How you and your dog can become an all-star team

How you and your dog can become an all-star team
The Frolick Dogs All Stars obedience practice group works on maintaining good behavior in the Torpedo Factory, a distracting environment. (Courtesy Photo)

By Kim Gilliam

If you are struggling in any area with your dog, ask yourself two key questions:

How is your bond with your dog? Are they crazy about you? Do they want to interact with you more than anything else in the world?

Are you communicating well with your dog? Do they understand exactly what you are looking for them to do?

You need to intentionally invest in both the bond with your dog and their training in order for you to truly become an all-star team. So how can you deepen the bond with your dog? Dedicated play time, loving pats and adding some variety to their days are a good place to start.

First, find an activity that your dog enjoys. If your dog is having fun with you then that bond will start to grow. Give your dog your full attention when you play with them, get down on the floor and wrestle or grab their favorite toy to play tug-of-war or fetch, and they will love every minute of it.

Remember, just as people need to be touched to feel love, so do dogs. Maybe yours like to have their back massaged, their belly rubbed, the back of their ears massaged or just a good scratch under the collar. Watch their body language to figure out what they like best – pet them for a few seconds then stop. If they lean into you or nuzzle you for more, then they enjoyed it.

Just like in human relationships, variety is the spice of life. Don’t let your dog get bored with the same old routines. They need stimulation to keep their brains sharp. Hide treats around the house before you leave for work and see how many they find. Use food puzzles at mealtimes to harness their hunting instincts. Instead of the same neighborhood walk, head to a nearby park that you can explore together.

Next, you need to focus on communicating with your dog. Taking the time to figure out effective communication strategies can make all the difference in preventing frustration for you both. Consider your verbal, physical and on-leash communication skills with your dog.

Dogs can understand what you say, with the ability to learn around 165 words. Note though that it’s not just the words they pick up on but also the tone in which you say them. High-pitched or excited tones are always more effective at getting a dog’s attention than low, booming, or quiet voices. When you’re in a highly distracting environment, that’s really the best way to cut through the noise.

Since dogs aren’t capable of speech, their primary form of communication is through body language. Ears, tail, mouth, eyes and the carriage of the body all have something to tell you. Our bodies, too, can effectively communicate things to our dogs. For example, you might use hand signals to reinforce the verbal commands “sit” and “down” or you might use body position to encourage proper heeling.

The leash is one of the most powerful tools of dog-human communication as it acts as conduit from our brains and bodies and theirs. They can tell if you are relaxed or tense, rushed or taking your time, all by how you hold your leash on a walk. This means that their response to situations and environments is largely dictated by yours. Confidence in your body language and leash handling helps your dog feel reassured in potentially scary situations.

One of the best ways to ensure you are communicating effectively with your dog is practicing obedience training. Both of you are invested, and with the addition of treats and praise for a job well done, it’s fun for everyone.

Don’t feel like heading out on your own to practice? Find a group to join or meet-up with friends. We recently launched the Frolick Dogs All Stars for clients who have completed a training program but needed motivation to practice. You’ll see this group of 10 dogs and their owners out in Alexandria each Sunday, the owners exercising the dogs both mentally and physically as they work to maintain their best behavior in distracting environments.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.