The beginning of the second millennium was full of promises. I was travelling around the world, attending international conferences and workshops. We were all enthusiast to learn and to share our experiences in the new “coercion free” dog world. That year I went to an international congress in Bruges. One of the speaker was Patricia McConnel. I had read her book “On the other side of the leash”, and I was eager to see her on stage. She had a conference with both theory and practice. Practice is the litmus test, when it comes to understand the real mean of words. I really appreciated her book, especially in the scientific approach of apes vs. dogs. I was analyzing the lateral stance in dogs, and it was so interesting to compare it with the frontal-frontal social attitude of apes/humans.
So, there she was, on stage. The topic was the rehabilitation of an aggressive dog.
She was on stage with a white swiss shepherd dog, and the dog’s owner. Another dog came on sight, on leash. The swiss shepherd was the problem dog.
Patricia takes the dog leash, takes a piece of food in her hand, puts that hand in front of her mouth and starts telling the dog “Watch me! Watch me! Watch me!”. I am flabbergasted. I don’t know what to think, but I surely don’t like it. It’s true, we’re apes. And there, on that stage, a human-ape is telling a dog to watch her in the face, for food. It’s two worlds colliding, right in front of me.
I come back home, and I know for sure I will not do anything like the “Watch me” to a dog. But I still don’t know why I dislike it so much. This happened years ago. I know the answer now. I know why I’ve never used the “Watch me” procedure, and why I would never use it.
The dog is on the leash. The sight of another dog, makes the dog emotionally react.
The dog becomes alert, orientates it’s ears, eyes, nose, towards the unfamiliar dog. The dog stiffens, the muscle tension is the physical expression of the emotional tension. The dog displays hackles, first at the withers, then at the base of the tail, and if the dog is really worried, all along the spine. The dog looks back at the owner.
“Have you seen the dog? Are you worried as much as I am? What are you going to do, about that? Can you help me? Should we attack that dog? Can we move away, or keep that dog in a distance?”
“Watch me! Watch me! I have a treat! I will give you a delicious piece of food, if you just watch me!”.
This is just the wrong answer. This means that we’re not even listening to the dog.
The right answer should be: “Yes, I’ve seen the dog, and I am so powerful and mighty that I can keep that dog away from us, you can feel safe with me, I promise”.
This is how we teach a reactive dog to cope with the sight of another dog. Listening to what he is telling us, and giving the right answers.
Why, then, are we asking the dog to look us in the face, and paying for this with food?
I think the one reason is that we need to fulfill our need for feeling safe, stay in our comfort zone, control the dog. If the dog ignores the other dog, and watches us in the face, the feeling is that we can compete against the environment, be more important for the dog than anything and anyone else. This is fear. Fear of loosing control, fear of the dog aggressive reaction, fear of being judged as bad owners.
Stop being scared.
If you cannot control your emotions, just put yourself in a situation where you can feel safe. I use a fenced yard, the owner is inside, the gate is closed, the dog is on leash. If the dog reacts to the presence of another dog, the owner is instructed to drop the leash. I don’t want owners to try to control the dog, not even holding the leash. Just drop it, and let the dog run to the fence and fight against the other dog. The dog probably never had the chance to do it, to fully live it’s emotions and express it’s motivation. So, now the dog is at the fence, and you feel abandoned. You feel you lost control. You feel bad. You cannot help a dog, if you have negative feeling against your dog and yourself. This is my starting point. No food, no watch me. Just listen to yourself and your dog, in a safe setting.
The second step is to make the owner view the “bad” behavior from a different perspective.
First - feel sorry for your dog.
A dog that reacts to the sheer sight of another dog, is just scared. Fear is nothing we can control. We cannot ask a dog to stop feeling scared. But we can help the dog feel safe. We can help the dog look at another dog, and still feeling safe. The only way we can measure how much effective we’ve been in this process, is allowing the dog to watch other dogs and react to them.
I can still remember the first time my border collie could watch another dog without going through the whole sequence of alarm - freeze - hackles - stare - growl/bark. He saw the other dog, looked back at me, and told me “I can cope with it”. I was so proud of him.
Second - “Bad” behaviors are a useful information to understand our dog emotions and motivations.
Don’t rush to change your dog’s behavior. A “bad” behavior is our friend, not our enemy. It help us find good answers, and, eventually, become better owners.
Don’t be your dog’s problem, be your dog’s solution to his problems.
Text Alexa Capra
Photos Daniele Robotti
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