Positive reinforcement based training is the driving force of contemporary agility. Hurrah! Long live reinforcers! Toys, treats... they bring fun and happiness into our dogs’ lives and we can use them to communicate with our dogs in a motivational, confidence-giving way.
But I want to touch on a different aspect of our dog-human interaction - a less tangible aspect. You may be able to relate to what I'm talking about straight away, or you may not...
You see, I find with some of my dogs, I can feel that they have this huge desire to make me happy. A desire that goes beyond them wanting to access a reward. It’s usually something that grows and blossoms over time, slowly.
It doesn’t affect the way I reward my dogs – I reward them enthusiastically whether they’re two or ten years old. But sometimes with a dog you get this really strong bond with them where you kind of start to know over time that they love the reward… but the two of you are also sharing a mutually understood emotional journey.
It’s a feeling, not a fact. In an age of empiricism maybe it’s an unfashionable thing to say. After all, it’s not really quantifiable or measurable. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Like us, dogs aren’t just little walking Pavlovian responses. They are deeply emotional, sensitive individuals.
I guess the same thing is there in some of the best human relationships. You can probably identify it in those moments when you do something to bring someone else happiness – not for the foreseeable return or gain to you, other than the overwhelming joy you feel in tandem with their joy.
I heard Charlotte Dujardin talking about her relationship with her horse Blueberry (aka Valegro) recently, and she mentioned something pretty similar: “The horse is like a partner(…) You build so much trust, this amazing bond (…) I just felt like he had given me absolutely everything he had and that feeling is incredible (…) it makes you feel really emotional.”
As hard as it is to describe, when it’s there, it’s something very special. Running a dog with whom you share this kind of relationship is the most unbelievable experience. They are working beyond-hard for you, and you can feel it – the mutual, emotional synchronicity.