In the world of dogs, we tend to emphasize the training of the dog as an animal, much more than the raising of the dog as a canine companion or family member. By emphasizing “training,” we’re generally working towards acquiring certain skills, such as sitting on command, politely waiting for a meal, walking nicely on a leash, and so on. Yet, it takes much more than skills-training to nurture the dog that we want.
In coaching clients and their dogs, I emphasize “rearing” over training. When we focus on rearing, the attention shifts from the dog learning something to the dog becoming something – a certain kind of animal, endowed with traits.
There are three such traits that I work to instill in dogs: Soundness, strength, and spiritedness.
Before anything, I want my dogs to be sound. Sound dogs are thoughtful, calm, and balanced. Because they can think, they can discriminate between situations and understand that some behaviors are acceptable in some places but not others. Sound dogs are non-confrontational and non-reactive. Instead of succumbing to the fight-or-flight response, they seek out their person should any doubt or stress arise in their minds.
A life with humans in the 21st century is not exactly easy on dogs. Cultivating their strength helps build resilience against many common stressors, including everything from fireworks, thunderstorms, traffic and construction noises, our long working hours in and outside the home, and dealing with a public that feels entitled to invade their personal space.
Having bestowed upon my dogs the gifts of being able to think (soundness) and deal with life (strength), I’ve now instilled confidence and spirit in them. The dogs aren’t afraid to be who they are. They can “be dogs” in all the exquisite ways this manifests, including being goofy, pushing boundaries, and unashamedly expressing joy. Basically, being vulnerable.
Notice I didn’t say “friendly.” I didn’t say “social.” I didn’t even say “polite” or “obedient.” Simply stated, without a foundation of soundness, strength, and spirit, none of the things we might legitimately want in a dog can be developed.