Of the many seminars we’ve attended, those from the always insightful Suzanne Clothier have been some of the most resonate. As such, this post was originally written to share our favorite takeaways from the experience. Permeating both the presentation and workshop portions, 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 and to that end, consistently asks the invaluable question, "Is it real or is it the appearance of?" This question often comes in tandem with one asked directly to the dog, "How is this for you?" Our favorite shared wisdom from her work 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. It is very simply about the authentic interaction you create with the dog in front of you and how that serves to help you both move forward toward whatever goal you're seeking. It's also an interaction that always keeps the dog's perspective, their reality and needs and beautiful unique dogness, at its heart.
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.
Another wrinkle to this lesson is the filter through which we are using it. It is simple and natural to keep in mind with dogs living in their permanent homes, be they our own or client dogs. It is not a much further stretch as applied to those we support in foster homes. 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 us humans to leave out of our 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. Still too 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 that’s all too easy to fall in to and it’s not helping the dogs. For staff and volunteers, it is sometimes 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.
Until we do a better job in this nation with creating a supportive shelter system that is true to its intended definition as a safe refuge and transitory point to a new home for animals in need, this issue will continue to strain shelter behavior programming. A big piece of that is what shelter quality of life and prioritization of foster homes look like still, quite a few years in to the growth of the national no-kill movement. Quality of life and all it encompasses is integral to shelter behavior and the ethics of housing dogs in shelter programs for extended periods of time. It is not enough to create a training program that exists as an emergency band aid while ignoring or minimizing the foundational issues that often create and/or escalate the behavior issues the program is meant to address.
That is the challenge; working to push the whole system forward without losing sight of the dog right in front of you and what he needs to reach his best possible outcome. It may sometimes seem like there is a dichotomy between being in the moment and seeing the big picture, but that's not really the case. To find the best path for both goals often means we need to slow down, breathe, and take the extra moment to approach things from a focused, thoughtful place.
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 dog with whom you're working, 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 dogs we seek to help 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 places 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.