Photo by Ruth Nielsen

If you’ve ever longed for connection with your dog but aren’t sure what that looks like or how to get it, this blog’s for you!

With some dogs connection comes easier than others. My connection with Indie seemed to be instant – she has understood me since the day I brought her home; everything has been effortless. Moxie, in contrast, is making me work for it. If Indie has shown me what connection could be, Moxie is challenging me to build it from scratch – most days I’m not even sure she likes me.

It’s nearly impossible to have a great performance in the ring without great connection as well. Here again, Moxie and I have struggled. She is without question the most raw-talented dog in my home yet we seem to always be on different pages, have competing agendas and clashing goals. I’ve been frustrated, disappointed and generally bummed out. I have done online classes, consulted communicators and searched for the insight that will transform our relationship.

One of the most impactful practices I’ve adopted is to constantly approach Moxie with curiosity. “Why is she disconnecting and sniffing the ground?” Instead of, “Ugh! Stop sniffing the ground and look at me.” Asking instead of telling; approaching her like a puzzle I desperately want to solve.

Do we REALLY know how they think?

One thing we say in training is, “We show dogs what we want and they show us what they’ve learned.” The same can be said when we are building connection – we think we understand how dogs think, but are we just amorphisizding? Or are they just learning to respond to us? 

Famed horsewoman, Anne Kursinski says this about connection in riding but I think it’s true of our dogs as well: “Being a good rider starts with understanding how our horses think, feel and behave. It’s our job to support, guide and encourage them to perform at their best. We can only do that with true knowledge and understanding of what makes them tick.”

She goes on to say, “To really get inside the horse, to understand the horse, to enjoy the process – that’s what makes you a winner as a rider. … The best riders in any discipline are the ones who are able to allow their hours to love his or her job. When you see an engaged, happy horse go around, that’s when you know you’re watching a skilled rider.”

The power of observation

Understanding our dogs and fostering our bonds begins at home. Quite frankly, Moxie is a whole lot more fun to work than to live with, but I’ve learned so much about what she needs by just observing. (I’ve also realized her hormones greatly impact her moods and ability to exercise self control – another lesson!) What are your dogs’ natural habits and tendencies? What stresses them out and brings them joy?

Once we have a basis of understanding, we can then work on our communication, taking care to try to speak our dog’s language instead of just our own. Meeting them where they are is the fist step to lasting connection. It’s up to us to build a strong, confident partnership. Our dogs may be athletes and/or have jobs, but they are not machines, and it’s up to us to learn to support them.

Our communication needs to be two-way, which means we all have to get a whole lot better at listening and truly taking into account what our dogs are telling us. I know I’ve been guilty with Moxie of conveying to her, “I get you are having trouble focusing, but I need you to pull it together and listen to me.” Pretty sure this does NOT count as listening or taking her state of mind into account! #facepalm

We all get better with experience and each dog teaches us new skills and life lessons. Moxie and I have a long way to go but I have the desire to transform our relationship and the tools to work on my part of our team. As I mentioned, one of those tools is curiosity so I’m sharing a loooong list of questions to get you thinking. I encourage you to journal, make notes after a training session or take to your meditation pillow. Work on the relationship and the connection will develop.

Assessment prompts:

  • What type of personality does my dog have?
  • What quirks or interesting habits does my dog have?
  • What things or occurrences tend to irritate my dog or make them anxious?
  • How does my dog act in the car? For the vet? For the massage/acupuncture/chiro practitioner? How is my dog different at class than at home?
  • What type of handler am I? Am I confident? Nervous? Strong? Gentle?
  • How am I currently affecting my dog?
  • How would connecting deeper and communicating better improve my relationship with my dog and help our performance as a team?

Journaling prompts for after training or competing:

  • What mood was I in today? What emotions, feelings, or behaviors did I exhibit around my dog? Was I focused and present during today’s run/training?
  • What mood was my dog in today?
  • How did my dog behave in the ring today? In the car? Outside the facility?
  • Did I notice anything unusual about my dog’s behavior today?
  • How did we get along as partners today?
  • What could I do next time to better understand, empathize with, and communicate with my dog to strengthen our partnership?
  • What elements of our partnership have the most room for improvement?
  • How do I feel overall about the communication between my dog and I?