The cornerstone of my approach to dog training is that dog training is not about dogs: it’s about people. Our dogs are a reflection of us. Every day, we make simple but critical mistakes that not only have consequences on our dogs’ wellbeing but on our wellbeing too.
When it comes to self-improvement however, dogs can be our best teachers. They can challenge and motivate us to be our best. The purpose of this book is to show you how to be a happier and healthier person, all through understanding the world from your dog’s perspective.
My first experience training dogs came when I was just a toddler. My mother always encouraged my gentle soul and determined mind, which were two things dogs seemed to love about me. I was lucky to have been taught the importance of respect and kindness at a young age, but within me there has always been an instinct for understanding animals.
In some ways then I have been training animals for thirty years. But the thing about learning is that it is never one directional. I have learnt just as much, if not more, from the dogs I have taught than they have from me. This is a lifelong journey, and while we can never know everything, we can continue to explore and discover. This is when we are at our best.
My education in animal behaviour was certainly thorough and holistic. I was taught every approach to dog training, including the uses of prong and e-collars. The place I originally trained at included practical lessons, where kennel dogs and compulsory correction collars were a part of our program. In complete ignorance, I took control of dogs and experimented my new techniques on them like guinea pigs.
I had initially embarked on my career as a dog behaviourist thinking that correcting a dog by inconsistently yanking the chain around their neck would stop them from misbehaving. And sometimes it did. But where was the trust? Where was the respect? It certainly wasn’t coming from me, nor was it coming from the other end of my leash.
Many may shake their heads at me, and say, ‘Laura, there is a science to positive punishment and correction. You don’t understand the principles of learning.’ (Adding something unpleasant to stop a dog’s behaviour is called ‘positive punishment’, removing something your dog wants to stop a behaviour is called ‘negative punishment’.)
I do understand the principles of learning. And I agree, there is a science to it. But there is also a science to building positive relationships, understanding motivations and setting dogs up for success not failure. I talk more about punishment later in the book, because I think it is important for every dog owner to understand the basic science behind it. I do use punishment techniques, as do all dog owners, including ‘positive trainers’. Withholding food, walking away, ignoring your dog; these are all negative punishments. We are removing something our dog wants to stop an unwanted behaviour. Whilst these measures to change behaviour may be useful, dog training should be about empowering dogs to think positively. It should be about building relationships based on mutual trust and respect.
I am a permanent student with an insatiable hunger for learning. I am fascinated by research, always reading and studying, often expressing my enthusiasm for animal and human psychology to those who perhaps are a little less excited by it. Learning is one of my great loves and I am passionate about this subject.
I have studied at tertiary levels since I was seventeen. A Bachelor of Animal Science first gave me a taste for understanding non-human life. It introduced me to science, taught me to think in different ways, open my mind to possibilities and most importantly, to ask questions. A couple of years later, I found myself gravitating to a slightly different branch of science; a science that looked at human life forms, but in a very different way. Archaeology delved deep into the sediment of history, where I learnt more about our own species than I had initially intended to. Human evolution fascinates me: as a species we have changed in extraordinary ways, but this change has taken extraordinary time.
But change does take time. It is something I always remind my clients when taking their first step into the world of dog behaviour change. It is an emotional evolution if you like.
After graduating I returned to post-graduate study in Education. It was here that I discovered how to marry everything I knew about the natural world with teaching. After tireless persistence and some overbearing enthusiasm, I got my first real job. I became the youngest Wildlife Educator at Zoos Victoria. It was a place I fell desperately in love with, where my zoo colleagues and I shared an insatiable passion for wildlife. Together, we met hundreds of thousands of children, many of whom now work in similar fields fighting for those without a voice and inspiring the next generation, just as we did.
Then one day, I met Chester. I found out about him through a Staffordshire bull terrier club and went to visit him, his parents and the humans that were responsible for his beginnings. He was a tiny, vulnerable ball on legs. He reminded me of a child in many ways; no prejudice or judgement, just an enthusiastic being with an open heart and mind, willing to meet another with the most optimistic expectations. The indiscriminate welcome he gave me as I sat down on the floor won my heart and I knew I could not leave him behind. I propped him up on the front seat of my unprepared car and just like that, his entire life came to depend on me.
Chester was just like all the animals I worked with at the zoo, except he was my responsibility. My love for him motivated me to learn more about dog behaviour. I watched him develop from an eight-week-old puppy into a strong and discerning adult. But no matter how old he gets, Chester will depend on me his entire life. It was clear that dog ownership was a lifelong responsibility.
Years went by as I combined my two great loves: being at the zoo and becoming a dog behaviourist. But along the way I realised I was missing something. The only way to make life better for dogs was to help the animals with the power to make real change: people. The next day, I began post-graduate research in Psychology. And as I continue further in my studies, I can see that there is an ironic simplicity to improving the life of a dog, because the art of human behaviour change is something ‘experts’ are still yet to master.
The human mind is a black box. It is the one part of the body that we still know relatively little about. It’s a complex, multilayered mystery that is part of all of us, and the more we uncover revelations of the mind and our thoughts, the more we realise how much we still don’t know. And that’s what I love about it.
Dognitive therapy is a combination of my lifelong learning and the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT teaches us behavioural management strategies to cope with distress. When we implement these strategies, we can better handle our response to the environment we live in, making our lives more manageable no matter what we encounter in our day. During my interactions with dog owners, I encourage them to talk about their feelings, their frustrations and anxieties. I also ask them to consider the world from their dog’s point of view. Dogs experience very similar emotions to us, including frustration and anxiety, but we tend to only notice it when they do something we don’t like, such as digging up the backyard or growling at the dog next door.
You might not know it yet, but your dog is in many ways a reflection of you. And while you may not like to listen, and you may not want to see, your dog can tell you the honest truth about yourself.
So who are you? I don’t expect you to answer that question just yet, because even I don’t know how to answer that question about myself. If I asked my dog who I am – and if he could respond – he would say that I am quite highly-strung, often unsettled and not especially social. But at the same time, he would tell me that I am able to take the lead in times of uncertainty and that I am trustworthy and respectful.
If you think from your dog’s perspective, you can probably give an accurate description of the person your dog sees. In fact, our dogs can tell us this, because who we are is communicated in their behaviour. Everything they do tells us a little bit about ourselves. We may not like the answers our dogs give us, but there is something elating about being able to recognise who you really are, who you could be and who you will be.
Chester is now seven years old. He is a deep thinker; a little needy and anxious if he doesn’t feel in control. He is a sensitive, old soul and prefers my company to most others’. Hmm, that sounds a lot like me. I bet if you consider the character traits of your own dog, you’ll find more than a few similarities with your own personality too.
Alma is my other canine love. She is much older than Chester, having been rescued from a puppy farm after no longer being able to breed. Along with her heavy baggage, she brought with her a long list of ailments. Alma no longer has ears, is partially paralysed from copious amounts of life-saving surgery, and suffers from arthritis. Her canines are completely worn down after gnawing and grinding her way through wired confines. Her little black belly sags to her knees as a reminder of the dutiful mothering she provided to many and her eyes tell the story of a long past of suffering. She is always tired. But that’s okay. She is safe now.
When I first met Alma, she was very reactive, lunging at dogs in an attempt to control them with her teeth. Her tail was permanently positioned between her legs and she consistently displayed caution and distrust. I never trained Alma on a lead. And whilst she may be deaf, I have never stopped talking to her. Together we learnt to respect and trust each other and, three years later, Alma is quite a different dog. Her attitude towards life has been renewed. In her behaviour, I see trust and respect. I always see moments of contentedness, and even glimmers of complete happiness. In her, I see a reflection of the life she now has. The life she always deserved.
Although dogs are considered man’s best friend, they are not considered equals in our society. People can purchase them, surrender them, and treat them as they see fit. People often treat dogs like objects. But they are sentient animals and we need to understand that our respect for them reflects the level of respect we have for ourselves.
Respecting others, particularly those who don’t have a voice, shows great strength of character, because those without a voice can never say thank you. Helping those who can never thank us is the mark of a good person.
I know I can’t make life better for every dog, but I can for yours. But only through helping you and changing the way you see this world and how you manage yourself within it. When a person sees their dog not just as a pet, but as a teacher and as a friend, then I have done my job. I know that both dog and owner will live happier and healthier lives.
This book is my gift to you, to help you grow, love and understand yourself through understanding the best ‘person’ you know: your dog.