I often talk about giving our dogs time, space and choice. Generally I am referring to when our dogs are learning about their environment around them. Whether that be a young puppy learning about all the new sights, sounds, places, things, people and dogs in their world, or perhaps when teaching an adult dog a new skill. It could also be when rehabilitating a dog to a situation they find scary or uncomfortable. But let's look a bit deeper into the 'space' element.
For us, giving our dog space, doesn't mean just physical space. It also means being fully present and in the moment with our dogs and being open to ‘hearing’ how they might be feeling in any given situation. We are observing them with a curious mind, an open heart and using all of our senses to pick up on the little clues that can indicate what our dog might be experiencing at that moment. We are there to support them and guide them, giving them any information they might need - but only if and when they need it.
Let's go on a learning adventure...under the sea!
Imagine you wanted to explore an underwater sea garden, rich with life including dozens of different types of colourful fish, corals, molluscs, crustaceans and more… Now imagine that you are down there in your diving suit, mask and oxygen tank free to explore to your heart’s content. The dive master or instructor is near the surface keeping an eye out for you, so you feel completely safe down there. The silence allows you to become aware of many different sounds that you have never heard before. Although these are strange to you, you don’t feel nervous, you are simply curious. Your wide-view goggles allow you to take in the movement, colours and vibrancy of this beautiful sea garden. You reach down and gently touch the coral and feel it’s rough, sharp edges and then run your fingers through a soft rubbery sea fern, swaying back and forth with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s current. You are exploring this underwater paradise with all your senses. Experiencing it and feeling the awe, at the magnificence that surrounds you. To me, this is what it means to have the space to learn. Knowing that you are safe and that there is always someone there to support you if needed, but being free to fully feel and experience that situation or environment in your own time and at your own pace. Experiencing the richness with all your senses. I think we generally don’t give our dogs this kind of space to learn and experience their world. We are often too busy trying to control them or their environment to suit our own needs. I don’t mean this necessarily in a bad way, I think many of us are simply oblivious to it most of the time. We have been led to believe that our dogs need to be trained so that they know how to be, act, or do things in the ‘right’ way. The truth is we want them to do things our way, in a way that suits us, so we teach them what they should do, how they should do it and when they should do it.
Is this really ‘learning’ for the dog? Yes, they may be learning that certain actions or behaviours get rewarded and others don’t, but is this helping them to really develop into their full potential as thinking, feeling, intelligent, sentient beings that they really are?
Example: When visitors come over, we might be encouraged to train our dogs to ‘behave’ in the following way: ‘Sit and wait patiently to be petted. Don’t jump up. Now go to your place and wait there. Now interact with the people on my terms / their terms. Now go and lie down and be quiet.’
Now imagine the same scenario, but letting the dog have the time, space and choice to to figure it out. To learn in their own way how to navigate the social situation, using their own cognitive abilities, and with you just setting up the environment to make sure they feel safe and supported.
If you have a quiet, sensitive dog who lacks confidence, it could mean that you set up a ‘safety zone’ for them. This is located at a distance from all the action but a place from which they can simply observe (with all their senses), the whole situation unfold from the comfort of their own space. Dogs are really smart, and it probably won’t take them too long to figure out who, when and how they would like to approach and / or be part of the social setting, or not. They can always retreat when they feel the need to, and nobody will follow them to their safety zone.
The dog is totally free to learn about the situation at their own pace, and this is what provides knowledge and understanding for the dog. It provided detailed, sensory input to the brain. It allows the dog to develop their own self confidence and ‘thinking’, cognitive abilities. It’s a natural learning process. Not one that is forced upon them.
If our dog is more the ‘rush in there and jump all over the visitors’ type of dog, we can still give them the space to figure it out, but we need to provide a little more support for them at the beginning. We can do this by setting up the environment to make it as calm as possible (even before the guests arrive). Your dog could observe the whole greeting ritual (the humans), from behind a baby gate and once visitors are seated and the initial excitement is over, you could perhaps bring your dog out on leash, gently talking to them and modelling a calm and relaxed demeanour. Approach the guests in an ‘S’ pattern, pausing every few steps to connect with your dog and help them to relax and observe the person / visitors from a distance. We want them to be in a calm, learning state, so that they have the time and space to gain as much sensory information as possible and to process it, before moving forward. This is a process I use when helping dogs who have developed a ‘rowdy’ greeting behaviour. Of course, it takes time, patience and it’s a baby step process, but, once dogs realise that they have the space to learn and figure it out for themselves, they do so very quickly. After all, they are socially intelligent mammals just like us, who are well adapted to learn through social facilitation and the guidance of their family group, and are perfectly capable of picking up on the ‘social rules of engagement’ in any given situation.
There are other places in our lives and our dog’s lives where we can both benefit from providing more space. Space to be present, to observe, to ‘listen’ with all of our senses.
I can’t think of a more empowering way to learn about ourselves, our environment and our own feelings and emotions. And, I think our dogs would agree.