When I ask clients what their goals are for their dogs, whether we are dealing with basics or behavior problems, they tell me they want a “good” dog — that is, well-socialized, well-behaved, well-trained. They describe dogs that won’t jump on people, walk nicely on leash, play nice with other dogs, can be taken anywhere, always listen and so on. You know, perfect. And impossible.

I contend what they really mean is they want a safe dog. One they trust. One they don’t have to watch all the time. Or constantly have to keep a leash on, put away or be ready to say No or Off to whenever X occurs.

A safe dog is a more realistic and attainable goal than perfect, and it is a more clearly defined goal than “good.” Here’s how I define it:

A safe dog is one that happily and predictably makes the proper choice most of the time without prompting.

The key pieces of that definition are:

Predictability. POGs need to know their dogs will almost always act properly in a given situation.

Most of the time. Dogs will make mistakes sometimes.

Choice. Dogs can learn to reliably make an appropriate choice in a given situation.

Prompts (“Commands”). Dogs can’t make proper choices if they are always waiting for you to tell them what to do. What happens if you forget to tell them, or you aren’t watching, or you’re not even there?

Happiness. A good attitude is everything. It’s the gas that powers the behavior car. When everything a dog learns is taught with delight and great results, she will be happy to use what she’s been taught. Even when a dog fails to make a proper choice, it’s usually a one-off oopsie with no long-term effects.

Doesn’t that sound like something every POG wants?

The path to safety

If we have agreed that a safe dog is the goal, we next have to figure out how to achieve it. So how does one create a safe dog?

As usual, the answer is simple but not easy. Because, loving POG, it involves YOU changing — your thinking, your attitude, your approach.

That means thinking teaching not correcting/punishing/disciplining.

That means realizing your dog does what he does because A) he thinks it will get him what he wants or B) he thinks it’s what you want or C) he has no idea what to do and is just flailing. In all three instances, the dog is working off no information or misinformation. The only way to fix that is or provide correct information.

That means it is up to us to consistently give our dogs the information necessary to make the desired choice (i.e. this is what to do, this is why you want to do it). And regardless of if you are working on a Sit, a jumping problem or reactivity (“aggression”), every molecule of information needs to be delivered without a hint of threat (i.e. no yelling, no grabbing, no smacking, no yanking, no time-outs in a crate, no frustration, no anger). Because critical to the success of this approach is making sure your dog trusts you 110%. In other words, if you want your dog to be predictable, you have to be predictable too. (One of my favorite sayings is ” ‘Sometimes’ doesn’t work in dog training.”)

But just as you are not perfect, dear POG, neither is your dog. And while we don’t require 100% on things like Sit, we do on things like attacking other dogs and jumping on 90-year-old Granny. For those types of things, we cannot allow our dogs to err. To get to and stay at 100% on those things, in addition to teaching, you must add in some management (aka safety nets). Some common safety nets: Not putting your dog in a situation you aren’t sure he can handle without testing his tolerance first. Or if you have put him in a situation and see him getting nervous, calmly calling him away or walking him away. Using management techniques like this, you prevent a mistake from happening and — bonus — your dog will love you for noticing and trust you all the more. Which could lead to less and less management as time goes on.

Kind, joyful teaching builds trust and more

This isn’t rocket science, folks. Let’s put this concept in human terms: If I ordered you to sit in a chair, and every time you tried to get up I shoved you back down and said “No, Sit,” eventually you would probably stay seated, even though you had no idea why you had to sit in that chair. I got what I wanted, but you got — what? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Anger, confusion, anxiety, resentment are just a few of the possible reactions.

However, if I waved $5 at you and told you it could be yours for sitting in that chair, your butt would be down before I finished the sentence, right? And you would sit as many times as I wanted for $5 a pop (well at least until your legs gave out). If you started to get up, and I said whoops and put the bill away, you would quickly sit back down hoping the bill would reappear, making the clear connection between the action taken and the rewards resulting. This time, we both got something we wanted, making it something we both enjoyed doing. A game where everyone wins.

The next time I saw you, you might slide onto the nearest chair before I pulled a bill out of my pocket, just in case the game is again afoot!

This is the beauty of kind, joyful teaching, and the main reason why it is the surest path to a safe dog. Virtually every exercise results in success for POG and dog, with few mistakes! Good feelings are attached to everything your dog does. No fear, anxiety or mistrust appears because it is not warranted.

That happy attitude brings confidence — Look at me, I know what to do here! Confidence promotes qualities in your dog like tolerance and forgiveness. And even if she isn’t sure what to do, she is more likely to make a choice on the good-attitude side (re-read the chair example) because that’s all she has in her behavior bag. Fear-based or defensive-based behaviors are much less likely to come from a happy, confident, trusting pooch.

Proper, reliable choices made happily. Now that is what I call a safe dog!