Today, while I was asking my girl River a question for around the 20th time on our ninety minute public outing, I was thinking about how freaking boring our life together would be if we didn’t have an ongoing flow of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that I stand in a park and talk to my dog like some crazy dog lady (I would… never do that… ) but we do indeed have a back and forth stream of communication. Here are a few things I posed to her today; in long written word here, but we worked through them with body language and a few single words only:
1. “Would you like to enter this fenced park to go swimming in the lake? There are other dogs off leash there, and I know that can be uncomfortable for you, so I’ll let you decide.”
She chose to take a short walk around the area first so she could take in the environment and then pulled me towards the entrance. Once off leash, she ran to the lake and waited for the toy to be thrown without even glancing at another dog. Remember folks, this is my “extremely dog reactive” cattle dog bitch I’m talking about.
2. “That five month old puppy is approaching you. You know you have to ability to not react, and if you quietly lay down and wait for me to deal with the situation you can get back to the toy throwing sooner. Oof. She just stole your toy… Please stay there and I will get it back for you and be very, very happy with you.”
She did exactly that. A very sweet but slightly foolish Doodle puppy stole River’s toy less than a foot away from her feet not once but TWICE and River let it happen. She has learned over the last several years that I can help her handle these predicaments; she does not have to use her teeth or other scary displays on strange dogs.
3. “I know it’s hard for you to think while swimming, but I would really like to do some Rally-O proofing exercises with you and reward all of your brilliance with toy throws. Can you work with me this close to the water and new strange stimuli and I’ll promise to make my other criteria lower?”
She responded with near excellent fronts, finishes, and short steps of heeling less than ten feet from the water! Rally exercises are still pretty new to her, so I was asking a lot, but she gave me her best.
You’ll notice that I never gave her a traditional command during these exchanges. In fact, during our actual verbal communication I did not give her a single cue word other than our Rally practice cues. Leaving other dogs alone, down stays while I got her stolen toy back, and her focus on me versus the humans and dogs in the park were all given. I let her choose what she wanted to do every step of the way and each action of mine was directly in response to her. If she hadn’t pulled me towards the entrance of the park, I would have kept walking down the trail and waited to visit the swimming area until others had left with their dogs. If she had made a move to react negatively towards that puppy (which, honestly, would have been warranted!), I would have moved us much further away and possibly left the area. If she hadn’t been able to focus on me enough in that environment to practice Rally moves, I would have abandoned the idea of difficult proofing until another time with fewer distractions.
These are just a couple of examples from one day, but the list goes on and on; I try to make me and my dogs’ time together one of mutual enjoyment whenever possible. I try to give them as many choices about their life as I safely and sanely am able to. Life with dogs is just far more interesting and rewarding when you treat them as a thinking being with thoughts and feelings about the world. Three years ago, I never imagined that my “super reactive” cattle dog could swim in a fenced dog park with other dogs around without having a complete fit every five seconds. But she did indeed play for over an hour today, with! other! dogs! around!, and I have the photos to prove it. All of our hard work towards building our relationship, trust, and teamwork is paying off. I haven’t needed to teach her any new cues lately. I have never used punishment based training methods for her dog reactivity, and I have never forced her to do anything around dogs she absolutely did not want to do. I did not flood her, I did not strap an e-collar on, she never wore a pinch or choke chain, I didn’t have to train a ton of commands and throw away all of her choices to follow them, and yet… I have a dog I can take to a public lake off leash without huge reactions. Her recall is pretty stellar, her focus is lovely, and she is a mostly happy (I won’t lie: there is still some level of stress around strange dogs and sometimes she can still get a snark in if it’s needed!) little dog who once tried to bite the face off every single strange fellow canine she came across. We constantly improve together thanks in large part to the talks we have like the ones we had today.
So: next time you’re out for a walk, try having a conversation with your dog. You might be surprised how much you can communicate and learn from them without ever opening your mouth.