Training, Bonding, and Bliss

Puppies bring revelations. Don’t adopt a new pup if you’d rather not reconsider everything you thought you knew about dogs… and life. Having new energy in the house seems to wring new thoughts, feelings, and revelations from me on a damn near daily basis. And wring really is the best verb, as I feel rather like a damp sponge a lot of the time. It’s been raining a fair amount lately and I’m soggy and filthy. I’ve wiped up gallons of mucky grossness from every surface in this house. I smell faintly of funk. Welcome to fall, the season of dampness and rot.

This morning I watched the gang do their thing: Bindi anointed Cinder with her floppy paw (which has been christened the Wonky Booper – thank you, Stephanie, for that epithet!), Peeka threatened to kill them all, and Brody shrieked obscenities from the couch. Hawkitt stayed completely out of it, placidly chewing a kong and awaiting further instructions. All as it should be: Bindi is a puppy, Cinder is a princess, Brody and Peeka are brain damaged, and Hawkitt is a confident dog.

Princess Of The Mud Puddle

I scroll through social media posts and live vicariously through other people’s experiences: hiking, wildlife photography, and dogs. Metric boatloads of dogs. It was while skimming through a bunch of posts about training dogs that I had my revelation. I do not train my dogs. Like, not at all. I don’t engage in any training ever.

I know you’re all chuckling because of course I do. But I’m pretty ding dang certain I don’t. Training, (here’s the revelation part) means teaching them HOW to do something. Heel? Break it into smaller steps and teach the dog to do each step. Nope, I’ve never done that. Come? I have never explored teaching a dog HOW to perform a recall command. My guys just do it. I ask for a down and half the time I get an up. No big deal. I’m pretty sure laughing my head off and giving the dog a snuggle for trying is not exactly “training.” One of my famous and oft-repeated lines is that the first thing I teach any dog in my home is “go away.” But I don’t teach it: I just say it. The dogs seem to know what I mean.

That’s the fascinating thing right there and that’s the kernel of the revelation: I don’t ever teach my dogs how to do anything. Yet they do what I ask of them pretty damn reliably.

That doesn’t mean I don’t monitor the pack and assess needs as they arise. I bounce things off trainers and address issues as they pop up… and with 5 pointy-eared miscreants, all manner of acute issues pop up with alarming regularity. But beyond that, I don’t do much more. I don’t see any need to. Pushing them to fulfill their potential? Mica was one of those Malinois who could have jumped out of airplanes. Hawkitt is that caliber of dog as well. It’s a shame they never got to plumb those particular depths, but how much of a shame? Both of them have (had, in Mica’s case) about as enriched a life as I can manage. I’m ok with what we do here and how close to “good enough” we come. I know I get criticized for “not asking very much of them” but asking any living being to put up with Brody and Peeka is asking a tremendous amount. Tolerating mentally ill dogs 24/7 is spiritual work, advanced level. The rest of the gang has the equivalent of a PhD in patience and kindness, qualities that I didn’t teach, but I sure as hell demanded. And Peeks and BroMan are also peddling as hard as they can, trying to get to “good dog” in as straight a line as they can manage.

I don’t train them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t ask them to do things. I ask all of them to do all sorts of things all the time. I tailor what I ask of each dog to the situation and the dog’s ability. But I don’t explore breaking down tasks into components and teaching each component. I don’t care how they get there. If I say go get a stick, and Hawkitt rips a sapling out of the ground to comply, he gets a robust “good boy.” If I ask Peeka to stop harassing Brody and she turns on me, shrieking like a banshee, she gets praise and a cookie. Over and over again, in various ways, all the dogs get asked to give up something they very much want, and receive in return something they might not value very highly. Why on earth does this work?

Pretending to be normal…

Don’t worry, I won’t say the D word or the A word (dominance or alpha) (oops, I said them). I don’t roll the dogs or insist I walk through doorways first. I don’t ever think about whether or not I’m the Alpha, but I do pay attention to whether or not my dogs are “with” me. I know when they’re with me and I know when they’re “gone.” I don’t know how else to say it but I know those are not technical terms or WorkingDogSpeak. When the dogs are with me, it’s a palpable connection that I can see and feel but will probably stink at explaining. It’s a look in their eyes and body language and just… a vibe. It’s when we’re walking and we reach a trail junction and they all hesitate and make eye contact with me and await my nod or gesture to determine which way we go. Or when they leap up to destroy the joint because there’s a truck in our driveway and I just shake my head, just a little, and they settle. It’s when I think about giving a command, but I haven’t said it yet and they can see or feel the change in me and respond before I speak. It looks like magic to folks who don’t know dogs, but it’s probably just biochemistry.

When the gang is with me, we’re in the zone. I can ask for anything and reliably, consistently get it. Recall, down at a distance, polite leash walking or protect me from danger – I know that when the dogs and I are in the zone, they are available for pretty much anything I ask. I know this because I ask for all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The word I haven’t said yet but is on the tip of all of our tongues is bond. The dogs and I develop a bond – deep, true, and fast. The dogs don’t need to be told how to do stuff because they are smart and capable and not confused about what the end result needs to be: they know they need to get to “good dog.” And they know they will find their way there.

Someone saw a video of me playing tug with Hawkitt and asked “are you training him to play nicely?” Great question. That may be the result of what I’m doing but it’s not the goal. I’m just playing with my dog. Play, enjoyment, and intimacy are goals in and of themselves. They are enough. I live with five dogs because I love them and want them in my life. And part of that is interacting with them, in a fun, joyful, affectionate, goofy manner.  

The revelation continues: I don’t need them to be anything other than what they are. I accept them fully as they are, flawed and wonky, boisterous and intense, sweet and … not so sweet. I don’t need them to develop of change or do anything other than exactly what they are already doing so well: live here in harmony with me and Tom and all the wildlife here on this mountain. I don’t need them to jump through hoops, proverbial or otherwise.

This is not such a shocking disclosure. I think most people live this way with their dogs, enjoying their unique “person”alities. They are fascinating housemates, and great company. Finding that rhythm of the day that includes dog stuff and human stuff is deeply satisfying. And that’s it in a nutshell for me: this life with these dogs is deeply satisfying. This is awesome, right here, right now, as it is.

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