It’s New Year’s Eve today. It’s a natural time in the year to reflect, and I find myself doing just that as I sit at my table in the early morning silence. Ivy is finally resting after a restless night indoors; I made her come inside due to the extreme cold we experienced last night. She’s getting to (hopefully!) just past middle age and the Lyme and Anaplasmosis she contracted during her year away aged her prematurely. Maybe some day she will forgive me for leaving Titus on his own with the stock for a night, but right now I’ll settle for her begrudging acceptance – which, quite frankly, is all I’m likely to ever get.
Isn’t she the cutest? It does my heart good to see her get some rest. It’s been a big year for all of us: the kids, dogs and I moving out of suburbia and back to land in a new province, my partner, J, learning about small farm life after a long while in the city, Ivy leaving Manitoba after a year away from us, Titus flying from Ontario to us at Rolling Spruce Farm to begin training as Ivy’s backup. Settling in and getting our bearings has been the name of the game for most of the latter half of 2017.
Living away from the land for a year before this was brutally hard on my heart and my soul. I spent every waking moment that I could hiking in the forests or walking on the beaches – anywhere, really, where I could get some space and breathe fresh air. I missed my big dogs terribly. Thankfully, it just so happened that the sister of my Saluki boy, Sami, needed some rehab and a new home, so I ended up with two yearling (sibling!) dogs who required a great deal of exercise. It was a perfect match for my restless self. If you’ve ever been owned by serious sighthounds (the parents of these two came from families in Saudi Arabia), you’ll know that it’s not easy to give them appropriate mental and physical stimulation on leash. You’ll also know that it’s not easy to gain their focus or have them listen to you when there are a lot of other competing interests around, not to mention when they can do exactly what they were bred to do – run. Running and chasing are to Salukis what guarding and nurturing are to LGDs, so you get a good idea of how important this is to them.
Salukis sleeping, Salukis running, Salukis playing, Salukis posing… I couldn’t decide which pictures to leave out, so you get inundated with them here (click on the thumbnails to see them in bigger format if you’d like). Ara (the brindle) and Sam (the tri-color) taught me so much about dog handling and dog training during this year of suburban purgatory. They are polar opposites in personality: Ara, stranger friendly but shy and aloof in most new situations, independent and sassy with her family and Sam, stranger wary and forward with other dogs, lovey, playful and devoted with his family. Both are Salukis through and through however: picky and particular, always looking to hunt, run, chase – alert and ready to go at a moment’s notice, but calm and relaxed for the most part at home. Sighthounds embody what dog people call the “off switch”, the ability for a dog to turn off their internal drive when it’s not called for. It’s this innate ability that makes them wonderful to live with, but also a challenge out of doors.
While I still lived on the old farm, I learned a training skill from a wise young trainer friend of mine. This skill came in handy for many different dogs, but none more so than the sighthounds and the LGDs. I call it simply “Give to get”, but I’m sure there is a better technical trainer term for it that I can’t recall. In essence, the skill requires the dog handler to give the dog what they want most in exchange for a short, easily displayed behavior. In time, the dog’s behavior requirement is extended and the criteria increased, so that the handler gets more and more of what they are looking for (within the dog’s ability, of course), but what is given to the dog afterwards remains the same. Most of what we call “positive” or “reward based” training operates on this principle of giving in order to receive, most notably where the dog will comply to a request in order to receive a food or play reward.
The difference between this approach and say, giving the dog a treat or a toy after they give the handler a certain behavior is that the reward in this case requires giving the dog freedom. For instance, if I am walking a dog, I will ask them to walk beside me with a loose leash (a leash with a good amount of slack in it, not tight/taught) and then ask for a short behavior such as eye contact, short sit or down (lie down). As a “reward” for the offered behavior (I put reward in quotations because in my opinion freedom should be a given, not a special thing), I’ll allow the dog the full extent of the leash/rope/long line to sniff or romp or do whatever their heart desires. I can then resume the more structured walk after a while and then rinse and repeat. If I am going for a walk with a dog off leash, I will ask for a similar such behavior before allowing them off the leash, or before releasing them after I’ve called them back to me. For independent minded dogs whose ultimate happiness lies in being left to their own devices, this is typically good trade-off in their minds. They rarely resent being asked for it as long as we don’t pester them too much after the routine is established. This is also a good option for dogs who don’t like to take food or engage with toys outside of the house, although I will also train dogs to take the food from me as one of the behaviors that results in achieving freedom.
In a world where freedom for dogs is no longer a given and trainers teach highly structured walks as a matter of course, independent, unrestricted movement is hard for many dogs to come by. For many dog handlers, it can initially seem counter-intuitive to offer freedom as a reward; after all, isn’t it highly desired to keep the dog as engaged and obedient as possible? Isn’t freedom time when nothing happens for the dog? I argue exactly the opposite, that the time when we are not directly affecting every movement of our dogs is when the most growth and the most learning happens. It requires as well as fosters a great deal of trust in the dog/human relationship as well. We trust them enough to let them go, to learn from their free interactions and behaviors, to let settle what we’ve taught them, to make mistakes. They trust us enough to happily return, even out of roaring play or wild chase, safe in the knowledge that we won’t rob them of what they desire the most: independence.
For some dogs, autonomy is like breathing – it’s something they must have. For others, it’s less comfortable a notion. Regardless, it’s essential to achieving a healthy state of mind, high levels of resilience and the ability to make appropriate decisions for any situation. “Give to get” is one way we can help even the most independently minded dog stay willingly connected to us during training and free time. If all that my time away from the farm did was to hone my understanding of how important this principle is, then it was absolutely worth it.