One thing I love about working with dogs is the way they communicate so clearly with us. With no hidden agenda or veiled subtext, no implied judgment or covert criticism, dogs simply reflect our actions back to us. Like a mirror, they show us exactly what we have done, said, discouraged, or rewarded. (Not what we meant to do, or thought we did, but what we actually did.)
This became painfully clear to me when my German Shepherd, Biscuit, was about a year old. We were out on a walk when she saw another dog across the street. She was desperate to go meet this dog, but before we crossed the street, I asked her to sit and stay. After getting the thumbs-up from the other dog’s owner, I released Biscuit from her stay and off she went with an enviable burst of youthful exuberance.
The problem was that I thought I had trained Biscuit to remain in her Stay until she heard her release cue: “You’re free.” In fact, I had consistently trained her to respond to something else entirely—namely, my throw-away word, “OK.” As in, “OK, you’re free,” which evidently I had been saying, completely unconsciously, every single time I released her from a stay. I never would have known that my training language had been sloppy if Biscuit hadn’t reflected it back to me when she dashed off after hearing those two magical letters: O, and K.
And just in case I ever start to think I’m infallible (ha!), I need only look at my left ring finger—the one that got tangled in the leash as Biscuit ran over to make a new friend. A dozen x-rays and MRIs, two misdiagnoses, and nine months of occupational therapy later, my finger still has a jaunty crookedness to it. Lesson learned.
In the award-winning independent film “Buck,” horse trainer Buck Brannaman (www.brannaman.com) says, “Your horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” I believe the same is true with all animals, if we’re paying attention. When we begin to work with them, trying to understand their ways and communicate with them to achieve a goal, they show us all kinds of things about ourselves. Their responses to us reflect our inner selves, as well as our outward behaviors: Are we patient, or impatient? Consistent, or haphazard? Clear, or confusing? Fair, or unfair? Pleasant, or not much fun to be around? Do we reward the things we mean to reward? Do we treat the animal with the same respect we ask for in return? Are we reliable? Trustworthy? Unconditionally loving?
People who live with dogs often joke about how well their dogs have trained them. The dog whines and the people open the door. The dog brings a toy and the people throw it. The dog looks forlorn at mealtime and the people take pity and hand over a prime morsel. All this is true, of course—training is a two-way street. But beyond the door-opening, toy-tossing, and treat-dispensing, our dogs can also teach us how to be better versions of ourselves.
What is your dog trying to show you about yourself?
How will you respond?