The moment of decision-making is a critical intersection in the dog/human relationship. When dog parents make executive decisions, the result is a dog's enhanced eye contact. The dog literally begins to LOOK TO US to make decisions. At this moment, the oxytocin cycle engages and attachments begin to strengthen. To further this connection praise should be given. The human should look directly into their dog's eyes, smile at them, speak in kind tones, and savor the moment while controlling the boundary.
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Healthy attachments are key to a dog's overall sense of emotional security, just as with children. The feeling of secure attachment counters anxiety, which is a symptom of insecurity. Most misbehavior in dogs, with the exception of point-specific trauma and genetic disorders, can be traced back to dysfunction in these parenting attachments. In this way, helping a dog to behave better is really about helping them to feel more secure. It has little to nothing with training them to do a skill. As a canine cognitive behaviorist, I spend on average approximately 10 seconds of an hour-long session training dogs to do things. The other 99.9% of my time is spent on family attachment-building.
Skills training should be the last thing taught, not the first. Right now our society has it backwards. We teach dogs skills in hopes that a deeper connection will be made. This can be compared to training a child to hit a baseball to somehow fix their family problems back home. Coaching is but a small, single component to parenting. Skills training is an "outside-in" approach to and "inside-out" problem. Great behavior is first built upon a well-functioning family unit. Only after this is established should we move into skills development.
We also have to be careful not to misinterpret our dog's eye contact. If the dog is the primary decision-maker in the home and with few boundaries, eye contact will be used by them to manipulate parents into action. Moreover, we have to be careful in HOW we achieve eye contact. Treats and toys are commonly used to motivate dogs to focus. However, their focus is on the toy or treat, not on the parent! This type of focus does not enhance social attachment to a parent.
Recently I conducted a behavior session at a dog park. Inside the park a gentlemen busily threw a ball to his excited dog. My client remarked at how well-focused the dog was on him. The gentleman rightly replied, "Oh, he's not focused on me. He's focused on the ball!" He was correct. The man in the park had engaged in an entirely different segment of his dog's brain -- that of predation -- not of family attachment.
If you are interested in learning more about how dogs think, be sure to pick up a copy of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior. It is one of the first integrated canine philosophies ever created. It sees the mind and body of a dog as a unified system on a search for survival and connection. This theory blows the roof off of the old click-and-treat conditioning protocols whereby dogs are simply taught mechanical skills or postures. Instead, it sees dogs as innovative, thinking, plotting, and creative creatures with a lust for life and a talent for planning and creative manipulation.
Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached at 205-563-8383 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.