How to Let Your Dog Teach You Something

These dogs are (ahem) really digging this activity. What a great way for them to use their senses, their muscles, their minds, and just have a good ol’ time being themselves.

I often see people who are enjoying their dogs. All too often, though, as much as I hate to say it, the person is doing what they want and the dog is mostly just tolerating it. Whether it is a certain kind of touch, body language, training, or play, it often looks to me like people are doing things the way they’ve always done them, how they were once taught, or what their other dog used to enjoy.

Do you take your dog’s preferences and feelings into account during your interactions?

It is important to do so if you involve him in activities like therapy work, doggie sports, or outings your dog may be going along with, but not necessarily enjoying (dog park visits and day care are a very common examples).

It is just as important to learn what your dog likes in terms of normal, everyday routines. Have you ever checked in with your dog to see what he or she would really like? How would you ask?

Maybe you are wondering why we should get our dog’s opinion in the first place. It is my feeling that just because I pay for the dog food and am the big, powerful human doesn’t mean I can disregard my dog’s feelings. If anything, my position gives me the extra responsibility and opportunity to show respect and kindness to my dog. Besides, when I know more about what makes my dog tick, I am much less likely to get frustrated (hence our interactions are more fun). And last but not least, I find that flexing my empathy muscles at home with my dog makes them ready for action when I need them with others in the world.

Today let’s take play as an example. Play can be a wonderful way to bond with and get to know your puppy or dog. You can get the ball rolling, so to speak, with what I call Goodall Games. Jane Goodall made famous the idea of observing quietly and letting other animals show her what they do without trying to influence them. You can do this with your dog. Instead of always dictating the game, watch your dog and see what she or he shows you. Does he enjoy digging, finding hidden objects or smelly things, playing keep-away, rummaging in the bushes, chasing and tearing around, stalking prey? Just be silent and watch. (And obviously use common sense and keep safety in mind.) 

After just a few sessions of observing you may find you have not only greater appreciation of your dog as an individual, but also new ways to provide:

  • play and relaxation
  • exercise
  • mental stimulation
  • a chance to express normal doggie behaviors
  • rewards for training things like come when called
  • new games by combining a game you like with a game your dog shows you he likes (for example, maybe your dog will find toys more interesting if you wiggle them in the bushes or in the dirt, reminding him of the critters he likes to chase)

It can be very eye opening, respectful, and fun to let your dog teach you what he or she likes best. There are all sorts of ways to incorporate versions of your dog’s favorite activities into play with you. For example, sometimes when I call my dogs (you can see them digging in the video above) I reward them for dropping what they were doing and coming to me by letting them dig to their heart’s content. Give the Goodall Games approach a try and let me know what you discover! If you are intrigued but aren’t sure what to do with what you observe, let me know that, too, and we will brainstorm some ideas. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of learning from dogs, and your dog could teach me something, too.

2 thoughts on “How to Let Your Dog Teach You Something

  1. I love the use of suggestion when interacting with dogs. I may suggest something and I watch for their suggestions. In training, especially with very young puppies, it gives them room to work, to think, to process. While all that’s going on, I’m just hanging out on the sidelines to offer or take a suggestion, and to let them know they’re geniuses when they discover what I’ve been hinting at.

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