As dog parents, it's important that we learn to be trustworthy. If our dogs don’t trust us to keep them safe or can’t count on us to meet their needs reliably, then they will develop strategies to do this on their own terms. But how do we become trustworthy partners for our dogs?
A trustworthy partner is someone you can rely on. Not only to meet your needs, but also someone who knows you and understands you, and is willing to find creative solutions when challenges arise. Here is a lesson on what it means to be trustworthy, that came from an experience with my dog, Charlie:
Some years back, on our daily walk, we had to pass a couple of houses where the dogs would charge the fence, barking and lunging at us as we passed. Although this was on route to an area where my dogs could have some fun, off-leash time down at the river, it was always unpleasant when we had to pass these few houses, and Charlie would get really upset. He would whine, his body wound tense up, his head would go down and he pulled hard to get past the dogs as quickly as possible. Of course I knew he wasn’t comfortable so I would cross to the other side of the road well before we passed those particular houses, and make sure that I put as much distance as possible between us and the angry dogs. I also knew that the neighbour’s dogs were secure behind their fence and couldn’t get to us or harm us in any way. I would tell Charlie that everything was okay, that we were safe and that nothing bad would happen. But day after day, week after week and month after month, nothing changed. Charlie never became more relaxed when passing those dogs, in fact it got steadily worse. He started to whine and pull much sooner as we approached those houses and eventually he started to indicate to me that he didn't even want to go on walks anymore. When I would bring his leash and harness from the cupboard, he would go to another room and lay down, looking at me sadly. This was really difficult for me to see, because I know how much Charlie loves to run and play once we arrive at the riverside, but clearly he was so stressed by walking past these dogs, that he was willing to forgo the pleasurable part of the walk that followed.
I really wanted Charlie to understand that he didn’t have to fear those barking dogs, and that I would keep him safe, but clearly this was not working for him. Our communication channel seemed to be blocked. Why could he not understand that I had his back - that he could trust me? Why couldn't he see that those dogs would do him no harm?
Or, was there something else I was missing? Did I need to shift my perspective? Was it because I wasn’t actually listening to Charlie and taking his needs and feelings seriously enough? Was I communicating to him instead that his feelings weren't valid, and that I would continue to leave him no choice but to face his fears daily, despite his obvious stress and discomfort?
What would a trustworthy partner do instead?
A trustworthy partner would make the individual feel heard, and would acknowledge their feelings and emotions as real and valid from their perspective. They would not seek to 'fix the fear' or to 'fix the dog', but to support them to feel safe in a way that felt good for them. This meant shifting my mindset from, ‘let me fix you, so that you don’t feel afraid anymore’, to ‘let me find ways to support you so that you can feel safe’.
The solution was actually quite easy. Instead of hours and hours of training & desensitizing to get Charlie to walk past the other dogs calmly, we simply got in the car and drove 3 minutes down to the riverside. By doing this, we bypassed all the neighbourhood dogs and all the stress!
It seemed a bit crazy at the time, and I certainly got some odd looks and comments from neighbours when they found out that I was choosing to drive the one kilometer to the river instead of just walking there.
But, this small act totally changed our walks and changed our partnership. Our walks were now stress-free and fun. I felt better, Charlie felt better and he trusted me more. I was learning what it meant to be trustworthy.
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