Monday, September 10th, 2007 12:02:26

Learning From a Dog

A few weeks ago, while visiting my husband’s grandmother, I noticed a book about dogs called “Cesar’s Way” on a side table in her living room. I thought this was a bit strange as she has no dog, but, since my husband and I were planning to get a puppy for our family, I borrowed it.

I began reading that night and was instantly engrossed. While not a specific how-to book, it offers valuable insight into how to be a good dog owner and how to create an environment that will increase the probability that your dog will be happy, healthy and well-behaved.

Cesar Millan’s approach is to focus not on changing the dog, but on changing the owner’s thoughts, approach and habits in interacting with the dog. He recommends that, rather than treating the dog as we would a human, we should treat the dog as a dog. Instead of wondering why the dog sometimes does not behave, we should bear in mind that a dog is an animal first, then a dog, next a member of a particular breed and, finally, a dog with a name. In other words, it is not the dog’s approach to us that needs to change, but our approach to the dog. By taking a different approach, we can evoke a different response from the dog. Isn’t this true in other parts of life? While we might want to control others around us, it is helpful to remember that one has control only of oneself. This is most apparent when one works hard, creates habits and rituals and is disciplined. By controlling one’s own thoughts and actions, one can affect others and, in turn, their interaction with us.

Cesar continually repeats that exercise is the base of all other dog activity; that an unexercised dog is an unhappy dog. The minimal recommendation is for an owner to ensure their dog exercises for a half a hour twice daily. This is to ensure that the dog is expending enough energy so that it will be able to relax and behave during the rest of the day.

I find this concept of exercising to provide an outlet for energy that would otherwise be turned into uncontrolled behavior to be true for my children as well. A bit of time to run around and expend energy allows for focus and concentration for children as well as dogs. I am reminded of this on days when errands and commitments get in the way of activity, and we all get restless.

According to Cesar, after exercise and discipline, owners must take into account the dog’s natural pack mentality and the impact it has on the owner-dog relationship, especially when it comes to discipline.

Cesar writes that dogs view all interactions from the point of view of a member of a pack. A pack leader sets rules and boundaries, which is the job of a dog owner in a good relationship. Without clear rules, boundaries and leadership, a dog becomes stressed and unsure of how to act, often acting inappropriately.

I find element to be helpful when communicating with other people. That it is important to look at events and activities from the other person’s perspective rather than one’s own perspective. I also know that I often get so consumed with my perspective that I forget that there are others.

Cesar mentions the importance of the owner projecting a calm, assertive energy to convey to the dog that the owner is in charge, is in control, and is the leader. This aura of confidence radiates between people as well as from people to dogs. People are drawn to follow others who are able to project this calm assertive energy. It is simply quite a challenge for me to maintain this perspective at all times.

Finally, Cesar talks about affection“ but only as the third element of an owner-dog relationship, after exercise and discipline. Cesar contends that humans often project their desires onto their dogs, in the belief that if one needs a lot of affection and attention from one’s dog, then the dog must need and desire the same level of affection as well. While certainly affection is good and appropriate, it makes for a happy dog only in the context of exercise and discipline.

This is the hardest element for me, remembering that my own need for affection should not get in the way of what might be best at a particular moment in time. Not to smother my child with affection if they run into any difficulty, but to allow them to learn and gain strength on their own.

Last weekend, armed with a new perspective, new information and a new approach, we acquired a new puppy. Midnight is a 7-week-old black Labrador. To say she is cute is an understatement. For the last few days, we have focused on leading so she will follow and providing her with enough exercise to expend her pent-up energy and grow stronger. She is receiving plenty of affection.

Currently, Midnight is quietly sleeping in her crate. She ran after the children before school this morning. I am hopeful that, after expending a bit of energy themselves, my children will focus on learning and the dog will continue to sleep, at least for today and then we can begin again all over tomorrow, trying to incorporate what we learned and where we made mistakes the day before, continually learning from a dog.