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Dances with Dogs

The bond between a person and their dog is magical. It's a relationship like no other.

"What is possible between a human and an animal is possible only within a relationship."

Suzanne Clothier, Bones Would Rain From the Sky

Relationship Focused Dog Training

Suzanne Clothier trademarked the concept of Relationship Centered Training™. Her book If a Dog's Prayers Were Answered, Bones Would Rain from the Sky shaped the Woof University approach to training dogs. 

Dogs and humans have cooperated for their mutual benefit for centuries. They hunted together, worked together, and provided protection and companionship for each other. Dogs help the police and military with complex and dangerous jobs. They find missing people, help the blind navigate the world safely, protect livestock, give emotional support, and so much more. 

Dogs make our lives better. For everything they do for us, we owe it to our dogs to train them with kindness and to consider their needs and feelings as well as our own. As Clothier puts it, "see the dog". Relationship Focused Dog Training strives to meet the needs of both parties in the relationship - human and dog.


The idea that dogs must do what we say when we say no-matter-what or else they will 'become dominant' is a relatively new idea popularized by a book published in 1970 by wolf researcher Dr. L. David Mech. The 'Alpha Wolf' theory was inaccurate about wolves and is definitely inaccurate about dogs. Mech himself has spent years trying to correct the information.  

Free Range (unowned) dogs make up 75-85% of the world population. While dogs and humans have been together for 10,000-40,000 years, dogs living in homes simply as pets is a new thing. Purebreed dogs were selectively bred and used for specialized jobs for hundreds of years and not for sitting on couches all day or for unquestioning robotic obedience. Guide Dogs for the blind are taught to disobey their owner in certain situations when it's not safe to obey, a skill known as "intelligent disobedience". 

There are many reasons that your dog may ignore a directive from you that have zero to do with dominance. Clothier's book gives an example of a dog who refused to pick up a dumbbell in class. The teacher insisted that the owner pinch his ear until he complied. Thankfully, she refused because it turned out that the dog had an exposed nerve in his mouth. He wouldn't pick up the dumbbell because it hurt, not because he was "trying to be alpha". 

We do have to set certain rules for our pet dogs to help them navigate our modern world safely and to be good neighbors. It is our responsibility to keep Fido out of roads, from pooping on other people's lawns, and from killing their pets or livestock. We should, though, know our dogs well enough to know when they simply can't do what we asked. 

Possible Reasons Your Dog May Say No

Pain, Illness, or Injury

Like the dog in Clothier's book with an exposed nerve, your dog may not be able to do what you want because it hurts or they physically can't.

Stress, Anxiety, or Fear

Stress is displayed in two basic ways. Some dogs go into overdrive and become frenetic (fast and energetic in a wild and uncontrolled way). Others shut down completely and won't move, won't make eye contact, and won't eat treats. 

Overstimulated or Overwhelmed by Distractions

Dogs who have not been routinely exposed to novel situations can easily become overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, and smells. It's like asking a child to do math at Disneyworld. It takes a lot of practice to learn to focus with distractions.

Lack of Understanding

They may simply not understand what it is you want. It can take many repetitions before a dog fully masters an obedience cue. We also confuse them sometimes by not being consistent (using different words or body language and expecting the dog to still understand, like saying Down sometimes for laying down and sometimes for not jumping). 

They didn't hear you

Have you ever been so absorbed in a t.v. show that you didn't hear someone right beside you ask you a question? Experiments with cats have shown this to be a real thing. If one is hyperfocused on something, sound does not even register in the brain. The dog fence fighting with the neighbor dogs might not be able to hear you when you tell them to stop.

They have learned to ignore you

Sometimes, they hear you and know exactly what you want them to do but choose not to. There are many reasons that may be the case. They may not see the point. Why are you asking me to Sit in the middle of the living room for no apparent reason? It makes no sense! :D Or, there's nothing in it for them. They don't get anything for doing it - no praise, no affection, no treat, and they don't lose anything for not doing it - no removal of attention or loss of privilege (toy, view out the window, etc.). What's the point then? They may be nervous if you get frustrated with them and think it's better to do nothing than to do something and be wrong.


When people first started selectively breeding dogs, it was to enhance certain skills. Herding or guarding sheep, hunting or retrieving prey, pulling heavy loads, warning off intruders, etc. Today, we more often choose dogs for form over function - we like the way they look! If we get them as puppies and raise them right, they will behave exactly the way we want them to, right? 

Wrong! If any dog could be trained to herd sheep as easily as to hunt lions there would have been no need to create purebred dogs in the first place. The reality is that no amount of training will teach a Ridgeback to herd sheep or a Border Collie to hunt lions. A Chihuahua can't be trained to behave like a German Shepherd any more than she can be trained to LOOK like one. Both the looks and the behavior are genetic. You can't train a dog to not be a dog.

There is a saying that Therapy Dogs are born, not made. Not all dogs have what it takes to be a good therapy dog. Service Dogs and Guide Dogs are selectively bred, and some still do not make the cut. The Labradoodle was originally created to be Guide Dogs for people with dog allergies, but they weren't able to do the job. They do excel at being Family Pets!

Training has Limits

Good training guides a dog's natural behaviors in order to keep them safe and a well-mannered member of human society. It is not about trying to suppress normal behavior. More behavior problems are caused by trying to stop normal dog behavior completely rather than guiding their natural behavior in positive ways. We don't tell children they can never run around and scream because that is normal child behavior. We do teach them they can't do it in a restaurant. 


It is normal for dogs to bark, but they can be trained to bark only when appropriate and to stop when asked. It is normal for guardian breeds to be suspicious of strangers, but they can be trained to accept the guests you invited. It is normal for herding dogs to herd, but they can (sometimes) be trained not to treat children like sheep. The more we try to work against our dog's genetics, the more frustrated we both will be. 


Unwanted behavior is sometimes more about unmet needs than it is about training. Bored dogs, understimulated dogs, and underexercised dogs can be destructive, hyperactive, and uncontrollable. 

Meet your dog's species-specific, breed-specific, and individual needs.

Exercise / Physical Activity

Belgian Malinois need more exercise than Bullmastiffs. Some dogs are content with a backyard to play in. For others, it's not enough. If a dog keeps getting out of the yard, it's a good sign that it's not enough to meet their needs.

Mental Challenges

Border Collies love a difficult puzzle to solve. Other dogs might be frustrated if it's too hard. Training is one of the easiest and most fun ways to challenge your dog on the right level for them. 


Dogs need to sniff and explore. They need interesting things to do. It can be as simple as a sniffari in the woods (a fancy way to say, let them sniff while you walk). Hide treats and let them find them. Teach them the names of their toys and to fetch the correct one. Turn their meals into opportunities for enrichment, as in the week 1 article.


Josephine was a Labrador Retriever who was surrendered to my rescue for being destructive and hyper. She jumped on people relentlessly, pulled hard on the leash, and chewed furniture and shoes. Her original owners didn't have a fenced yard, and they weren't very active. In Josephine's new home, she only chewed on appropriate toys and learned not to jump on people or pull on the leash. Her new home was on the lake, and she got to swim, dive off the dock, retrieve bumpers, and take long hikes in the woods. With her breed-specific exercise and activity needs met, Josephine's behavior problems disappeared. 

Pooh Bear was surrendered to us for digging out of the yard. He was picked up by animal control who told his owners they would be fined if it happened again. In the 7 months I fostered him, he never dug out of my yard. The difference was that I had other dogs for him to play with. At his old home, he was the only dog. When his need for the companionship of other dogs was met, he was no longer motivated to escape the yard. 

Read about your dog's breed or breed mix, if known, to learn what makes them tick and how to meet their needs. Find your dog's group from the following links to learn more about them. 

Natural Dog

Gun Dog
Bull Dog
Toy Dog
World Dog

Some breeds have cross-representation from more than one group. Examples are Dobermans (multiple), Dachsunds (scenthound and terrier), Rottweilers (Guardian and Herding), Dalmatians (multiple), Catahoula (Herding, Scenthound, Guardian, Bull Dog). Those with multiple groups represented can sometimes seem like they have multiple personality disorders. They're like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get! 

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