Downeast Dog News

Does your dog think you're cool?

"Relevance" is my favorite word
By | Sep 01, 2017
Photo by: Diana Logan Charlie, enjoying a snack of hay in the wintertime

“Relevance: pertinence, connection, importance, significance, usefulness.”

This single word, "relevance," plays a huge role in our daily lives. If something isn’t relevant, why would it matter to us?

“…dogs are always in search of meaning and relevance and clues to what is cool and what is not cool.” (Suzanne Clothier)

Many moons ago, I was a 20-something tourist riding a public bus in Vienna, Austria. Among some people we picked up along the way was a brusque American woman who stepped up to the fare box, stopped, and awkwardly dropped some coins in the slot. The coins were rejected. She tried again with the same results, then spoke to the driver in English with increasing consternation and volume. He was apologetic – in broken English - but said he couldn’t help her and politely instructed her to get off the bus. She was livid. The problem? She was trying to pay for the fare with US currency. I could hear her say, “Damn it, this is good American money! What’s wrong with you?!” The driver said he only took schillings, the Austrian currency at the time. She was dumbfounded that the money so valuable to her was not valuable to him. It was clear she was incapable of understanding how unreasonable she was being. I grimaced and hid my head, embarrassed for representing the same country as she.

We frequently run into a similar conundrum with our dogs, expecting them to respond to cues that are irrelevant to them, offering them things they don’t value, currency they don’t recognize or expecting them to like things they don’t find “cool”.

Years ago, I was working with a horse doing some clicker training in his stall. It was summertime and hot and a bit buggy, but I planned to keep the lesson short. I wanted Charlie to lift his leg so that I could clean out his hoof more easily – it was really just a fun, simple training exercise more than anything else. I would click when I got a little bit of effort, then feed him a treat to pay him for this effort. It was going okay, but there was a problem: the treats were not sufficiently relevant to Charlie for him to make much of an effort. He was bored. I asked myself, "What would Charlie like most, right now?" Instead of feeding Charlie after the click, I gave him a few seconds of curry comb scratching in his favorite place. WOW, did Charlie perk up! Once I changed the currency to one which he valued, he was IN the game, and within a few minutes, he was enthusiastically lifting his hoof with just a small touch on his shoulder.

If we aren’t successful during training, we need to ask the very important question, “Is it relevant to my dog?” If we want our dogs to come when called, we need to make sure the dogs find it very relevant. If we want a dog who enjoys being handled, we need to add relevance to the process. It doesn’t matter what we ourselves might find relevant; relevance is determined by the dog. We can choose to be like the American woman in Vienna, or we can dive deep and figure out what drives our dogs, what they see as cool.

Be creative in searching for your individual dog’s motivators and use them strategically. With knowledge and skill, we can even expand what a dog finds motivating by adding value to it. Once we understand the dog’s currency and are willing to pay him accordingly, the training process becomes a fabulous journey we can share together, full of “wow moments.”