As a wide-eyed college student, I had the opportunity to spend a year in Sweden. Not only did I get to expand my knowledge of my field of study…
I became a better dog trainer.
My chosen field of study was Landscape Architecture - and had absolutely nothing to do with dog training. It wasn’t what I learned in the classroom that impacted me the most - it was what I experienced one evening, when I was asked to babysit for a friend. He was an adorable little kid - 6 years old with big blue eyes and light blond hair. Active and playful, curious to meet new people. Eager to interact.
His parents gave me some simple instructions, showed me his favorite snacks and told me where they could be reached in an emergency. Easy peasy - just a few short hours with a happy, adorable kid, right? How hard could it be?
Well…. It didn’t take long before the realization sunk in that we had a communication problem. He was happy, and he was eager, but we didn’t speak the same language! Something as simple as asking him what he wanted to do - or if he was hungry… I didn’t know enough Swedish to pose a simple question.
The little boy handed me a book - and I began to read (in Swedish)... and the kid laughed. (Sigh….) Thankfully, he was already learning to read in school, so he took over - and after he read me a story we ended up watching TV for the remainder of the evening.
So what exactly does this have to do with training dogs?
It made me aware of how much a language barrier can frustrate and confuse two humans. I was unable to pose the most simple question to a child.
Thinking back on that experience, I can’t even begin to imagine what it might have been like to try and teach him something. And I believe that’s where I had my *Aha!* moment.
This is exactly the scenario we face when interacting with our dogs.
Our dogs do not understand our language. And while they might be happy, eager and have a desire to interact - they do not automatically understand our expectations.
And this is where I began to explore the ethical considerations of dog training. To what extent do I go to teach my dog? Is it fair to punish him for something he doesn’t understand is “wrong” in my eyes? When I was watching that little boy in Sweden, would have it been ethical to grab his arm and push him around the house until he went where I wanted him to? If he had walked into the kitchen and began pulling knives out of the kitchen drawer to play with - how harshly would I have dealt with that situation if he didn’t understand my words?
Dog training can be difficult, and it can be frustrating. But it’s not just frustrating for us - the humans. It’s also very confusing for the dog.
So with this realization - I try to always keep clear communication at the forefront of my mind. Am I effectively communicating with the dog in front of me? Does he (or she) really understand what I want them to do? And if not - how can I make it easier? Because - after all, if the dog doesn’t understand what I want… is it really fair to punish the dog?
Tell me what you think! How do you effectively communicate with your dog?