“Praise your dog,” I instructed the owner as she meekly stood, holding the end of the leash tightly between both hands.
She did as I instructed, giving a quiet, “Good boy,” as she peered down adoringly at her pup, her voice so quiet I could barely hear her from a distance of six or seven feet.
“Ok,” I coached, “now let’s try that again. Act like you really mean it.”
She praised her dog again, her intensity increasing a fraction but remaining only a half step above her previous attempt.
I continued to encourage her to throw caution to the wind, get loud, and convince me, her dog, and the rest of the world that she was pleased with her dog’s performance. Her voice wavered, and her face flushed as she continued to praise, her meek tone (and her dog’s focus) getting lost in the noisy sea of people and dogs that flooded the busy park.
As a final attempt, I walked across the street. I called to her, “Praise your dog….but this time I want to hear you from over here!”
She looked like a deer in headlights.
“It’s okay….” I continued. “They all heard me tell you to do it….if anything, they think I’M the crazy one.”
Finally, a smile spread across her lips, and she praised her dog. I could hear her… but just barely. As she praised, her dog momentarily turned his focus from the goings on at the park and made eye contact with her, something that hadn’t happened the entire 30 minutes we had been working together. It was an “Aha!” moment that instantly registered with his owner who moved from being irritated with her dog’s lack of focus to owning it and feeling empowered to change.
Don’t blame the dog!
One of the most common problems I see when working with my clients is an affliction that, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the dog at the end of their leash. Owner after exasperated owner approaches me, frustrated that they can’t get their dog to engage with them in public places. It’s become such an epidemic that I find myself teaching seminar after seminar, course after course, and writing article after article simply on the topic of Engagement.
But again, the problem isn’t with the dogs. Exasperated owners often can’t get their dog to engage because of their own fear, insecurity, and need for social acceptance.
Passing judgement and bearing self consciousness are engrained in our culture. It seems as though everyone has an opinion, and few are shy about expressing it….especially when it isn’t asked for. As a result, people find themselves walking on eggshells, living in fear of what others will think of them. At the exact moment your dog needs you to step up and be a confident leader, you shrivel, insecure about what others might or might not say.
Does your insecurity affect your dog?
Your insecurity affects your dog more than you may think. Not only can it prevent you from doing what’s necessary to give your dog the structure, training, and guidance they need, but it also bleeds down your leash, adding fuel to any insecurities your pup might already have, leaving him searching for a leader and assuming the position if he can’t find one.
Check it out….
I once had a customer who kept her dog confined to the four walls of her home, because he suffered from mild aggression and she feared the judgement she would face if her dog was seen in a muzzle.
I’ve had more clients than I can count refuse to use any level of enthusiasm when praising their dog, because they feared people would think they were crazy.
I’ve had an equal number of customers fear playing with their dog….I mean REALLY playing with their dog in public, because they didn’t want to look like a fool in front of strangers.
I’ve seen top competitors refuse to troubleshoot in front of their peers, afraid of looking incompetent if they do.
I’ve seen well known and well respected trainers cower and cave when their theories are challenged.
I’ve seen people flat out refuse to train their dog in public, uttering words like, “Could you imagine what they would say?” as they let their fear trump their dog’s inherent needs.
And I’ve seen countless dog owners avoid social situations altogether, because they didn’t want to be judged.
Yeah, I’m talking to YOU
You might be reading along, thinking to yourself, “I would NEVER do that.” But check your ego for a moment, and really think about it. I would venture to say that a good 90% of us (if not more), at some point in our training, have changed our behavior to “fit in”; changed it to avoid judgement; changed it because we were insecure. I’ve seen some of the most well respected trainers in the industry do it, and I’ll admit first hand that I’ve done it more times than I can count.
I’d like to challenge every dog owner at this moment to sit back and really think about the question I’m about to ask.
What is it about complete strangers, in any context, that makes what they think about you more important than the well being of your dog?
Might sound harsh….and that’s because it is.
When we sacrifice our training because of our own insecurity, our need for social acceptance, and our innate fear of what others will think of us, we are forcing our dog to take a backseat to complete strangers. It’s not okay, and it’s time to make a change.
Overcome your fear and engage with your dog
You CAN make the adjustment.
Whether you have your dog out in public, you are working with colleagues, mentors, or trainers, or if you are simply taking your dog for a walk, remember that your pup is your priority….not catering to the hypothetical opinions of others.
- Be Proud – You are working hard to give your dog structure, training, and exercise. You should be proud. Let your dog’s successes empower and drive you. You’ll find that your relationship drastically improves if you do.
- Perfect Isn’t Possible – Making mistakes is the foundation of learning and evolution, so don’t fear it. Instead, embrace your mistakes as opportunities for growth. You can’t get better without them, so quit trying to avoid them, and instead, learn from your mistakes and evolve your training.
- Get Above It – What gives people the right to judge you? What gives their words power? Even if they are judging, what makes them qualified to do so? People can say what they want, but at the end of the day, it’s your dog and you’re the one holding the leash. If they have suggestions, be open. If they approach with hate (which from experience, I can honestly say they RARELY, if ever, do), don’t give their words value. You’re actually training your dog and giving it more than a vast majority of the population will ever give, and for that, you’re AWESOME.
- Engage, Play With, and Train Your Dog – I can tell you that 99% of the time, I train my dog at the park, and we are LOUD, and we are PLAYING together, and I completely tune out the world around me. I’m met with so many kind words, inquisitive people, and compliments…. even (or especially) when I am making mistakes and troubleshooting. It’s rare that I am ever met with judgement or hate. Be your dog’s cheerleader. He’s your biggest fan, so step up and make him believe you’re his too!
Remember that, when you are working with your dog, they are your top priority…not the opinions of strangers you’ll likely never see again. And keep in mind that even the most judgmental “dog lover” is speaking out from a place of love, care, and concern. If they do speak out, cut ‘em some slack, they’ve simply lost their social graces. At the end of the day, you should be proud to work your dog in public. As a dog trainer of over a decade, I can tell you without a doubt, by simply training your dog in public, you are doing more than most, and your pup will benefit from your time (and enthusiasm) spent.