I was 26 years old and had just started studying art in Amsterdam--and I had a dog phobia. One day on my way home, I had another phobic reaction to a fox terrier. Devastated, I sat down in my study at home and saw the scene pass before my mind's eye. I was upset, but what could I do about it?
Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea! Why not simply paint the fear away? After all, painting is an expressive kind of therapy.
The next day I checked the public library for all available books on dog breeds. First I borrowed reading material on Rottweilers, Dobermans, and Dalmatians. The list was long.
Three weeks later, there was a young Rottweiler looking up at me from my sketchpad. I'd wanted to portray him as aggressive and frightening. Instead, I created a curious dog whose look and posture invited me to play with him. The same thing happened with all the other dogs I painted. In my original phobic imaginings, the Irish Setter, like a wild beast at the edge of the forest, would only lie in wait for human victims. Yet on canvas he appeared graceful, imbued with the harmony of nature. I painted virtually every breed of dog, and again and again the image of fear transformed itself into an image of curiosity. This fascinated me, and I couldn't resist learning more about dogs.
What I observed was that dogs respond to even the smallest movements, often unconsciously. When dogs meet, they read each other's behavior by checking the other dog's posture and scent, and from those little hints, they can immediately tell which one of them is dominant.
Dogs often get irritated when people's tone of voice doesn't match their body language. We can't demonstrate strength to a dog if we droop our shoulders. "Bronco, get off the sofa", says his owner, but her shoulders are hunched, and her voice is trembling. "What does she mean?" Bronco thinks. "I don't get it. She can´t be serious." Even if his owner tugged on the leash, Bronco still wouldn't move.
So when dealing with our dogs, we need to remember the importance of these little distinctions and incorporate them in our interactions with our furry friends. Not doing so will only confuse the poor animal.
For instance, we tend to use the same word for different commands. We say, "Fido, off!" whether we want the dog to stop chewing the ball, watering the roses, or nibbling our shoes. Sometimes we just shout its name: "Fido!" How is the dog supposed to know what we mean? The poor dog looks at us helplessly to try to figure out what we want it to do. Or it completely ignores us. And when we react aggressively or impatiently, it becomes overwhelmed and stops trusting us.
So how do we fix this? I have observed that short words are most effective when giving commands. "Off" or "No" are good words. They work well when you're playing catch and the dog goes out of bounds and needs to stop trampling the flowers. Your tone of voice is also important, since dogs can easily understand the difference between a soft and a sharp tone. Finally, it makes sense for all family members to use the same commands for the same circumstances. These are just a few suggestions. But they help your furry family member to know its place in the pack.
Our Greek Hound Rocky has lived with me and my partner since 2008. He has taught me many things, and he, too, is constantly learning. Our Irish Wolfhound Zozo and our mongrel Mikroula have shown me what teamwork is all about--whether I like what they do or not.
Since then, I've combined my love for dogs with my knowledge of dog training. It's so much fun when my four-legged friends do what I want and not vice versa. At the same time, my dogs should be happy, because if my dogs aren't happy, neither am I.
"My Story, or How I Settled on Dogs" is partly adapted from the intro to the upcoming English version of my book Who's the Coach Here? , which arose from my experience of going from having a dog phobia to being a dog lover. These true first-person dog stories grew out of both personal observations and other people's anecdotes about their dogs. You can sign up at dog-soulsearcher.com to read a sample or pre-order your copy.
I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.