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Task or Team?

I had a fantastic opportunity last week to go and spend a day amongst some wonderful dog people and listening to an incredibly interesting presentation on how we live and work with dogs, in particular the emotional experience: of the dog, the caregivers, and of us as canine behaviour professionals. The whole day has given me so much to think about but some phrases in particular have really stuck in my mind, one of which has inspired me to write on the topic and explore it a little more in conjunction with the work on which I am currently focusing.

Something that was touched on during the presentation has really stuck in my mind and got me thinking (actually one of many things to do so!) It was looking at how we approach things with our dogs, and how that can so often be task-oriented. We concentrate on what we want the dog to do and how to get them to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely things that we need our dogs to know, and to be able to ask them to do certain things at times so that life can run smoothly for all of us. What is important to consider is whether asking them to do that particular thing at that moment is fair and appropriate, and to think about how we actually show them what it is that we would like from them.

Let’s break this down a little, and first of all look at appropriateness.

The very first question we ask should always be if what we are asking is fair to the dog, on both a species and an individual level. Dogs live in a very human-controlled world – we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs and with the money to buy stuff and so we’re very much the ones in charge. Society has certain expectations of dogs, of the way they should behave and what they should tolerate in the different situations they will encounter through their lives. And sometimes the ways that dogs are expected to behave aren’t really very closely connected to natural dog behaviour.

For example: many of you perhaps know that an area of particular interest for me is the dogs who are put under the label of ‘reactive’, the complex, sensitive dogs who can find social situations extremely difficult. A common thing we see when people are out with their dogs and they react, maybe barking and lunging, is a pull back on the lead and something like ‘No, sit!’

Logically this makes sense to us, to get the dog back under control and in a position where we can safely contain them. In that situation, however, 'sit' makes no sense to the dog at all. They don't feel safe and there is no way they can squash that down to do what we ask. It's not appropriate to ask them to do anythi