I speak in analogies and metaphors, especially when working with my clients. They are people who have dogs and have solicited our advice and assistance training them.
If we are going to ask dogs, a wholly unique species, to cohabitate with us and expect them to follow our rules, the least we can do is regard and honor their inherent differences from us. I impart that message to our clients before I share any additional details about our methods. This philosophy is easy to present when describing how an older or higher ranking dog sets a boundary for a younger or lower ranking dog. We need to strive to “find a way to touch a dog’s nervous system” the way that the pup expects to be touched.
As an example, when teaching a dog to refrain from jumping using English words, we should examine how a dog might teach a similar lesson. When a pup begins to invade the personal space of an older dog, the senior might grimace, growl or curl a lip to warn the pup to stop the advance. If the pup doesn’t heed the warning and keeps climbing on the senior dog, the older dog snaps at the puppy.
Since we are not adept at curling our lips (not to mention that a smaller dog might not even see it happen), we can swap the lip curl for an English word, as long as it is spoken with the same, subtle energy that dogs use to show their teeth. As the pup approaches with the intent to jump up, we can say a word like “Off.” However, that word has no meaning to the puppy until we give it value. Most often, the first time we utter a new warning word, we will need to “snap at the puppy” in the same way that the older dog would touch it. Thereafter, if we are successful, we can utter the word and the pup will back down. Unfortunately, we don’t have a big long muzzle full of teeth, so we need to make contact in another way. We can use our hands, with stiffened fingers, and jab at the dog’s neck which imposes a similar sensation as the older dog’s snap. We can also use a leash and collar. The leash offers a conduit to the collar and the collar is employed to “touch” the dog’s nervous system the way that an elder dog would make contact with the wayward pup.
When I speak to clients I often move back and forth between dog-dog and dog-human relationships. I use the words “higher ranking” to describe the dog or human who holds the position of authority as I present my arguments for maintaining a dog’s good behavior through impeccable leadership. And, sometimes, just when I think I am making headway with my clients’ understanding of their canine companion and what their dog needs to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted, I encounter a situation that simply leaves me scratching my head.
When he was dropped off for training, Harley, a red and white Border Collie, was described as aggressive and routinely out of control. He displayed a complete lack of self-restraint when a cat walked into the building. He lunged, flipped, nearly alligator rolled in an attempt to take control of his situation and get to that feline. Still, I could tell he wasn’t organically aggressive. Robert worked with Harley for a few weeks and then his owners returned to learn how to handle their dog. Harley wasn’t a belligerent beast. His unruly behavior had been a reflection of the complete lack of leadership he had been experiencing at home.
I spent three hours speaking to Ken and Barbie about their dog. For far too long, they had been exercising an up-side-down relationship with him. Before we brought their newly rehabilitated pup into the room, I explained the theory behind our methods. To help them understand their dog’s need for better leadership, I used the idea of rank, suggesting that as the humans, they must have rank over their dog in much the say way that parents must have rank over their children. I clarified that holding that higher position is not about being over-powering, mean spirited, loud or aggressive. In fact, those are not qualities of a good leader.
After what I considered sufficient time to impart our philosophy and techniques to Harley’s owners, I asked if they had any questions.
“Yes,” said Ken, “I do have one.”
“I live in the city and I have to walk Harley on a leash. When a person with a dog walks towards me, Harley might trigger on that dog, lunge, bark and go ballistic. If that happens, how do I know whether that dog is higher ranking than Harley, or Harley is higher ranking than that dog?”
You can’t win them all.