It’s wrong to call the behavior “unacceptable” so long as it’s not wrong from a dog’s point of view.

Turid Rugaas, one of my personal dog heroes, said that. I've been going back and reading all her articles recently, and then letting them sit on my tongue and sink in, past the sweet buds and into the salty and bitter. Trying to use them as more of a checklist for myself than as advice for others. 

Isn't this line a bit of a kick in the shorts? How many times have you used the word "unacceptable" when it comes to your dog? How many times have you decided that two feet away is acceptable but three feet away was UN? 

The other way Turid put the same concept was to ask if another dog would care about the behavior. Would another dog be offended? If not, why are we thinking the sky is falling?

This, my friends, is very hard to do. 

Think about all the reasons you discipline a dog – sniffing the counters, pulling on the leash, nose in the crotch, feet on the furniture. We use that same word – unacceptable – about all of them. But all of them are completely normal and would never be a cause for concern in a dog family. What THEY label as wrong are coming at them straight on. Hugging. Taking something out of their mouths. Touching their beds or bones. 

All these things we ask them to accept, and in fact get very angry when they don't, but we rarely ask anything of ourselves. We don't even ask ourselves to admit that they may be very troubled by how we ask them to live and behave and grow up.

Turid is the best I know at insisting – gently, quietly – that people look at things from the dog's point of view. WHY is this behavior bothering us so much? WHY must it end? What are the consequences if it doesn't end? Will the world stop spinning? How can we take upon ourselves, as owners, the responsibility for "behaving" when the action from the dog's point of view is normal and right?

Tonight, after reading that, in my continual quest to Become A Fan Of Bramble, I took him outside with me off-leash.

We've been doing this for months now, because I NEED my dogs to have a reliable off-leash recall. So much of what we do with them is outside; we'll routinely drive an hour or more to get to an off-leash walking or hiking area or a beach. A dog who is stuck on a four-foot leash really misses out on a lot of fun and ends up being left behind most of the time because I can't carry a baby, shepherd Tabitha, and hold a leash at the same time. So, for weeks and weeks, I've been trying to get him more reliable off-leash. And yes, we've done all the "right" things, starting with a long line or a recall inside a fence and so on. He's perfect as long as he knows he has a line on or can't get away. The moment he knows he has freedom, GONE.

All lessons take place at 3 AM or so, because there are no cars on the road (or, for that matter, within about a mile) so I don't have wheeled homicide to think about.

Anyway, with Bramble, here's how this always goes:

1) I take him out, feeding him bits of treats or kibble and verbally rewarding him for responding to my "close! close!" command. (I know; weird – it's a command I made up for "stick close to me but not in wrapped heel position.")

2) Fourteen seconds later, he bolts down the lawn.

3) I begin to call him.

4) He runs full-tilt across the road.

5) I get more and more wheedly, higher-pitched, worried.

6) I shake his food bowl or treat bag. Whistle. Call him more. Say bad words in my head.

7) I walk across the road and follow him into the woods, calling and whistling. More bad words in my head, trying to keep my voice light and calm as I call him. 

8) I eventually find him, usually several hundred feet into the woods. When he sees me approach, he flattens submissively to the ground and shows his belly. his eyes flat and scared. I pick him up or put a leash on him, and then we walk back, me continually rewarding him for a nice "close" the whole way home. We get inside and I collapse on the chair and think about what horrible things would happen to him if he just kept on running. 

Last night, as I wrote about yesterday, he came back on his own for the first time. No tracking him down. I did, however, call him constantly, go across the road and shake the treat bag, whistle, walk along the edge of the woods, etc. 

Tonight, I said "Nothing is unacceptable. Nothing is unacceptable. Breathe. Nothing is unacceptable." And I opened the door.

He, as usual, walked out with me and looked for his treats, which I gave to him as we walked. As usual, he booted it across the lawn as soon as we were a few steps away from the house. 

And I sat down in the grass under our garage light. 

And hyperventilated.

But I shut up. 

I heard him run across the road and throw himself into the woods. I didn't move. I looked at baby grass. I poked an ant. 

I picked up the treat bag. Put it down. Picked it up again. Put it down harder to "accidentally" make a shaking noise.

Put the treat bag out of reach to avoid temptation.

Thought about whether the pumpkins were growing. That took about three-quarters of a second and then I was back to straining to hear any noise from the woods. 

I heard a stick break. It sounds like it's in the next zip code. He's GONE! He's TOTALLY GONE. I stood up.

I sat down.

I put my forehead on my knees. 

Bramble jumped on my neck.

I looked up, tried to say something, said "Can you down?" and he flung himself on his back, wiggling his paws at me. Downs and sits and downs again, offers me a high-five, rolls over. Many treats. 

And then all on his own he ran to the door and jumped against it to be let in. 

Tonight was the first time, the FIRST, in all these months that I have felt that little spiderweb of joining with him. The first I have not gotten that fear/sorrow/regressing/shutting in message from him. The first I felt him make a decision to approach and open up and connect, and knew that he was getting a kick out of my pleasure. It was such a tiny little step but so very worth it. 

And it's because I let him run across the road. Of that I am sure. It's the one thing he always wants to do, the one thing I always try to shut down, the point at which I start to yell, the trigger for all the times it's been an arm-wrestling match between him and me. 

I shut up and let him do it, and the difference was enormous.

Now please – I don't want anybody thinking that you should just let your dogs run across roads all the time. I'm certainly not going to start letting him run across – or even approach – the road during the day; I'm not going to start teaching baby puppies to go in the road. What I mean is that when I let go of that UNACCEPTABLE, I made a connection that will, if I am careful and savvy and open to him talking to me, allow me to eventually call him off the road, or away from things that are dangerous, because he feels like I'm on his side and not against him. The fact that it was the road really means nothing; it could have been any issue.

If I am trying to see things from my dog's point of view, ending the use of that word "unacceptable," I will do less punishing and begin to expect more of myself. A dog who jumps up on the counters reminds me that my first job is to put the food up high, and THEN we train no noses on counters. My first job is giving the dog confidence that I am good at screening guests, THEN we work on no crotch-sniffing. My first job is providing enough exercise, THEN we work on not chewing the couch. I behave; now we have a conversation about what living in my pack means. I'm predictable; now we talk about you trusting me enough not to fear-bark all the time. I'm stable; now we figure out how to travel together. 

If I have not behaved first, if I am still seeing That Dog as an obstacle that must be overcome, then all I will do is punish and punish and punish while the gulf between us widens.

I have the frontal cortex; I need to use it to imagine what it is like to be a dog before I can expect the dog to behave like a (polite) human. 

And Bramble? Got a bowl of ice cream inside. And we'll try it again tomorrow.




If this was helpful to you and you'd like to help us rescue and foster dogs, here are Amazon links to the books and tools mentioned in the article – and thank you so much!

- Joanna