Dogs and respect

One of the very common themes I hear among laypeople and dog trainers alike concerns respect.

“Your dog should respect you,” or “I want my dog to respect me” are common statements.

I like to think my dogs respect me. However, consider this. I’m standing in a burning building. A local teacher, S, whom I greatly respect, is saying, “Jenna! Jump through these flames! It’ll be all right!” I think to myself, Have you lost your mind, S? It won’t be all right! In that moment, I don’t need respect. I need trust.

When someone says to me, “I want my dog to obey me,” that really has nothing to do with respect. Respect is a sense of admiration for someone. Am I going to obey someone I admire? Welllll… maybe. It depends, doesn’t it?

So what do people really want when they say, “I want my dog to respect me”? They’re saying, “I want my dog to listen to me and obey.” That’s a much different ballgame. And hey, I understand it. I feel the same way. If I’m in a burning building, I want my dogs to do what I tell them when I say, “Jump through these flames to safety,” even though they can’t fully understand what I’m saying.

The question really becomes: how do I get my dog to listen and obey?

Well, obeying is easy. Enforce what you say, and reward when they comply. This really depends on the person (not the dog), and how consistent they are. Essentially, we’re teaching our dogs human language. They only learn things if those things mean the same thing every time. If I say, “Lily, get off the couch,” and then I grab her collar, make her get off the couch, then praise her for getting off the couch, she knows what I meant. If I say the same thing, but then decide, “Eh, too much effort,” and walk away, she has no idea what those words were that I said. So, first big step to a dog who listens? Command, enforce, praise, consistency. Do it in a lot of different situations. Don’t give up just because your friends are visiting. (Then your dog just learns that with people around, that same phrase means something else.)

Next: trust. If I want my dog to leap through flames, it’s not respect I need. It’s the consistency of listening to me in all situations and trust. Trust is a tricky subject, and goes back to respect. But not in the way we’re used to thinking.

Today I was working with a sweetheart of a dog, Hannah. Hannah is afraid of people. When she was willing to walk through crowds confidently, we upped her work to taking treats from humans. When the first human tried to pet her and she said no, what did we do? We agreed. We supported her decision to say she wasn’t ready for that. We said, “no problem, honey. We’ll back you up here, and we won’t let that person touch you.” In short, we respected Hannah’s decision. Eventually we might say, “hey, really now, let’s try something new,” but for now? For now she said, “This TERRIFIES me!” and we said, “Then don’t do it. That’s fine.” We’re building trust. We’re respecting her, and she’s learning that we won’t ask her for what she can’t handle. If we’d forced her to be petted, she’d have been terrified. It would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. She thinks it’ll be terrible, she’s so scared when we force her into it that it is terrible, she’s proven right, and we can’t be trusted. Instead, we respect her, and she can trust us: when we do say, “hey, you’re pretty calm around people. Just let this one touch your chin. It’s not so bad.” Then she can start to say, “Hey, that’s not so bad. You let me escape when I needed to. I got a treat. It was only a brief touch and I can handle that. I guess you’re right.”

Now, back to the fire. “Cash!” I say. “Come!” Through flames and to me. He would probably whine. I would say it again. This is the command we’ve worked on in every scenario I can find, so he knows what it means. More importantly, though, he knows that I’ve never asked of him something he can’t do. He trusts me, because I respected what he was telling me.

He leaps, and we escape the burning building. Was it because he respected me? Heavens no! It was because I’d respected him, and I’d taken the time to build trust.

The next time you’re thinking you want your dog to respect you, stop and think. Do you really want them to look at you with admiration? Or do you want them to listen, obey, and trust you? If it’s the latter, start working on that. You have to give them a reason to trust you. The best reason to trust you is the knowledge that you respect them and their limits.

Go for it guys! Go build some mutual respect.



3 thoughts on “Dogs and respect

  1. trust is so very important. It took a long time for Fred to trust me, then she had to trust dadwithoutpaws.. She has been with us now 10 months and just the past couple of weeks we have noticed she is wagging her tail more often. My first rescue dog took a year before she barked. Each at their own speed.. The benefits are enormous

    • Well done! It does take rescues time to come around, and the more they’ve been bounced around the longer it takes. Huzzah for hanging in there!

      (Sorry I didn’t respond sooner; I didn’t see this reply until tonight!)


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