...Because They Are Our Precious Friends
The title of this post is one of the many answers why I am so passionate about positive dog training. I could talk about the science, research, and inspirational leaders in positive dog training that support positive training methods, but I'd like to focus on more personal reasons for a moment.
This morning I looked at my 10 year-old dog Lance (he's the adorable black curly fur munchkin you see here, and he is all over my Instagram). I said to him in that high pitched voice that often only comes out when we speak to our dogs, "Who's my little sparkle?!" as he wagged his tail at me. This made me think of the night before when I had been laying on the couch with Momo, my other small 15 year-old dog, with my face nuzzled into his fur as he slept so I could smell and touch him with my face. His face used to be all black, but now he has what many affectionately call the white "powder face mask" of canine aging, and can't move in the same way to do many of the things he used to do (he's the one with the cute snaggle-tooth face). As I laid there smelling him and enjoying the feeling of his fur on my cheek, I started thinking about when I first met him as a baby puppy 15 years ago at the Lange Foundation Rescue in LA where I was volunteering. He was my first dog ever (you can see pics of how tiny and adorable he was in the gallery below). He was born at the rescue from a tiny black chihuahua mom who had to have a c-section to give birth to him and his 4 siblings. I had the privilege of seeing him open his eyes for the first time to see and eat solid food. I remember seeing his "nurse mom," who was a big white fluffy female dog, who would whine constantly when separated from them, and who took care of him and his siblings because his own tiny chihuahua mom was in recovery from the surgery and not able to care for them. I took him home at 8 weeks in my car in a small basket (not sure why I didn't use a safe crate like a normal person), and set his puppy space up in my kitchen with a badly constructed make-shift barrier of laundry baskets, shelves, and cinder blocks (again, in hindsight a functional babygate would have been the better choice here). This is how we started our journey together.
I think the memories we've created and continue to create make him so much a part of me that my brain won't even let me comprehend what it will really be like when he goes. We all know it will happen though. There will be a moment in the near future that they will leave this world before us, and we will have to continue living in the world without them. That "hole" that friends have spoken of, will become a part of my life as all my daily routines will be affected by the absence of him. I will have to re-acclimate and inevitably have to grieve the loss of his sweet tail wags, lean-ins for petting, and face lick greetings that grew out of a 15+ year relationship built on trust (even though I, of course, think I could have been a better mom to him for many of those years).
I started out as one of those people who loved Cesar Milan! Just seeing his name or picture now is really aversive to me, but back then I bought his books and watched his show like they were the answer to everything dog. His effective use of media is what inspired me to hire Momo's first "balanced trainer" to help me learn how to walk him on a leash. I watched as she put a choke collar around his tiny neck with the leash, which he thought was a cool rope toy like any puppy would, and then saw the look of confusion as the trainer started walking him on the sidewalk and continuously snapping the leash to correct him from pulling. She was walking quickly and literally correcting him almost every step of the way. Um- he was like 5 inches tall, probably weighed just a few pounds, and was just walking and enjoying the new smells of being outside! He wasn't doing anything "bad." Yanking on the leash and choke collar against his tiny puppy neck to "teach" him what us city-dwelling humans want him to do, just doesn't make sense. Not only because it negatively effects his physiological health and creates uncomfortable and then fearful associations to everything else he sees and is around in those moments, but it also doesn't make sense because dogs are innocent beings who naturally love, trust, and depend on us. They are our precious friends. Luckily, I was able to see the dog in front of me who usually literally pranced around happily with his tiny body bouncing up and down with the joy of life whenever he was around me, to then have his ears pinned back and eyes scanning the environment in confusion as to why he had suddenly lost control of feeling safe in his little world that so far only consisted of the rescue kennel and my kitchen. I was able to take that moment of empathy and start questioning all this "dominance" stuff. Needless to say, I never hired that trainer back again.
Would we inflict daily discomfort like this on a friend, so we could control their behavior and take them where WE want to go? I'm not just talking about a Facebook friend or an old friend we grew up with, but a friend who sees us at our worst and best times in life- and loves us no... matter... what. I'm talking about a friend who forgives you for all the times you accidentally stepped on them and every time that you have yelled at them because they didn't understand some "weird human" rule that we expected them to know even though it makes no sense to their canine species. For example, a puppy may think, "Why would I go down 3 flights of stairs to step on wet cold grass to pee when there is this nice dry grassy looking thing that the humans call a rug right next to me?" They greet us with pure JOY every time we return as if it was the first time we've ever met, and are always up for playing silly games that bring us into the present moment. This is a friend who never purposefully wants to hurt you and has never said mean things to you. Now THAT'S an amazing friend. A rare friend. Why would we do this to a friend this amazing; this special; this loving? Why would we purposefully bring aversive and uncomfortable routines into our lives together in the name of wanting to control their behavior, when there are other alternatives that can actually INCREASE the trust and love in our relationship and ultimately improve our own experience of life?
The answer is not always "well that method didn't work for my situation, so I HAD to use this aversive method." Most of the time it is because we are unwilling to change our routines and environment to help the dog start to learn from a safe comfortable place. Some may argue it is sometimes ok to just "throw them in the deep end" by flooding them with the thing they are reacting to in a way that we don't like, but can you imagine someone throwing you in the deep end of a pool every single day multiple times repetitively? We don't just put prong, choke, and shock collars on dogs once a week like a kid going to a swimming lesson. We put them on them every day and correct them multiple times repetitively in situations when they may already be worried, scared, or overly excited. If we absolutely cannot change our home situation for that dog, whether it's due to financial, family, or health issues, this may also mean we have to make the painful choice of re-homing that dog to a person who CAN provide what that dog needs to have a high quality of life. Even though we may be sad to have to re-home a dog whom we already fell in love with, it just doesn't make sense to inflict daily discomfort and pain to their lives just so we can fulfill our own agendas.
Our dogs really are like a "little spark" that we have been given the opportunity to experience in our often chaotic lives. Bright, joyful, pure, and then gone. A friendship this precious is worth protecting and learning how to maintain and enhance. If you are new to learning about positive dog training like I was 15 years ago, a great place to start is watching videos from one of my favorite youtube channels Kikopup, created by the inspirational dog trainer Emily Larlham. One of my favorite videos that I've shared a lot with past dog training clients is What Is Clicker Training.
If you are also a positive reinforcement dog professional or owner/guardian, I hope we can continue to support and inspire one another. None of us are perfect, no matter what training method we aspire to use, but I just hope we each try to create more loving moments with these forgiving, playful, pure, beings that automatically love us unconditionally and put up with all our dumb human mistakes. I mean it is really quite amazing that we share our houses, couches, beds, and lives with any animal, let alone ones as cute and social as they are. I personally, am also going to try to notice and create more happy and playful moments with both of my little sparks every day while we still can, and I hope you do too.