In Dog We Trust… But Is The Feeling Mutual?

The issue of trust is often discussed when it comes to dogs.  It is often a topic of discussion when a family pet creates turmoil by doing something “out of the blue” or very unexpected.  The scenarios can be various, but the general theme is the same.

The dog accompanies the family to a soccer game.  He has been there before and has seemed to enjoy himself, according to his family.  He looked relaxed and was polite and well mannered to the kids.  He lives with 2 children, and has never had any issues at home.  All of a sudden, a toddler rushes up to him and gives him a big hug.  The dog tried to retreat, but the toddler holds on.  The family thinks it is cute.  Out of the blue, the dog takes a nip at the toddler, and in the blink of an eye, the family no longer trusts their dog.

Upon discussion, we find that the dog has not been exposed to toddlers, and in fact generally keeps out of the way of any friends of the family children that visit.  He has been known to sometimes growl when the kids want to take something away from him, and in fact he has snapped but never connected.  Now, in light of the circumstance, this dog not only had his life in upheaval, but may even have to be re-homed to a home with no children.  Of course, the family could look at some management and behavioral work, but they have no trust and see their dog through a different set of eyes.   

Relationships change over time, sometimes for the better and sometimes to the detriment of both participants.   When a dog drags a child out of danger, the relationship the family has with the dog will also never be the same.  A single incident can change things forever.

There is another side to trust, and that is the trust that our dogs have to have in us.  They have to trust us first and foremost to give them a proper upbringing and to teach them respect and manners.  They have to trust us to know them well enough to not put them into situations that are overwhelming for them and they have to trust that if they see a problem brewing, that they will get the proper help required to make sure their dogs live a long and happy life with their families.

It is important to establish trust even before embarking on training.  Our dogs need to have confidence in us.  We want our relationship to reflect harmony.  When you set out to train your dog in order to establish a relationship, you must be careful that you use positive, motivational techniques.  Punishment can quickly diminish trust; especially if your dog does not understand why they are being punished or how they can do things better to avoid it in the future.

To properly ensure a relationship that is solid, you must consider being fair as foremost.  Be reasonable with your requests, and follow through with your guidance.  As someone said to me recently, “I don’t see my dog as a child, but as a close friend that accompanies me during the day”.  Perfectly said.

Motivational, positive training will not damage a relationship, but instead will act to enhance it and will ensure that you both have a history of trust.

The family living with the dog that nipped at the toddler should have spent time teaching their pet how to deal with not only their own children, but also how to act around excitable children at a soccer game.  That is fair and reasonable if you expect your dog to understand the rules of behavior.

The great thing about dogs is that they are fairly resilient.  You can undo some past mishaps of trust by starting today.  The more you issue signs of trust and respect to your dog, he will start to slowly come around.  Initially it will take time, but as soon as your dog starts to understand the new you, you will both reap the benefits.

I have the privilege of living with a very special dog.  Noah came to me very under confident, with issues of no trust.  I know his original family, and they were great with him, so I am assuming there is a bit of genetics at play with him.  He was 8 months old when he came to live with me, and we had a hard time even touching him from behind.  As a trainer, of course I wanted to start him on the path to success right away, but instead of working on solid commands such as sit/down/stay and come, I worked mainly on building his trust.  Not only his trust in me, but also in the world around him.  He was easily spooked by flapping garbage bags, balloons and sudden movements around him.  Each day we took 10 minutes to visit and address “spooky” things.  I spend many afternoons going from grocery store to grocery store, having him sit and get his favorite treats while the clang of the shopping carts went off around us.  By pairing food with anything he might find unnerving, we managed to change his mind over a period of time.

As I am a member of the SuperDogs team, I envisioned Noah as a high jumping dog.  He loves to jump and is light on his feet.  The main issue?  He would not allow anyone to hold him while I left him on the start line.  He would panic and twist in his collar, and it just didn’t seem to look like much fun.  Over the past year, with the dedicated help of my SuperDog team, he can now be held at that start line.  Yes, it took a year, but to see the joy in him as he flies through the air is delightful.  A special thank you to Carina, Amy and Sue for their patience.  

This can also be applied to dogs that are learning sports such as Agility.  They need to fully trust that their handler, their partner on the course, will direct them properly.  They have to have an out if they are uncomfortable.  If they are not sure on the teeter, they should be allowed to safely come off it at that point and the handler should make sure they go back a few steps and make the exercise easier for a while.  It is of no use to force the dog to finish the teeter for many reasons, not the least is that the dog will now feel less confident the next time a piece of equipment or tricky sequence is presented.  You will soon see signs of stress in the dog, such as grass pulling, excessive sniffing and dogs that simply leave the course.  A dog that has trust is more likely to give it another try.

Trust comes to our dogs in many forms, but one to take note of is to be very aware of the situation you are putting your dog into.  If he is not a dog that enjoys the company of other dogs, or has limited exposure to children, it is not ideal to take him to family events and expect him to behave.  Our dogs need to know first and foremost that we have their backs.  That is the deal I made with Noah.  When I adopted him, knowing his issues, I made a deal not to put him into a situation that I didn’t think he could handle.

I see this at our local off leash Dog Park. Many dogs play, fetch ball and generally enjoy themselves.  There is the occasional dog that seems to be quite uncomfortable in that situation.  Not only are they not allowed by their people to sniff on the perimeter of the park and keep their distance, I see many owners pulling them in to make friends with the others. They will not get a thank you from their dog for this.

There is also a bit of human ego involved.  It is common to see under confident dogs not want to approach a stranger.  Instead of protecting their dogs, the owner will often bring the dog closer to the stranger.   Many dogs tolerate this, but don’t enjoy it.  The dog owner is often encouraged by the stranger to bring the dog in for a pat, saying, “it’s okay, I like dogs.  I’m sure he will like me”.  It is not simply a matter of like or dislike, it is a matter of having time to get accustomed to the stranger and again, our dogs need to trust that we will do what is right for them, not only what feels right for us.

To put it clearly, I spoke to a close friend of mine about the idea behind this article, the idea of trust and its importance in the relationship between people and their dogs.  Her eyes lit up as she told me of her beloved Sunny, a very special terrier mix that had come to her from rescue.  She has always put the needs of her dogs before her own needs of training success.  Of course, you can have both but many owners will put their need for speedy success first.  As her story goes, she was at her cottage and Sunny was up on the dock.  She was swimming and called Sunny to come in to join her.  Keep in mind that he had never swam, never been in the water, never jumped from a dock and had no idea what he was jumping into.  As he was called, he jumped with fervor and swam out to her.  Her heart sang as she had a light bulb moment and suddenly realized how much trust he would have to have in her to do the jump.  Her excitement and amazement of her story came through in her eyes, and you knew at that moment that the issue of trust is worth all the work.