As soon as I had my first dog in the city, the question of the connection between dog and owner was on my mind. There’s so much distraction compared to living on the farm with Border Collies; cell phones, cars, other dogs we’ve never met, loud noises, parks… it was like there was a new “norm” instead of simply engaging with your dog. And because of that new environment (and the fact that I’ve had the fortune of experiencing the quiet scenario) the conversation about how we communicate with Peach and Lucy comes up a LOT in our house.
Every few months Luke and I realize that we’re not communicating with the dogs whilst on walks. Instead of using commands and engaging with them, we’re distracted and start using the lead to pull them around, hoping they’ll learn telepathy. Nowadays, we’re getting very good at noticing this and changing our patterns, but at the beginning it was pretty messy. That’s when I decided to ask myself the exposing question: “Why are there moments when I fall into the habit of pulling the girls around instead of engaging with them?”.
The answer was pretty embarrassing (to me): in those moments, I was zoned out and distracted with a little dusting of shame sprinkled on top… not wanting to appear too dog obsessed or a little nuts (to people around me), talking to my dog all the time. After a big day of work, or all the things going on in our home, I wasn’t being present with the little beings that give me my biggest joy!
In that moment I realized… if I continue pulling Peach and Lucy around instead of communicating affectively with them, I’m not being a responsible dog owner. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed training West Highland Terriers, it’s that if they’re not being fully engaged (by me), they find something else to engage them! And that something usually isn’t a good thing. The moment I put my attention on my dogs, they’re putting their attention on me. Paying attention to where I’m stepping. Feeling calmer because I’m present with them. We’re both enjoying ourselves far more!
Then I started watching the people around me…
There were some beautifully trained owners and dogs walking around; responsibly adhering to park signs so everyone can coexist safely, speaking to their dogs warmly and kindly, challenging them to do little things on their walks, praising them for getting the ball every time they ran to retrieve it. Watching these owners made me feel incredibly inspired.
Then, mingling with those responsible owners, I saw people texting as they threw the ball for their dog; missing the fact that their dog jumped on a child on the other side of the park because their owner wasn’t watching. (I’m not kidding… it was ironic how badly it went). Or the woman texting on the sidewalk, not holding onto the lead properly, not being able to stop her large Poodle from lunging and hitting Peach as we walked by until she put her phone away and angrily yanked on her dog. (Poor poodle). Or… sorry guys… the dozen people who buy their coffee and stand in an awkward cluster in the off-leash park, hoping their dog will exercise themselves with a dozen random dogs they’ve never met.
There are, of course, many moments where you and I have to concentrate on something else when we’re with our dogs. Where we have to pick up the phone, or deal with something surprising… we can’t be in control of every situation! But within all the chaos the world throws at us, the biggest responsibility of owning a pet is engaging and communicating with it. The off-leash park isn’t a place for you to switch off. That’s when horrible incidents happen. The dog walk or ball toss after work isn’t the place for you to text everyone to see what the evening’s plans are. Your dog is going to keep doing what it wants to do… and that doesn’t always end well for the dog or for the person who doesn’t want a dog visiting them.
And, the most invisible part I want to be better at (and support others in): the time with your dog outside isn’t about what other people might think of you. This includes communicating with your dog when non-dog people might think you’re one of those “over-involved” dog-owners. It includes choosing not to follow the norm that’s been laid out by irresponsible dog owners because you wanna keep things safe. Lets support each other in being responsible, even if it means we stand out.
Most of all, engage with that lovely 4-legged friend and breathe that air around you. Explore what your dog is exploring. Talk to them and enjoy every training opportunity that comes your way, every day. As fur-mums and fur-dads, we all deserve these amazing moments with our fur-babies. The connection with our dog(s) is such an unbelievably gorgeous gift only dog-owners can experience, and it’s up to us to make the most of it. I’m sure gonna keep striving for that precious connection every day. Peach and Lucy are waiting. 🙂