I hear this statement all the time when people are talking about dogs who are doing things that the people don’t like. I have begun to ask “whose mind did you think he would have?” “You have a mind of our own” has become a statement that people use as a way of putting someone down for holding an opinion different from our own, or for doing things that are important to you but not to the person making the statement. Here is the thing. We each have a mind of our own! And that is a pretty good thing too. Imagine if we all had to operate from one point of view. Nothing would ever change, collaboration would not occur, and we would miss all sorts of amazing activities just because we all had exactly the same idea at the same moment.
Part of the problem I think exists because we want our dogs to follow along and figure out exactly what it is that we have in mind like little furry mentalists. We behave as though dogs come preprogrammed with all of our quirks and preferences already installed. If I am going to get in the car, I shouldn’t have to put Fido on a leash and guide him there; he should just know that is where we are going and he should just do what we expect him to do. The problem is that Fido may not have read the memo! And Fido may have other things on his mind. Fido may be more concerned with emptying his bladder, or reading the pee mail, or he may perceive things we are unaware of that are tugging for his attention.
To start to address this issue of Fido having a mind of his own, you have to begin from the point of asking what is in it for Fido. Does Fido know what you expect and is it something that is of interest to him? I often see my clients making the mind of his own statement about things that they haven’t taken the time to properly teach, train and proof. Take leash walking for instance. Leash walking is actually a fairly difficult skill for dogs to master. We don’t walk at the right speed for most dogs, and we often don’t take into account that we may not indicate clearly when we are going to turn or stop, so if the dog gets distracted at all, he is going to goof and likely make the leash tight. Add in that unless the dog is elderly, his agenda is likely going to include things like pulling you to make you get to where he wants to go faster. If he wants to get to the park to get off leash, and he drags you down the road and gets to the park, then dragging you down the road is the most sensible way for him to get to his goal and his priority. Instead of fighting with dogs about leash manners, I suggest driving them to the place you are going to let them off leash and then work on leash manners separately. You will get a dog with better leash manners in the end with a lot less frustration along the way.
And what is in it for the dog? Walking on a loose leash may lead to the park in the end, but if it takes twenty minutes of fighting about keeping the leash loose to get you to the park, then is there actually any point? The problem with goals like getting to the park as a reward for loose leash walking is that the behaviour is too complex and of too long a duration to allow the dog to understand that it isn’t just the final forty steps of walking on a loose leash that count; it is all the steps. If you were going to be successful at making loose leash walking work for your dog, you would have to reward much shorter increments of the behaviour, which means either working on it for shorter periods of time, or perhaps not putting it into the most exciting part of the dog’s life. I think teaching loose leash walking on the way to the park is a little like trying to learn statistics at your wedding. You have bigger priorities to think about than the mean, median and mode! For you dog, trying to learn a complex behaviour such as leash walking while on the way to the park is probably more difficult than trying to learn stats at your wedding.
We also have to be aware of our dog’s priorities when we expect them to fall into line. If your dog is too cold, or too hot, or hungry or thirsty, or tired, or feeling sick, or if he has a full bowel or bladder, he is going to be on his own agenda to fill his own needs. It is unfair to ask our dogs to follow along with our plans when we haven’t met their basic needs for food, water, shelter and health. It is worse, when our dogs are in pain! All too often I see people asking very painful dogs to do things that are just plain difficult for them because it hurts. Some of the time the people are asking their dogs to do things that are not out of the ordinary, and the pain has crept up on them. Getting up off the floor, getting in and out of a car and walking on ice or hard surfaces are all things that get dogs into trouble if they are struggling with pain. If the dog has been doing these things and now he cannot, or seems reluctant, it can seem like he or she may have suddenly have had an attack of being on their own agenda, when in fact they simply can’t do what you want them to do.
Having a mind of his own is precisely what we want from dogs and yet, we also don’t want them to be that way either. We choose highly active dogs, and then we lament that they need exercise every day, not just when it suits us. We choose dogs with thick coats and then deplore that they are slugs in the heat or that they prefer to spend all day out in the yard when the temperatures drop. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all though is that we want to share our lives with dogs who can hear and smell things we cannot perceive. This is really convenient when we want a tracking dog to follow a scent, or a guard dog to alert us to an intruder coming towards the house, but that works out less well when the dog is aware of things he wants and we cannot perceive. I see this all the time when I see dogs coming into the training hall. Before the dog even enters the room he knows if I am onsite, and if I am, often he is very excited to see me. Before the person knows what to expect, he is pulling to greet me and he has been building up a head of steam since they turned into the parking lot. I have also seen this in my own dogs who know exactly what I have brought for them before I pull it out of my pocket! This trait of living with a being who knows more about the world than we do can be endlessly exciting or frustrating depending upon what the situation might be.
When we say “he has a mind of his own” we really have said that we are not thinking in true partnership. We are thinking about how we want something that we are not getting ,or that we have a priority that we haven’t communicated well to our dog. In order to get the most out of our relationships with our dogs, we need to start thinking about how we move through the world with our dogs instead of against them. When we are in a deep and abiding partnership with a dog, we rarely run into situations where we are not at least more or less on the same page. As often as we ask our dogs to do things that they may not really want to do, we offer them opportunities to do things that are less than important to us. Like our human partnerships, the best partnerships with our dogs are a constant game of give and take.