We recently attended a wonderful seminar by Suzanne Clothier and promised to share some of our favorite bits of wisdom and inspiration from the experience. The wealth of information from the presenter is vast but permeating all of it, as is true with all of Clothier’s work, is the notion of simplicity and the beauty of interaction between human and dog.
Clothier is not a fan of bells and whistles or showmanship. She is all about the authentic interaction. She consistently asked the invaluable question, “Is it real or is it the appearance of?” This question often came in tandem with one asked directly to the dog, “How is this for you?” Our favorite shared wisdom from the weekend can be boiled down to such a simple idea because that’s the idea that drives everything else. When you are working with a dog, it is not about gimmicks and jargon. It is very simply about the authentic interaction you create with the animal and how it serves to help you both move forward toward whatever goal you’re seeking.
Trainers and dog owners alike can get lost in looking for that, “Wow!” factor. But much of genuine communication with dogs is subtle. Helping a dog get to the place they (or both of you) need to go, doesn’t always make for riveting television. But if you are truly engaged in the moment with your dog, it is a riveting experience indeed. This is what Clothier calls “dances with dogs.” It’s a level of communication and learning, of mutually beneficial journey, that is only possible when the interaction and the experience are wholly authentic.
While this isn’t a new concept or practice for our team, it was lovely to see it presented in this particular context, and used so cleanly as a foundation for working through a variety of specific issues. Ms. Clothier has a knack for boiling things down to the most digestible, logical level. There are a lot of knowledgable dog folks out there pushing a lot of different ideas that certainly can work. But the questions we found ourselves asking as follow-ups to the first one were, “Is it necessary? Is there a simpler way? Do we need a constructed program or scenario to solve the problem that’s happening in real time, during day to day life with a dog?” For the record, the answer to those questions is not always the same. Sometimes, it is necessary. Intentional training set-ups can be invaluable to building skills that allow for progress and improvement. But often, we overcomplicate the exchanges we need to be having between just us and the dog.
Another wrinkle to this lesson is the filter through which we use it. It is simple and natural to keep in mind with our dogs at home. It is not a much further stretch as applied to those we work with as alumni or fosters. It becomes more difficult when dogs are living in the shelter environment. Shelter life is not easy for dogs, and the impact of that can be hard for handlers to leave out of their interactions. It can be challenging enough at a no-kill shelter, but it is a different matter entirely for the actively at-risk shelter population.
The biggest impediment to this type of interaction in the shelter and rescue world is pressure. Time. Often, shelter dogs don’t have it, in the most literal and heartbreaking sense of the word. As a result, staff and volunteers are dealing with both their feelings about what could happen to a dog that they care very much about and with the pressure of just making something happen to help that dog. It often leads to an emotionally charged act of going through the motions without the type of calm, paced, learning exchange that really benefits the dog; or of seeking “shortcuts” to use as an emergency band-aid. Our fear about what a behavior could mean for a dog in that situation can lead to either downplaying the behavior to protect the dog or overreacting to the behavior because, as treatable and manageable as it may be, it is enough to put the dog at-risk.
It’s a very real, and very destructive pattern in many shelters and it’s not helping the dogs. It is compounded by the added pressure and time constraint of trying to get as many dogs out of their kennels as is possible. We wrote in more depth about practical solutions to improve the shelter experience for all involved, but stopping to ask those two invaluable questions, “Is this authentic?” and, “How is this for the dog?” can be a much needed grounding moment in the often far too high stakes world of shelter behavior. Before we can help the dogs be okay and get centered in a way that allows them to learn and engage, we have to get ourselves there first.
It is enormously freeing when pressure and time constraints are removed from the interaction. Better still when you can control the environment and care standards of the animal, removing potential stressors and working truly just on relationship, communication, and behavior. It is towards that end that we should all be pushing. But right now, we are sometimes bound by constraints we cannot control. What we can control is our interaction with the animals we seek to save and the example we set when we show what they are capable of when we replace the word can’t with the word how. We can be present. We can be authentic. And we can see the exchange from the dog’s point of view.
If we can do that, the place we go with our dogs and how we choose to get there will be richer each and every time and the benefit of all we learn and the progress we make will mean it’s that much easier next time we meet a dog at-risk who needs us to help them find the path home.