Relationship is a buzzword in dog training, especially right now. Researching for this blog I found that the word has a lot of formal definitions. This one is my favorite: the state of being connected.
So what does it mean to have a relationship with a dog? Does the relationship we have with a dog affect our training of them? Does the training affect the relationship? What does it actually mean to have a relationship with a nonverbal species?
In science-based animal training we often put words like “relationship” and even “love,” through the science wood chipper. That’s the thing that breaks down concepts and ideas until they are in manageable, understandable pieces. When we do this we find out that a good relationship with a dog is little more than a history of reinforcement. Which means that a broken relationship might be a history of punishment, or even a confusing mixture of consequences.
Here’s the good news and the bad news concerning any dog you live or work with for any period of time: you’re either a conditioned reinforcer or a conditioned punisher. Choose wisely.
I work with a lot of people who love their dogs and yet feel disconnected from them due to behavioral concerns, or just plain misunderstandings. I often break things down for these clients into training and relationship pieces. I’ll give them training assignments which have to do with the application of mechanical skills, and I’ll give them relationship assignments which on a surface level look rather mundane, but in reality are just easy ways to put more money in the reinforcement history bank.
Not sure if your relationship needs work? Here’s a few things to think about.
Sharpen Those Skills
One of the best and fastest ways to condition yourself as a positive reinforcer for your dog is to dedicate yourself to improving your training skills. Marker signal timing and mechanics, smart reinforcement strategies, and clever use of antecedents are all things you want to know inside and out. This is vital because confusion is a highly aversive stimulus for us all, and too many humans flood their training sessions with it. Confusion is toxic: avoid it at all costs.
Fill in the Holes
So you’re learning. You’re not a good trainer yet, or maybe you’re good but you’re not great. That’s ok. Avoid confusion while you work on your skills, and if you see that toxic confusion cloud setting in, just throw some liberal reinforcement, make a note about what went wrong so you can discuss it with your instructor, and then go fill in the relationship hole these sessions produce. Hole-fillers are those activities we do with dogs that have no goals or pressure. The long walk in the woods, the minutes-long bliss-out session with a brand new squeaky toy, the quiet sharing of space while you have a book and he’s got a kong–these help to put positive reinforcement into that history, too. I’d argue that the harder you are to understand in training the more of this time your dog needs. Haven’t you known terrible dog trainers who had an enviable connection with their dog? I have. They were usually pretty skilled in THIS area.
Don’t forget that none of the stuff above will matter if your dog’s basic needs are not met. Enrichment, nutrition, and exercise quotas must be filled before any relationship can grow. Some trainers talk about building relationship via isolation or deprivation: don’t let the dog have anything but you and he will always want to work for you.
For me, that’s a sly double-cross; a clear breach in the unwritten agreement we all give into when we get a dog. The one that says we will take care of them. The one that says we will fulfill their dog needs because they are helpless to fulfill them on their own. Instead, meet all of your dog’s needs, train him with positive reinforcement, and spend some good time together. You’ll be happy with what grows from that foundation.
Now that I’ve put the state of being connected through the wood chipper let me be clear; there’s one more thing. You can’t measure it, and it goes by too many names. It is the fact that in the end, this state of connectedness that is possible with a dog is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a history of positive reinforcement. It’s not just quality time or adequate caregiving.
It’s a thing you feel deep in your chest if you allow yourself to. It’s why one day, if things go as planned, this dog that you trained, walked, scratched, snuggled, and cared for will break your heart into a million pieces. Sign up for that. That’s relationship. That’s the state of being connected.