Originally published July 2013

When we have had a great week at Dogs in the Park, John and I go out for sushi.  We celebrate when large numbers of clients pay us, and we celebrate when we see progress in our students and we celebrate when we finish a big project.  There is a great little sushi restaurant about four minutes from the training hall that we always choose for these occasions.  We also go there if we need some cheering up, or if we have experienced something really difficult.  As we have navigated through my head injury, we have had a lot of highs and lows, and we have had a lot of sushi lunches there.

When we are eating there, that is a special time for us.  It is intimate.  It is time that we devote to spending with one another, without the work telephone or emails, without clients to help, or blogs to write or dogs to train.  It is a little oasis that we carve out for ourselves, which gives us a demarcated time and space to share ourselves with one another.  About this time last summer, we had been to yet another appointment to do with my head injury and we had not had good news.  I don’t remember which doctor or occupational therapist we had seen, but it hadn’t gone terrifically well.  I do remember being really down and John matched my mood.  We decided that a pick me up of sushi would be a good choice.

When you go to a restaurant regularly, you get to know people.  You talk to the wait staff and the owners of the restaurant and you sometimes get to meet friends who also go to that restaurant.  What you don’t often get and usually don’t need is a friend who sees your car in the parking lot and who drops in and wants your undivided attention.  This particular day I am thinking about, that is exactly what happened.  Someone who knew John and I casually decided that since they saw the dog training truck parked outside the restaurant, and they needed to get in touch, they would drop in to our table at the restaurant and chat.  The intimate dinner I had pictured was for two, not three.

It was inappropriate, and it was awkward, but thanks to John, this person was dismissed in fairly short order.  Still it was about fifteen minutes of interruption into our time alone in a public space.  Our intimate dinner for two suddenly wasn’t so intimate any more.  What does this have to do with dogs and behaviour?  I see this happening all the time with my clients when they take their dogs for leash walks or to the park.  It happens in class too.  Twice this week, I have had clients tell me about how their leash walk didn’t work out so well when they stopped to socialize with their neighbours.  The only difference is that instead of a friend dropping into the restaurant and interrupting some intimate time, it is almost as if they set up the table and seek out someone to interrupt them!

I think of going for a leash walk as time that I am spending intimately with my dog.  That time is time I carve out with my dog to spend time together, traveling through space at the same rate, engaging in the same activities together.  That is time when I attend to what my dogs are doing and how they are experiencing the world around them.  If we are in town, we admire the gardens together, and notice the squirrels together and walk past the babies in carriages together.  We are spending intimate time together.

Sue and D'fer leave the dressing room after fitting.  Notice how D'fer and Sue are connected by eye contact while they move through the store!  This shows the depth of relationship that a dog and handler develop.
Sue and D’fer leave the dressing room after fitting. Notice how D’fer and Sue are connected by eye contact while they move through the store! This shows the depth of relationship that a dog and handler develop.
This is an intimate moment in public between me and my service dog D’fer.  It would be rude of me to dismiss him and engage with someone else.  I am in a clothing store here, so when I need to speak to the clerk, I would tell him to do something and that I would be back to him in a minute.  Being polite and respectful to your dog, gets you respect from him in return.  Photo Credit:  John Alexander

Sometimes I will leash walk my dog in the company of someone else, who is also walking their dog.  When I am doing this, the activity is a bit less intimate but it is still about me and my dog.  I will chat with whomever I am walking with, but again, this about my relationship with my dog.  If my dog alerts to something ahead, then that is my priority, not what my human partner is talking about.  This is where I find people often get into trouble with their dogs; they meet with a friend to walk the dogs, and then they treat their dogs as objects or accessories they bring along, instead of what they are; thinking, feeling and interesting partners who are active partners in the walk.  When this happens, the intimate dinner starts to fall apart.  A dinner for two is very different than a dinner for four, and if you are dining out with another couple, it just isn’t as intimate as it would be if you were just dining with your partner or family.

Like a dinner date who doesn’t attend to his or her partner, the dog walker quickly loses the interest of the supposedly intimate partner who has been dragged along.  If you have ever gone on a date with someone who pulls out a cell phone and then spends the meal texting other people, you have experienced what your dog experiences when you disengage completely and attend only to your human walking partner.  Eventually, your dog does something you consider outrageous; perhaps he lunges at a passing cat or squirrel or perhaps he starts to play with your friend’s dog.  The mood completely broken now, the person on the end of the leash may do something like jerk on the leash, or grab the dog by the collar or even speak harshly to the dog.  This is as impolite to your dog as speaking harshly to your date because he or she began a conversation with someone else while you are busy texting at the dinner table.

I think this must be how many dogs feel when we disengage from an activity that we are doing with them; when you disengage from an intimate activity with your dog, then you tell your dog that he is not terribly important and he will learn that disengaging is a great option when you are no longer as interesting as you might be.  Image credit: luckybusiness / 123RF Stock Photo

I also see dog walking go wrong when the human partner is approached by a neighbour and they engage in a conversation without giving the dog any information about what is expected.  They hope that everything is going to work out fine.  Training with a hope and a prayer just isn’t fair to your dog.  What do you want your dog to do while you are standing and chatting?  If you are in the middle of an intimate conversation with your dog, and that is interrupted, why would you be surprised if your dog then starts to do his own thing?  When I am walking with my dog, and I see someone I know, I will usually just say hi and keep right on going.  I am in the middle of a conversation with my dog; it is rude of me to disengage and just expect him to hang on my every word in the hopes that I will come back to him.  If I need to speak with the person I meet, I will excuse myself from my dog by asking him to lie down and wait.  Then my dog has a behaviour to do that I can reward, and I can speak to my friend without interruption.

How we interact with our dogs tells the dog a lot about how we feel about them.  If we treat our dogs like partners, with respect, then they reflect that attitude right back at us.  Every day in class people tell me that their dogs are ignoring them when they want to work.  When the person is ignoring the dog when he is involved with something that is important to him, that seems to be okay, but when the dog is ignoring the person when the person has an agenda that is not okay with them.  This is a very uneven expectation, and leads to problems.  Walking with your dog is one example of how this can go wrong, but this goes wrong in other ways too.

This family is being intimate with one another.  The dog and the people are all looking at the same thing and they are all leaning into one another.  If another person came along and interrupted these three, it would no longer be an intimate relationship. Image credit: auremar / 123RF Stock Photo

When you dog is asking for your attention, in whatever way he does that, and you just ignore him, you waste precious opportunities to teach him how to ask politely for attention and teach him that it is okay for one partner to blow the other partner off.  If you have a dog who asks for attention in ways that are not polite, then teach him how to ask for attention politely.  If for instance you have a dog who comes up and jumps on you when he is looking for your attention, you can wait for that behaviour to change and THEN attend to him.  Ignoring the behaviour is not the same as ignoring the dog.  Behaviour changes, and if you don’t attend to the dog when that happens, then you have wasted an opportunity to help your dog to learn what behaviours you want instead of guessing, and when your dog doesn’t have a way to get your attention that you like, he is going to engage in behaviours that you don’t want.  This is often what happens when we disengage from the dog when we should be attending to him.  He doesn’t have a way to prompt you to re-engage and he learns to disengage from you when it is apparent that you are not engaging with him.

The long and the short of the problem is that if you are having an intimate discussion with your dog, if you are in the middle of training or working together and you allow yourself to be interrupted, and you don’t excuse yourself by giving the dog something concrete to do, and if you don’t attend to him when he asks for your attention, then how is he going to know when it is time to attend to you, or time to do his own thing?  If you are having an intimate dinner with someone at a fancy restaurant and you are interrupted by an acquaintance, you would not leave your dinner companion for the intrusion because it is rude.  If you are rude to your dog, he is going to be rude to you in return and being aware of this is a piece to the puzzle of working together as a close knit team.


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