What do you look for in a partner? Understanding, compassion, a sense of humour perhaps? And what do you think your partner looks for? Love, kindness, strength? Now, what do you think your dog needs from you? Have you ever wondered? Food (Of course! Mine does), fresh water, daily walks & exercise, love?
I think that above all else, what a dog needs from his human is safety. We ourselves should become our dogs' safe place. It's easy to get a dog to love you, but to get a dog to trust you, it's a whole new challenge. Luckily I never have to question the love my clients have for their dogs, however, I sometimes have to highlight to them how safe (or not) their dogs may feel when tormented by other dogs or situations around them.
So, how do you know if you are your dog's Safe Place? Well, if your dog is bothered by another at the park, does he run to you, or does he run away from you (towards your home perhaps instead)? When your dog is confronted to a frightening situation on the lead, does he turn back to you, or does he pull away from you, barks or even lunges? Does your dog ever shy away from you when you try to put his lead on? All these could be signs your dog doesn’t necessarily feels safe, especially when (attached to you) on the lead.
Now, let me be very clear, your dog loves you, I'm sure. Trust has nothing to do with love. When we cuddle our dogs or gaze into their eyes we create oxytocin, (AKA the love hormone), and guess what? So do they. This is why we fall in love with them so easily and that's also why they get attached to us in the matter of minutes. Trust however, is built on past behaviours, and the way we reacted towards our dogs, especially when they were frightened.
This was beautifully highlighted recently in Me & My Dog 2017 on BBC2 between Mitch & Collin. It took understanding, time and empathy to get the dog to trust the man. But what a beautiful result at the end, to me they were the real winners. However it was clear all along that these two loved each other’s from the start.
So how do we become our dogs' safe place I hear you ask?
- Never force your dog into difficult situations, and always make sure your dog is safe (obvious so far).
- Socialisation does not mean that your puppy/dog must play with every other dogs on the planet.
- Never tease your dog, especially should you notice signs of stress.
- When on the lead you do not have to approach other dogs. Especially dogs you've never met before. It is also not ok to let your dog run towards other dogs he doesn’t know either (Click here for more). Teach your dog good greeting behaviour from the start.
- Learn signs of stress in dogs and act appropriately when you see them on your dog or others around him. By appropriately, I mean: walk away.
- Talk to your dog (I tell Bernard about my day whilst cooking dinner every evening. He is a great listener).
- Always praise your dog for coming back to you, even if it took him 20 minutes.
- Don't scold your dog, EVER!
- Don’t tell him off, or correct him for doing things out of fear, such as growling, barking, lunging, running or pulling away from you (yes these behaviours can be signs of fear, it is not necessarily aggression or naughtiness, actually it hardly ever is). Another behaviour the dog might demonstrate is jumping up at you, or hiding being you (Learn more about the 5 F's. Flight, Freeze, Flirt, Flock & Fight). Again, you should recognise that behaviour for what it is, he is asking for help and support. It is our job to be there for our dogs.
- Don't force him to "socialise", if he doesn't want to play with another dog, walk away. Trust your dog's instincts.
- If he is scared and he comes to you, talk to him calmly and take him away for the situation with as little fuss as possible. Stay calm for him.
- Make sure he knows that he can trust you when he is frightened. Going back on the lead is not necessarily the answer.
- Don't try to be your "dog's boss", if in doubt why, read Dominance in Dogs in Dogs Fact or Fiction, by Barry Eaton now please.
- Always greatly reward bravery.
- Finally, training simple cues to start with, as well as more sophisticated commands later will help you create strong channels of communication. In turn, these will enable your dog to tell you when he needs you to step in. Remember that collaboration is the first step towards trust.
Why is this vital?
Stories about dogs running all the way home from the park, sometimes running through busy roads to get there are not unheard off. So it’s not just a nice thing to do, it is vital that our dogs trust us. Also, many of the dogs I see during behavioural consultations simply crave feeling safer on the lead with their beloved humans. This is one of our most important roles.
You should also remember: one day things will get rough, one day your dog will be old, one day he will be poorly, sick and facing the unthinkable. Then too, he will need you to be his safe place. more than ever.
If you require help or advice on this subject, please don't hesitate to get in contact