorrect and outdated “alpha” model creates more aggression in dogs and increases the chance of owners getting bitten by their own dogs.  The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has recently issued a statement about it’s concern on the resurgence of dominance theory. More importantly, the “alpha” style of confrontational training wreaks havoc on the deep and rewarding relationship people actually want to have with their dogs. If your dog is your best friend, why do you need to pick a fight with them by rolling them over?  If you are frustrated with your dog’s behavior or with a training situation, give yourself a time out and count to 10. Then think of a simpler and different approach to the situation.  Ask yourself, “what am I doing that my dog is not getting? How can I change the way I am teaching them?

So what is training? It is getting your dog’s attention; establishing reasonable boundaries and being consistent about them; finding both established and creative ways to teach your dog what it is you want him/her to do. It almost always involves breaking things down into smaller tasks with are easy to achieve and rewarding success. If you progress too quickly and leave your dog behind (evidenced by your dog is just “not getting it” or relapses into an undesirable behavior), its time to back up a few steps and fill in the blanks.  This takes time.  It takes patience. It is effective! Behavioral science demonstrates that training using positive reinforcement techniques is both effective and long lasting…plus these techniques strengthen the relationship you have with your dog.

So, yes, you are your own dog’s whisperer. You NEED to be your own dog’s whisperer.

Keep an open mind, learn as much as you can, be calm, be patient, and enjoy a deep and rewarding relationship with your dog as you work through life together.