Teaching dogs to focus on us, with a cue is not necessary and may just undermine all that you are doing to allow dogs to be dogs, offering them the chance to make appropriate choices. It’s a false sense of security in the name of control. Why do we feel we need to control dogs so much? I’ll never understand this.
Linda Michaels M.A. used Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy for Human Needs and translated it into a graphic for us to learn what dogs need. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. In the graphic below, we can see that if we don’t meet a dogs emotional needs before we begin training, we’re simply using cues as band-aids. We can’t possibly gain the relationship and bond through training without meeting their needs.
Dogs naturally follow a benevolent leader. It doesn’t need to be taught. Anyone than hangs out with me or my dogs comments about how much attention they pay to me, inside and outside; on or off leash. They are free to be dogs and check in regularly on their own without being taught by me. They don’t walk at my side, they are free to explore their world on a tension free leash, enjoying their walk as much as I am.
I think this got to be ‘a thing‘ with Ian Dunbar’s Sirius Dog Training. I love Ian Dunbar and am more than grateful for all he’s brought to the world of positive rewards training. The first time I saw a very confused client and dog do the ‘Look at me’ cue, it was hard not to laugh. It’s taught like this: With one arm stretched out to the side, you bring your hand to your nose while saying “Look at me”. As your dog follows your hand to your nose, and gains the desired effect of looking at you, the dog is rewarded with a treat. There’s other ways to teach this but this is the one, I’ll use for this blog. People use other names for this desired response of getting a dogs eye contact. They are “Eyes”, “Watch me”, “Check in” and I’m sure there are others but this will suffice.
I don’t agree with this teaching dogs to focus on us. It is not only irrelevant, it’s ripping dogs off from what it is to be dogs. It leaves little to no freedom of choice, or learning about their environment, so as to make good choices and robs them of using their strongest and most important sense, their nose. They look like robots to me and I fear that it may cause more harm than good.
I completely concur with Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, and author of a gazillion books on animal behavior and emotions; when he says:
“Let dogs be dogs. Let’s appreciate them as individuals with unique personalities. Let them exercise their noses and all of their senses when they’re home and out and about. Let them play with their friends and do zoomies to their heart’s content. To appreciate what it’s like to be a dog, we need to understand how they see, hear, touch, taste, and most of all, smell. We’re most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it.”
In this video by Alexandra Horowitz, leading researcher in dog cognition and author of several books, Inside of a Dog and Being a Dog are among my favorites; shows how important it is for dogs to have the freedom to use their sense of smell. By teaching dogs to only pay attention and focus on you while out and about would be like me taking an art connoisseur to The Louvre or a nature fanatic to Yosemite, with blindfolds on. How wrong is that?
What’s most important to do with our dogs is to pay attention to the 2nd tier of The Hierarchy of Dog Needs. Emotional Needs.
That is; the emotional well being of dogs. By doing so, it would be unnecessary to make a dog focus on us. This means that we need to meet the dog where they are. If they are anxious in public with dogs, people, cars, noises, etc, then it’s our responsibility to help them feel safe in these circumstances. By engaging them in games, training, tricks, at home first, to establish a more robust relationship of trust, and then, we can go out into the world, where they are triggered and begin the process of changing the association from anxiety to feeling safe and secure. When we haven’t established this basic foundation of trust through training and manners, first, we have no hope in managing a reactive or fearful dog. If we have moved to fast, by being too close to a trigger, we have begun to lose their trust and things can go south quickly, losing confidence in ourselves, causing even more frustration and conflict for both owner and the dog. This is about the time, we look for ways to stop a dog from being reactive or fearful and start using cues, like, SIT, STAY, DOWN, WATCH ME, whatever. But what we don’t realize is that by doing so, it hasn’t alleviated the anxiety felt when triggered. And there is no learning when a dog is over threshold by a trigger. For a blip in time, the dog has stopped the reaction, only to be triggered again in the future. So, rather than make the dog focus on you, go back to the basics and start anew.
Here’s a wonderful graphic to help you go back to basics to help dogs feel safe again and be able to eliminate the use of a crutch cue like ‘Watch me” or “Check in” that served only as a band aid anyway; and alleviate the anxiety once and for all and have a much more enjoyable time out and about with your dog. The bottom line is that if you are using cues, any cue, to stop an unwanted behavior, then your dog is most likely in a constant or chronic state of anxiety when out and about.
Here’s a few examples of dogs who have a solid foundation of training and manners, under their belt through positive reward based methods, who have their guardian, first in mind when out in public.
I walk my dogs on trails on leash and off. When I see someone coming, I call them to me, we move off the trail and either ask them to wait, sit or stay depending on the oncoming traffic (out of control dog, children running) and they come to me and watch me to see what I want them to do. We all wait patiently for them to pass. Their eyes are glued to me, waiting for their next move and it was never taught to them. It’s natural for dogs to look to us for guidance, when we have a relationship based on trust and kindness.
When we are out and there is a ‘intersection’ in the trail ahead, they automatically hang out and look to me for which way to go. I can wave an arm or just look in the direction that I want to head and off they go. Sometimes I am pretty casual, not committed to either trail and let them choose. All of this is communicated with our eyes, facial expression and the committed energy between us. While there are so many more examples, I’m sharing ones that are much more subtle because it’s these that get lost when we teach dogs to focus on us. They don’t get to have choice, novelty and freedom. On some of our hikes, there are creeks that they often get to go in, to drink and cool off but if I don’t have time to clean them off when I get home, I don’t want them going in. So, the leader dog in my group, will get close to the creek and look back at me, and the look is his way of asking for permission. If I don’t say, go ahead, he won’t go in. We share this bond and he knows by the look on my face and energy, that today they’re not going in. The other dogs follow his or my lead.
Indy, a dog reactive dog, with tons of training under his belt was taught to ‘Check In’ by another trainer. He was still anxious when he saw other dogs, even though he was checking in with his owner. He never relaxed, but boy did he maintain eye contact. When I started working with him, I stopped asking for the check in, just kept the safe distance between him and the trigger and as time went on, he felt safe with me and on his own, was able to alleviate his anxiety. He is now walking calmly past dogs, even reactive dogs, and he’s not frantically looking back to me to check in but walking calmly by and right next to us on the trail or sidewalk. He learned to take care of himself because I managed the environment in creating a safety zone between him and his trigger, showing no signs of anxiety, myself or making him ‘check in’ with me, asking for a sit or a down. Instead, I did nothing but keep the safe distance to keep him below threshold, decreasing the distance, over time and voila, this safety zone enabled him to self soothe, alleviating his anxiety on his own.
Please, look at how much control you really need from your dog and see if there are ways to allow him the freedom to be a dog. You will both be much happier for it.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer, award winning author, writing articles for Dogster, The Whole Dog Journal, Animal Wellness and her own blog. She is also a dog body language expert, loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. It’s available in iTunes and Google play. Jill, is Fear Free Certified and has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients dogs for 40 years. She helps you to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. She also does online dog training, worldwide. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page