Pet Column: Your dog is your mirror

Paw to hand, Bandit and Elle mirror each other in more ways than one. Photo by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider  

Every morning I walk my dogs, and each morning my little rat terrier mix, Bandit, gets to say hi to my neighbor. They are absolutely in love with each other. We chat about the usual: weather, gardening, and always about our dogs. 

The other day, my neighbor said, “I heard that dogs are our mirror, the more I learn about my dog the more I want to know what’s going on in her mind.” I love hearing this because more often than not, it leads to a fascinating talk about instinct, body language, and always our influence on their behavior. 

The concept that our dog is our mirror is not a new one. There are science studies published and books written just for this topic.

Dogs are social animals, and the way a pack stays in tune is by pack mentality. For example, if one pack member becomes fearful, the others follow. That’s what keeps them safe. 

Dogs have an amazing ability to read our faces and body language. Thousands of years of evolution by our side have made dogs the world’s best lie detector. If you think you can fool a dog, I’m sorry but you can’t. They can literally smell our emotions. But that’s a topic for another column.

A great example of how they mirror us would be at the door. You come home, excited to see it waiting for your arrival. You walk in, exploding with excitable energy, “Oh hi Fluffy, mommy missed you so much,” and it jumps all over you, licking your face and jumping for what we think is joy. You and your dog are giving off the same energy. And yet so often I have students ask how to stop this jumping behavior. When I say, “It’s because you’re excited,” more often than not, that’s when things click. “Gosh, that makes so much sense,” my students reply. 

This is the case for so many behaviors. Let’s say your dog is reactive and you dread the sight of another person walking their dog. You tense up, start to hold the leash tighter, then your dog barks out of anxiousness when the other dog walks by. You become frustrated and tug at the lead. “Stop it. Stop. Shut up!” Both are anxious and react. That is pack mentality.

Or what if you really love kids and every time you see a cute one playing in the street you just have to say hi. The dog picks up that energy and thinks, “Good things must happen if my human is so happy to see a small human. I’m happy to meet them as well.” Pack mentality goes both ways, the good and the bad. 

This is why calm, confident leadership is so important during each moment spent with your dog. A calm, confident leader means a calm, submissive dog. Use rewards (affection, food, and toys) to help reinforce good behaviors. And when boundaries are overstepped, calm, assertive corrections help your dog learn where the line is drawn.

If you correct your dog out of anger, don’t be surprised if it returns that anger right back or doesn’t respond, assuming they call the shots since your energy is so unstable. Dogs don’t follow unstable leaders, only humans do. Using fear and force will only further hurt your relationship with your dog. There is nothing to gain if the pack turns on the pack.

The leader will always choose to do what’s best for the pack. If you are inconsistent with your leadership, your dog will respond with inconsistent behavior. Sure, they might be good one day, then the next day go on a chewing rampage. What did you expect? 

There’s a great deal we can learn about ourselves by looking at our dogs. I am by no means perfect. The days I’m frustrated by life are the days my dogs get on my nerves, literally reflecting my emotional state right back at me. It’s times like that when I take a step back, collect myself, and move on calmly and confidently into the next moment. 

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.


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