Do you know how to gain your dog's trust? Like humans, some dogs come with baggage, some dogs are sensitive, and some dogs don't show how they feel. All dogs, though, are capable of trusting, it's just a matter of how much you are willing to respect their boundaries.
Imagine you have a friend who listens to you, encourages vulnerability, and then uses the things you have told them as ammunition against your character whenever they are given the chance. After this happens a few times, you are probably not going to trust them with your confidence anymore. They never set out to lose your trust and probably don't know why you never talk to them anymore, but a fundamental behavioural contingency is at play here. You acted in a way that you consider "vulnerable" and they responded in a way that made you feel "not good". Result: trust lost.
We do this with our dogs all of the time, and it goes beyond luring them towards us only to throw a towel over their head or calling them inside only to shut the door behind them and ignore them. We should always be careful not to take advantage of our dogs' trust in situations like these, because we stand to lose it. These simple behavior contingencies are common and obvious - dog does what you would like it to do, and you should respond in a way that is reinforcing to your dog (best example being to give them a cookie saying "good dog!"). Of course, there are other ways to maintain this behavior, but we will discuss that in another topic heading.
The more subtle ways that we chip away at our dogs' trust happen when we aren't paying attention to their boundaries, thresholds, body language and preferences. Dog act according to what will be the most reinforcing and the least aversive - this might mean sleeping on the couch instead of in bed with you because you kick in your sleep. If you start paying attention to what your dog wants rather than making assumptions based on what you think is best for them, your bond with your dog will become deeper and more meaningful. That doesn't mean that they will be more likely to sit when you say sit, you still have to teach that. Trust is a relationship fundamental that most trainers don't talk about and most dogs don't demand.
I want you to start paying attention to what your dog wants, and why. If they cower when you bring the harness out, ask yourself what is causing this behaviour and work to change what you're doing or not doing. Start asking them where they want to be pet instead of pushing them over to their side to rub their belly without permission. You will start to learn your dog's preferences and they will start to learn that you are there for them, beyond being a treat dispenser and class-A cuddler.
I will give you an example. My dogs got in a fight the other day, resulting in my younger one being very timid around my older one. She was hesitant to enter a room that Sasha was already occupying and wouldn't go close to the food bag during meal time. Instead of coaxing her, telling her it was okay and that sasha wouldn't do anything ("COME Pancha, come on you'r FINE. Oh my...okay Pancha come on let's go! Ughhh fine I'll come get you"), I would help her. If she came downstairs, saw that Sasha was in the living room with me, she would choose to either go the other way, or ask me for help. "Asking for help" was simply looking at the living room and me. So, I would get up and go to her, making a safe space for her to enter the room. If she wanted to go the other way, though, I would not force her to do otherwise. Anyways, I thought, who was I to know whether or not Sasha looked comfortable with Pancha entering? A repeat of the other day's incident would cause a bigger rift between them. Without pushing her boundaries or imposing my goals onto her, eventually Pancha became comfortable moving freely about the house again.
What if you need your dog to do something, and they just don't want to do it? Sasha, my German Shepherd, doesn't resource guard. However, when I give her a nice big frozen marrow bone, I know that she won't be happy with the concept of losing the bone to me. Instead of taking advantage of knowing that she won't growl or snap at me when I take her bone away, I am prepared to make her a trade. After all, if I simply take the bone or call her away from it only to snatch it up, I could be stirring up a recipe for future resource guarding. If not that, then I am almost definitely shaking her trust in me. Next time I approach her she might respond with a whale eye and a lowered head, unsure of me. No, I will go to her, call her to me and offer her a treat. Without being sneaky, I will pick her bone up off of the ground and call her a very good dog for letting me take it away. It is a very good thing when she loses her bone, she gets treats and a fun human and the bone goes away until next time. Protocol when you are dealing with resource guarding is very different, and will be discussed in another blog.
This week, work on listening to your dog and responding appropriately. Life with a dog doesn't have to be about barking commands at one another, trying to get your way. Always set yourselves up for success, whether you are planning training sessions or you are just trying to live harmoniously with your canine companion.