Today is a blustery, freezing cold day here in Salt Lake City, and I’m out on a trail where I frequently take my dogs off-leash. While there, I came across two Golden Retrievers that belong to a client and who I’ve known since they were brand-new. In fact, one of them was dropped off at my house before I brought him to the owner. So these dogs feel like family. They’re my oldest clients, and like my step-dogs.
While I was out with these dogs, I got to thinking about engagement. I raised these dogs, in a way, but engagement is something I didn’t actively think about during that time—even though I was training them according to it. Engagement is really a concept that I’ve been thinking about and recognizing as I progress further in my career.
When I say “engagement,” I’m referring to the dogs being able to be off-leash but still always aware of me. For example, when I call the Goldens by name or whistle toward them they’ll pay attention, even if I haven’t given them a command. If we’ve been walking for a bit, they’ll check in on their own. I never explicitly taught them to do this, but they’re engaged with me at all times. They’re able to be on their own, play, and have fun, but the simple act of talking to them causes them to check themselves and look at me. I’m a central point in their universe. These dogs can enjoy themselves on their own, but I’m always in the back of their mind. They check in on me without me asking, and if I stop they stop too. We’re all aware of and respectful of each other, and we know each other’s space. I know where they are, and they know where I am. We pay attention to each other, even when we’re all doing our own thing.
The question is: how did I get this engagement if I wasn’t actively training for it and looking for it? Some people might look at this and say “Yeah, your dog listens to you—big deal!” Others might say “If I leave my dog off leash, he couldn’t care less about me. Even when he’s on the leash, he doesn’t care.” Plenty of dogs only think about what they want.
Engagement is a component of how dog and owner live together, and I’ve been doing it for years without understanding its importance. The “how” is the important part here. From a very young age, I’ve made myself relevant to these dogs. With all of them, we did work for foodstuffs. Rather than setting kibble out in a bowl, most of it came from my hands. It wasn’t free food. They got it when they sat, or came when called, or went to their beds. From a young age, they had to engage with me in order to receive this powerful life resource of food.
On the flip side, discipline came from me as well. Discipline gets a bad rap sometimes, as it ought to when it’s done wrong, but it’s necessary to any sort of training. I don’t spank my kids, but I can reason with kids and withhold future privileges. Children have moral compasses (well, three of them do.) There are so many tools available to communicate cause and effect that discipline doesn’t take the form of physical correction. The same is not true for dogs.
From a young age, therefore, all these dogs were corrected physically. When they jumped on me, I disallowed it, either with a spray bottle or a leash correction. When they bit my hands, I pushed in their gums. It was all fair, and never from an emotional place. As I always say: emotion belongs in praise, not discipline. Don’t get angry or upset, just administer a correction. Corrections shouldn’t aim to cause pain or mental anguish. They’re simply cause and effect. Think of it this way: if you touch a hot stove, it will burn you. Of course, the stove doesn’t care that you’ve touched it. But you learn that the stove will “correct” you.
Discipline and resources, like attention and play, came from me. Those resources came when they were earned, rather than constantly being given out. When you control the resources and teach the dog that those resources come through you, your dog will engage. Most dogs get resources however they want: food is just left in a bowl, affection is given whenever they decide to demand it. On top of this, very few dogs receive very little discipline when they’re young. If you control the resources and use proper discipline, you’l create engagement.
Engagement is a very powerful thing when it comes to training and safety. I can take these dogs off-leash on the trails and have fun without worrying about misbehavior. It’s great for teaching new concepts, because they’re already engaged with me. It’s great when they’re doing something wrong, because I can talk to them and know that they understand how to stop misbehaving.
This is how you can create engagement with your dog. It’s best to start when they’re a puppy, but it’s never too late. Control resources and discipline properly. If you start now, you’ll be grateful that you did!