The first session of the seminar was spent discussing what Suzanne calls “The Elemental Questions.” These questions were designed to help people get to the core of who their dog is, and to deepen their relationship with their dog. While the questions are simple, they require you to be open to the answers, and to make detailed observations.
Question 1: Hello?
Perhaps the easiest of the questions, this is the one that most people fail to ask. Literally, we are asking the dog if they’d like to interact with us, rather than assuming that they do. People tend to overwhelm dogs, thinking that we have the right to invade their space, and this question makes us step back, and respect the dog’s desires, too.
Question 2: Who are you?
In asking who the dog is, we need to let go of all of our preconceived notions of who the dog is. We tend to carry baggage around on behalf of our dogs, and these labels or frames of reference may be incomplete or inaccurate. By asking the question “Who are you?” we take a detailed look at the dog, gauging her physical, emotional and intellectual abilities. Suzanne suggests that we create lists or protocols, and check everything systematically, and to be aware that as people, we have a tendency to skip over the items that we aren’t sure about, or aren’t as good at seeing.
When we ask a dog who she is, we need to be present in the moment. Stand where the dog stands, and see what she sees. Really try to get into the dog’s mind. How is the dog attending to the environment? Visually? By listening? By touching things or chewing on them? By sniffing? Identify your own sensory preference, too, and ask yourself, how does my preferred way of attending to the environment (typically visual) affect the way I interpret my dog’s reactions based on her preferred sense (typically olfactory)? Suzanne recommended practicing using our other senses one at a time so that we can become better at attending to cues in the environment that we might miss otherwise.
Over and over again, she stressed that the answers are already there. We just have to find the questions.
Question 3: How is this for you?
In the previous question, we asked the dog how she perceives the world. In this question, we ask how those perceptions affect her. The most important, and perhaps the only, aspect to this question is, “Do you feel safe?” If not, why not? And what can you do to help the dog feel safe?
If they don’t feel safe, then no matter what you’re doing, it’s not humane. As a positive trainer, I certainly agree that if the prong collar makes a dog feel unsafe, it isn’t humane… but it’s a bit harder to face the idea that if a clicker feels unsafe, it, too, is inhumane.
Question 4: May I…?
This question is similar to the first one. We are again asking the dog permission to step into her world. The difference is that the first question is a hands off question, while this question asks if we may step into her space, touch her, or ask her to do stuff.
Question 5: Can you…?
By asking this question, we are asking the dog if she has the ability to do something. The question has three components. Can the dog literally meet the physical demand of the task? Sometimes, the answer is no. We also must ask if the dog has the intellectual understanding of the task. Does she understand what we want? And, we must ask if the dog has the emotional ability to do something. Do they feel safe enough to perform the given task right now, or are they too over-aroused or shut down instead?
Question 6: Can we…?
This question is more about the handler than the dog, and it ought to be asked last. Unfortunately, people often ask it far too soon, and we often fail to consider our own impact on the dog’s abilities. Specifically, we need to carefully look at ourselves, and consider if we are detracting from our dog’s abilities, understanding or enjoyment.
These are not easy questions to ask, and more importantly, they are not a one-time assessment. Each time we interact with our dog, we need to ask them all over again. Just like us, dogs grow and change. If we are willing to ask our dogs the questions every day, or every hour, or even every moment, it is much easier to develop the deep, respectful relationship that we are striving for.