Dogs can be loving companions that bring joy into their owners lives and put smiles on children’s faces. They’ll wait at the door for you when you’re gone and be filled with excitement upon your return.
But there’s also a responsibility that comes with being a dog owner to ensure they reach their potential while not negatively impacting others, says Karen Baxter, owner of Unified K9 Behaviour Centre in Newmarket.
“We’re the ones bringing those dogs into our homes, dogs don’t choose to be there,” she said. “We have a responsibility to our fellow human beings to make sure that the animal we have chosen to bring into our home is going to be safe and that the people around it are going to be safe.”
The top responsibility for dog owners who choose to bring a dog into their home is to teach it how to live in a home and in the environment it’s being brought into, Baxter said.
“If we don’t take the responsibility and do that, we’re doing a disservice to the dog and to the people in our neighbourhood,” she said. “They didn’t ask for that dog to come to the neighbourhood, you chose to bring it in.”
Something Baxter tries to remind dog owners is that of the hundreds of the nearly billion dogs on the planet, only a quarter of them live in people’s houses.
“We’re the ones putting them there,” she said. “It really is our responsibility to make sure that those dogs are living a full balanced life to keep them physically and physiologically healthy.”
Ensuring a dog’s needs are met impacts its health and ability to learn, which in turn dissuades poor behaviour, Baxter said.
“A dog isn’t a piece of furniture and it’s not a robot, it’s a living and breathing being with needs and if you bring them into your home, it’s your responsibility to make sure those needs are met,” she said. “If a dog isn’t healthy in all ways, behaviours will emerge that we don’t want to have emerge.
"That’s when predatory behaviour comes out and they chase people or animals and become aggressive or anxiety riddled. Living a crappy life impacts them just like it would a human.”
Baxter said training has two parts to it; first, dogs are born not knowing how to live in the human world and need to learn.
“It’s up to us to teach them what our expectations are,” she said. “There are certain skills they need to know in order to survive in our human world. As a dog person, you have to teach them because they can’t learn on their own.”
The second part is because owners want to build the relationship with their dog and to do that, there’s communication that both need to learn.
“The human needs to learn to read their dog and learn what makes them tick,” said Baxter. “The dog also needs to learn how to understand what their person’s body language is telling them and what their verbal cues are telling them and that takes time. The benefit of training is that it builds the bond between the human and the dog.”
Once the dog bonds with the owner, that’s when you have less incidents and less running away because they’re linked to their owner, says Baxter.
“It takes work and it takes effort and you really have to put in the time in order to build that,” she said. “There’s many ways to do it, you don’t have to just go to a boring obedience class. There’s lots of ways to build that bond.”
The key is understanding that they’re dogs and aren’t born knowing how to live in the human world, Baxter said, and because their owners aren’t dogs, they won’t naturally gravitate to humans.
“Training is great for building that communication and understanding,” she said. “The learning begins the moment that puppy walks through your door, and just like humans, their brains are still forming when they’re puppies and it’s the most pliable. They’re able to absorb and imprint a lot easier when they’re little.”
While it is easier to teach dogs when they’re puppies, Baxter said it’s never too late to build that bond and train an older dog.
“Just like we can learn all our lives, learning is lifelong for a dog, too,” she said. “To start off on the right foot with a dog, training and building that bond starts the moment they walk through that door. You need to help them acclimate to the human world.”
Training with a professional is an important aspect of ensuring a dog learns and grows in the right direction, but Baxter is adamant that every interaction is a learning opportunity.
“Training isn’t always in a class, it’s the interactions you have everyday with your dog as you build that relationship,” said Baxter. “We always remind people to build up and not back by laying foundations and continuing to build the relationship. You don’t want to go too quickly and have to go backwards because then the dog doesn’t understand what you want.”
Rushing your dog to learn can overwhelm them and hurt them in the long run by ultimately teaching them bad behaviours, said Baxter, who believes a slower process will lead to payoff.
“To prevent the dog from blowing us off and getting frustrated, build up your layers of learning,” she said. “That way we won’t get frustrated as well because this is all about teamwork.”
Another tip Baxter encourages with dog owners is taking them to natural environments to walk instead of the sidewalk.
“Take them to park and let them learn to walk with you rather than trying to force them to walk with you,” she said. “We’re also huge advocates of longlines. If your dog doesn’t have a really reliable recall, they shouldn’t be off leash. Our parks, trails, and sidewalks are for everyone and not everybody likes dogs and not all dogs like other dogs in their face.”
Dogs’ behaviour is “100 per cent” the responsibility of the owner, said Baxter, and there are laws in Ontario that will impact dogs if owners aren’t stepping up to ensure their safety and the safety of others.
Learn more about the Dog Owners’ Liability Act here.