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What is Relationship?

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I recently had the privilege of working with a dog/handler team that had particularly good interpersonal play skills. Without using food or toys, this handler could engage her dog for several minutes at a time. Further, she could then ask the dog to work for her in this engaged state, which allowed her to space out her food rewards significantly. I was impressed because I consider “interpersonal play” to be a strong indicator of trust and mutual enjoyment between dog and handler – simply you and a dog interacting with no intermediary. I work hard to get to this point with my dogs, and it’s one the most difficult things I do in training.

Imagine my surprise when this same team was criticized soon thereafter for showing “no relationship” in a training situation. The trainer’s explanation was that the handler could not play tug with her dog for extended periods of time, and this indicated a “relationship problem”.

Playing tug is a mechanical skill. I frequently play tug with dogs in seminars – more often than not I don’t even know the dog’s name. Does this mean I have a relationship with the dog, simply because I can keep a dog engaged with me when I hold a toy? Of course not. It means I have really good mechanical skills with a tug toy. I can do the same thing with a cookie – as long as the dog KNOWS that I have the cookie, I can keep many dogs engaged with me. That is no more a relationship than if I tie a tug toy in a tree and teach my dog to grab hold and tug- surely we would not say that my dog has a relationship with the tree?

Games that involve toys DO help dog/handler teams build relationship, because it is almost impossible to play tug with a dog and not get involved personally. Good tug is a fine game of give and take; the handler studies the dog very carefully to figure out exactly how best to play with that dog, and the dog learns the rules which cause the handler to interact. Over time, the dog develops a great appreciation for the person who is able to play so well and who engages the dog in a game which is a whole of fun. But it’s not the tug itself that is building the relationship; it’s the interaction between the dog and handler. The toy is an intermediary, a useful but tangential tool.

A person can use food in exactly the same way to build a good relationship, but it’s more difficult because lazy feeding is common and easy; no energy or genuine interaction from the handler is required. Using food in training tends to create a strong relationship between the dog and cookies, but the owner may or may not be seen as significant. On the other hand, if you have the dog chase you around and jump for each cookie while you cheer and interact, then food play has the same effect as toy play; it builds the underlying relationship.

I was saddened to hear that this handler was distressed after that seminar; she no longer felt good about her relationship with her dog. What I had seen was special and unique. I felt good when I watched them; I looked forward to the day when my young puppy would see me as a wonderful person – whether or not I held a toy or a cookie. While I agree that it is in the handler’s best interest to work on developing her game of tug, the purpose of the game would be the energy it produces, not the underlying relationship. She’s already got that.

A great relationship is based on choice; the dog chooses to spend time with you because you are important to him. He feels good when he is near you. He wants to hear your voice. He is happy when you pet him gently; not to play a rousing game, but because he feels valued in your presence. Relationship is expressed when you let the dog out of a crate and he greets you before the other dogs – not because he is trained to reorient when let out of the crate, but because he genuinely enjoys your attention. Relationship is a dog that tries to get you to interact; the dog who brings you a stuffed toy not necessarily to engage in a game of tug, but as a gift. Relationship is the dog who looks to you for guidance when he is unsure of what to do or how to react. Relationship is not what you provide for the dog; it’s that special feeling and bond that develops over time, as the sum total of everything you are together. The moments you spend training, playing, and living together – these build your relationship. If your dog interacts with you only because you provide food, toys or freedom, then I’d argue that you do not have a relationship; you have a dependency.

Simply put, relationship is not food and toys; relationship is what’s left when the food and toys are gone.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

31 responses »

  1. beautifully said, as ususal … and boy do I agree with you

    (tho sometimes in reverse- the people who believe so adamantly that they have great relationships because the dog is toy motivated make me so sad sometimes!)

  2. Well there is some food for thought. I’ve got one dog who tugs like a fiend, to the point of annoyance as they game never ends for her. YET, on many occassions she will leave me to take her toy to someone else…anyone else….I’ve often thought of that as a relationship problem but you have provided far more specifics….

  3. Absolutely your BEST post yet! I loved your previous post about the balance between food and toys, but this one says exactly what I feel about working with my dog. I am blessed to have a dog with whom I have a relationship. I am working (hard) at developing that same relationship with her niece. I have a dog in between the two where there is no relationship like this and I truly miss it. She’s a fine dog, but we’re really not a team. I want that again with this young dog. Thanks for putting into words what I feel so strongly in my heart!

  4. L O V E THIS!!

  5. Pingback: Other Voices…Denise Fenzi on “Relationship.) « German Shepherd Adventures!

  6. Hi Denise! Really enjoyed this post, and I so completely agree!! So much so that I put it on my WordPress blog at this address with full credit and a link to your blog!!
    Great Job and I look forward to continuing to follow you! Robert

  7. Denise! What a FABULOUS blog post! Thank you so much for writing about this. There are a lot of cruel instructors out there who love nothing more than making others feel bad about themselves, while thumping their own chest about how wonderful they are. In my opinion, they have no business teaching! I had riding instructors like that and left that mentality behind 45 years ago! I prefer to work with only kind people now :).

  8. Denise, that was a very interesting post. Thanks for writing about this! A very important part of being a good team is that strong relationship/bond with our dogs!

  9. I so agree with your post! My toy poodles play feet & body touching games. Tug is great but these are games we play while inside the ring waiting to run agility & we play in everyday life. My dogs have won 3 national championships, 9 MACHs & 4 ADCHs in agility on a very limited income & we did it without tugging.

  10. Thank you, thank you for this post. There has been a lot of discussion in the dog sports community recently about tugging and toys because of other blogs that are not correct in so many ways. This one is perfect. Thank you.

  11. Thanks for another great post. Now that I’m working with Jet without treats, and only toys once in a while, I can really see what kind of relationship we have. It’s very interesting. If he’s not into working, I see that. When before he’d pop right into getting treats because that got his attention. But now, I can better see our relationship and what I need to do to build it. I think the treats really masked the true behaviors and attitude.

    • That’s what I found was happening with my dog’s and my working relationship, too much treats and toys was masking her real feelings about what we were doing. I wasn’t reading her correctly much of the time. Outside of competitive obedience, we have a great relationship as Denise describes. It was so disappointing to have this wonderful dog and then have it be such a struggle to just get a Novice title with her. I may regroup and try again with the competition. However, I’ll have to start all over again with a better approach to training before trying for the Open title.

  12. Pingback: Nice Article About Your Relationship with Your Dog — Golden Retriever Rescue of Southern Maryland

  13. I liked this post very much thought it very informing. I am a Boxer lover & have only one at this time. I lost my oldest Boxer Simon 15 months ago. I was devastated over his death, my other Boxer Harley was effected over the death of his friend as well. But he stayed by my side & waited until my grief had subsided. I have & had a very special bond, relationship with my dog(s). There has been no special training just love & the desire to be together. I feel sorry for the handler in your post as I feel she was misjudged.

  14. This was a great read. I like the perspective of dog bringing toy as a gift, not just to get you to play. I thought about it and realize that both scenarios happen, but I never thought of it as my dog presenting me a gift sometimes. I realize now that at times, it truly is. She’s not just trying to incite play. A nice thought, for sure.

    I really like that you use tug a lot as I’ve found in my experience many people are still afraid of tug. It’s a wonderful game and I like to describe it as a truly cooperative game. Without two, the game doesn’t exist, and you have to work together to make it work.

  15. People should use food, toys, interaction, and any other positive motivators at their disposal, to create a relationship with their dogs, but if they taint them with punishment or harsh treatment, they’ll lose the relationship, whether they know it or not. This is why I find it so utterly distasteful that some people think that it’s all about how hard a dog tugs, or how sustained the tugging is, that defines relationship. It doesn’t. You can have a positively divine relationship with a dog that never played tug in its life! A dog that still gazes at you as if you were the only other being on the planet, and who wants to be with you. You can also have a relationship with a dog that is driven to point where you could actually swing it around your body still attached to the tug toys. The question I think people should ask themselves is, when you put the food and toys away, and take all the collars off, do your dogs still enjoy your company enough to stay with you or to come when you call. That’s relationship.

  16. I think the term “relationship” is overused and overrated. It is making people feel guilty if they don’t have it and what one person feels is a relationship may be different than anothers. I also think that you have different “relationships” with the different dogs you own. I’ve had a couple of dogs that I worked hard to build that “relationship” and found myself frustrated and upset and even guilty that we just didn’t seem to click. Then I just decided to let it go and figure out how to get the dog to just work. I didn’t care why, if it was food, toys, whatever that’s fine. I just didn’t care about why they wanted to work but that they did want to work. It didn’t have to be for me. Those dogs turned out to be very nice dogs. I think sometimes we anthropomorphize and believe our relationship with our dog should be like it is with humans.

    • Agree. I think some dogs are so sensitive, do cautious or so suspicious that one needs to use all motivators possible to create the feel good factor with the human. I don’t see that as a bad thing.

  17. Thanks for digging a little deeper into the human-canine bond; for clarity in defining what can be possible between dogs and their human guardians with a lot of commitment and work on the human end. love the last sentence.

  18. Love this post! gives me words for the goal I am reaching for and a new way to think about it: I’m one of those people who have focused on tugging as The Way….instead of the underlying relationship! So helpful thank you.

  19. This goes straight to the heart of what some of us have been discussing in Kay Laurence’s Intelligent Dog Trainer Course. Thank you so much for this. I hope you got the chance to reassure that handler about her relationship with her dog. In my experience those close relationships are rare, and to be cherished.

  20. Im new to having toy driven dogs. I guess I’m so new to it I never thought of toy or even food drive as part of “relationship” with my dogs. I have only considered it as drive building.

  21. I can say, from personal experience, the relationship is the first thing you have to work on when training rescue dogs. I’ve paid lots of money on clinics, books, and private instructors who have trained their amazing dogs from pups and taken for granted the foundation of a sound relationship with your dog. A dog’s drive, structure, and a biddable character are only as strong as the supporting relationship. Unfortunately few understand the relationship part of the equation well enough to teach it to others, because, for most of us, we only value the relationship when it’s gone.

  22. Marcia Bishoff

    I have non-toy motivated dogs and have been told I need to teach them to be toy motivated. They are food motivated and are definitely “me” motivated. Just being together is what we all enjoy, and since they follow me around the farm with out treats, I am going to believe it’s because they enjoy being with me as much as I enjoy being with them.

  23. There are different ways of building a relationship, and when I went to train with John Rogerson (UK trainer- author of The Dog Vinci Code), we learned how to connect with our dogs by using our facial and body language, amongst other things. Sharing toys is the basis for a great relationship…And we got dogs to become toy sharers.

    It is a fascinating read, and even better when you work with the man.
    While reading the book, I knew that this way how I wanted to instill in my training class. Using emotions, praise, and yes, food treats, but that’s more considered (for the dog) as a surprise rather than a condition for doing what you want.

    Great post… I’ll include the link in my newsletter:)

  24. Cassandra Draxler

    Denise. Thank you. I have had the innate ability to build relationships with dogs. As in human relationships, every relationship is uniquely different and special,Until the sport of Schutzhund! I have been made to feel like I don’t have it because my ” mechanics” are lacking! Well I put away the toys and got back to what I do best and that us build a relationship with me and my dog without tge mechanics.

  25. Reblogged this on Denise Fenzi and commented:

    Last one; next…back to our regular programming.

  26. Reblogged this on German Shepherd Adventures! and commented:
    Add your This is a very important post! The methods that depend on food rewards create something that just doesn’t work! Thanks Denise!!!!


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