Developing The Right Relationship With Your Dog

December 20th, 2008

Dog trainer Karin Larsen Bridge explains how to build a relationship with your dog based on trust and respect.


The Macquarie Dictionary defines relationship as the way things or people are connected. The way you connect with your dog will play a large role in how effective you will be in training and motivating your dog to work with you. When training a dog you need to communicate two things:

         What you want the dog to do

         Why he should do it

What most people think of as training teaching sit, stand, down etc focuses on what we want the dog to do. It connects a behaviour such as sit with our signal to perform the exercise. This provides understanding to the dog of what we want.

However, dogs are not robots, and will not necessarily perform a behaviour just because they understand what it means. You must also provide motivation for performing the behaviour the why? Food, toys and praise are tools we can use to provide motivation and reinforce desired behaviour, however, it is a right relationship that will provide enduring motivation and ensure reliable compliance to your requests.  

A classic example was my dog Jack, who competed in the highest levels of obedience, yet if my sons friends asked him to sit, hed just stand and stare, as if to say, You’re nobody special, why should I do it for you? This is a large part of who dogs are, and is reflected in the old cowboy saying, If a cowboy gets too big for his boots, let him try working someone elses dog. 

The implication is that a dog will only work well for the person with whom he has a right relationship. 

Developing a right relationship with your dog

Step 1: Trust me

Your dog must have confidence that you will provide for him the things he needs to have a good quality of life. This includes:

         The essentials – food, water, shelter.

         Healthcare – both preventative and emergency. 

         Security both on and off the property. This includes being aware of and keeping your dog safe from things that may cause it to react. For example, stepping in if a dog plays too rough at the dog park before your dog feels a need to protect itself, or supervising play with excitable children. 

         Exercise both for physical and mental stimulation.

         Socialisation to people.

         Socialisation to other dogs and animals.

         Companionship at least four hours a day of close contact with you.

         Education dogs are perfect at being dogs. To live in a modern, human-dominated world, they need to learn human etiquette in a positive and nurturing way. Humans expect dogs not to pee in the house; not to pull on a lead; to leave good smells come running when they say their name; not to jump up with muddy paws; not to dig holes, even when they’re bored stiff in the garden; not to chase the neighbours bunny rabbit, even when it comes into your yard; not to bark at invited guests but to bark at a stranger at the door and lots of other confusing stuff! Dogs aren’t born with this knowledge they are born, quite simply, with the knowledge of how to be a dog. They are rarely disobedient, but are frequently untrained. 


Step 2: Good things come from me!

You may already be providing many of these things for your dog, but does he know that? Frustrated owners who love their dogs often say, I buy the best quality dog food, he has a fantastic futon to sleep on, he wears a designer collar and goes to the dog park every day why wont he be good?

It would be great if I could say to the dog, Hey mate, this is a great home, so don’t be stupid and throw it away! But of course, dogs don’t think like that. Dogs only understand this for that. A better way to go is to make a list of all the things your dog wants and a list of all the things you want. For example:



Sit x 100

(the doggy equivalent of saying please)

Food x 100

(mostly a proportion of the dogs dinner, not lots of special treats)


Go for walk (lead on)


Your attention


Play tug


Run free (lead off)


Chase ball


Come inside

Walk nicely

Walk toward park

Shake hands

Cuddle on couch


Now, its a simple matter of continually swapping one of your desires for one of your dogs this for that. Assuming you have properly trained Part A – what you want your dog to do distributing rewards contingent upon the behaviour you want should ensure Part B – why he should do it for you.

You are using rewards that you already provide to your dog anyway, to build a framework for life that says, You will always be better off doing as I suggest.


Step 3: Making it work


Understanding comes first 

This for that assumes you have properly trained Part A – what you want your dog to do. This means pairing a cue such as a hand signal and/or the word sit with the behaviour you want (bottom on the ground), followed by a reward, many, many times until your dog understands the connection between the cue and the behaviour. 

This is the education part of your responsibility, and in most cases will be made much easier for you and the dog if you are able to attend a good reward-based training school.

Have a plan

Many people complain about their dogs behaviour, but when I ask what they would like their dog to do, they simply say, Be good! Be specific, plan exactly what you would like your dog to do in every routine situation. 

For example, when visitors arrive, I would like my dog to run to his mat and lie down. Now that you have chosen a specific behaviour, you can begin to train it. What you want is clear in your mind and can be transferred into a positive action to teach your dog, rather than simply shouting at him for jumping up when visitors arrive. This is thoughtful, proactive training and reinforces the idea that you are quietly in control of the household and can be depended upon to teach your dog what is expected of him in everyday situations. 

Take away rewards

This for that will only work if there is no choice of another. For example, you may offer your dog a treat for coming to you at the park, but if he can choose to play with another dog instead, he has chosen another reward that the environment has provided. Again, proactive training is required. 

Attaching a long line to your dog before he is allowed to go play gives you the opportunity to remove the reward of playing with other dogs when you desire. Your dog will learn that if he doesn’t respond to come, play ends (you bring the dog in on the long line) and he doesn’t get a treat. If he does come, however, he gets a treat, a pat and he gets to go play again. It is vital that you ensure your game is always the best in town.

Dont get mad just get even

Dogs are really impressed by people who are cool, calm and in control. Imagine this scenario and see which owner you would be more likely to accept direction from.

You are a dog out in the yard, barking because the kids next door are spraying the hose at each other and screaming.

         Owner A opens the door, steps outside waving his arms around and shouts something very loudly almost as loud as the kids. You stop and stare briefly, then continue barking.

         Owner B quietly steps out of the house with lead in hand. He attaches the lead, asks you to sit and gives you a small treat. You are led into the house and asked to settle on your mat for a while. 

Owner A has probably achieved nothing. From the dogs perspective, he joined in the noise-making for a while then went inside. If owner A has ever caught and punished the dog, it is unlikely he would even be able to quickly attach the lead, as the dog would have learned to avoid him when he looks and sounds like that.

Owner Bs dog knew he was under no physical or emotional threat because his training has been based on rewards and positive, instructive interactions. The dog was therefore easily caught and brought inside. Never get mad, just get even by applying sensible management techniques to make it easy for your dog to learn what you want.

Enduring motivation

A right relationship is built not through fear or intimidation, but through trust and mutual respect. By applying the this for that principle consistently throughout your dogs life, you are providing access to everything he wants through co-operation with you a win-win situation for all.

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