Empathy – The Best Dog Training Tool
Dog training is more than teaching your dog obedience. The best dog training tool isn’t what collar, harness, or leash you use. It’s not the treats you use, or whether or not you’re using a clicker.
The best dog training tool by far is empathy.
This may sound strange, but hear me out! It is a mistake to look at a dog and get hyper focused on the things that you don’t like. Jumping, barking, overreactions, hyper behavior, nipping, anxiety, leash problems. Yes we’d like these things to not exist, however none of these behavior issues occur in a vacuum.
They’re often symptoms of larger things hiding under the surface. Without empathy we see only the problems and inconveniences, not understanding they’re part of a deeper issue.
The Modern Dog - Needs Chronically Unmet
The shift from dogs being a working asset and utility to the farm and home into being a spoiled house pet has happened in just a few short generations. We’ve gone from dogs providing guarding services, herding, hunting, retrieving, and other farm tasks, to expecting them to live their lives happily restricted to a yard, a few short walks a day, or maybe even less, living an apartment lifestyle.
This has led to an absolute epidemic of problem behaviors within modern day dogs that is widespread and can be directly linked to lifestyles that revolve around confinement and unmet needs. Additionally, dogs are being put into unnatural and unnecessary situations daily by owners who are trying the best they can and don’t know that they’re actually building reactivity and sensitivity into their dogs.
The Horse in the Apartment
I think it’s safe to say that we would agree that you cant have a full sized horse in an apartment and expect it to live a happy and fulfilled life. We can empathize with the horse and easily understand that an animal such as this has needs that an apartment wouldn’t meet. On top of this for most people it’s very very obvious that the knowledge they might have is limited on horse husbandry and care, and so it wouldn’t be a great idea to try to tackle having one, much less one in an apartment.
You can substitute many other animals here, but suddenly when you insert Dog, the whole paradigm shifts to “doable”. The empathy disappears and is replaced with some variation on these:
- My dog makes me feel safe
- My dog makes me feel loved
- My dog is a great companion to me
- My dog makes me feel better
- I don’t know what I would do without my dog
There is instantly not only a level of ownership and possession, but also a selfishness. The dog’s needs are no where to be found, or are minimized to being just a walk, dog park visits, or trips to doggy daycare. The dog’s main purpose is to provide for the emotional wellbeing and security of the human, to be loyal, obedient, love unconditionally, and most of all, not complain.
We in turn provide them with an enviable lifestyle. Soft beds, plenty of food, freedom in the home, an end to any work their ancestors did for generations, cuddles and petting, we might even get them a playmate! What’s not for the dog to desire? After all these are all things that a human enjoys. They are demoted from working partner to pampered companion, and most humans seem to think this is a win.
We’re not empathizing with the dog, not using our best dog training tool. We are instead making assumptions about the wants of the dog, in order to defend our own wants. To make it seem like the relationship is on equal footing, when it reality it’s heavily weighted in our favor
Dog's Best Friend
Without a doubt, dogs have provided humans with happy labor, companionship, and efficient working ability. They have evolved along side of us for thousands of years and are uniquely able to understand us in a way that even chimps and other apes struggle with.
Why doesn’t this understanding doesn’t go both ways? Most owners can tell when their dog is happy, or scared, but struggle when it comes to other emotions or when it comes to how to help their dogs through stressful situations. Many owners don’t know how much is enough either when it comes to basic care of their dog, how much to feed, how much exercise, how to maintain healthy coat and nails, what a healthy weight looks like on their dog, etc.
Then when we enter the realm of how to create a balanced, steady and stable dog who is able to be calm, that knowledge is practically unknown to today’s dog owners. And sadly there also is an attitude in some owners that they should still be able to have a dog, even if they can’t fulfill a dog’s basic needs and keep their dog healthy and sane. Dogs have become something that many people feel entitled to, and dogs pay the price.
What is happening to dogs is very similar to what happens to wild animals in captivity, and what can sometimes be seen in zoos. It can present itself in many different ways, and what we see in dogs is some form of behavioral disfunction. Over sensitivity to things, inability to handle change of any kind, destructive tendencies, fear, anxiety, aggression, any number or combination of these things. Some of the behaviors actually look very similar to what zoo animals do, called Stereotypic behavior, with some examples being running circles or laps, frustration on leash, chasing lights, overgrooming, excessive licking, chewing to much. All have roots in missed needs.
This begs to question then, are we dog’s best friend? At what point does poor husbandry or lack of knowledge cross over into abuse? Is it right to have a dog fulfilling so many needs of their human, rely totally on the human to help them with their own needs, and have the human fail to account for even the most basic things like the 5 freedoms?
The choice of having a dog shouldn’t be do I make my dog happy or me happy. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
Training and Empathy
Empathy is the best dog training tool because it allows us to solve problems based on the dog’s view. It allows us to not only help the dog, but also solve the problem that is causing issues with the humans, and do so in a way that is both humane and lasting. Without empathy training is much more like just a bandaid and looks more like “how do I stop my dog from doing X because it bothers me”. There is no finding out why the dog is acting that way, there is no real solution that is handling the root cause. Just a bandaid stopping a behavior that’s inconveniencing with no more thought on the matter.
We can do better can’t we? This is not at all how we would want to be treated as individuals and frankly I don’t really know any humans who would tolerate very much of this same kind of treatment, given a choice. Our dogs don’t need to be subjected to it either. Bandaids don’t last forever, nor do they work on anything more than superficial wounds. Totally the same with training.
Training and empathy go hand in hand. It allows us to see past the discomfort we feel from the dog’s misbehavior and also gives us a much clearer path when it comes to solving the problem. A dog “acting out” is generally much more complex than the individual behaviors we see the dog doing, and without understanding where these behaviors stem from we can’t effectively solve the issue.
Empathy also allows us to more clearly see our own contributions, helpful or not, and makes changes that we might have to make a little easier to digest. It is an invaluable tool to use in dog training and in life, one that I am grateful to help owners use in their own lives and with their own dogs.