I Never Said I Liked You! The Magic of Relationship in Dogs and Training - McCann Professional Dog Trainers

I Never Said I Liked You! The Magic of Relationship in Dogs and Training

With some dogs, it all seems easy, as if they were born to love you. Put on the earth with the sole purpose of being yours entirely and doing whatever you ask them to do. That was my Tyler. He was mine from 4 weeks of age. I would visit him at his breeder's home and everything else in the room became nonexistent.

He would see me and I was all he focused on.


We had a special bond. One that I can't quite describe as anything other than magic. If they could all be like Tyler, life would be wonderful and we would never need to think outside the box or develop good dog training skills. With Tyler, I got to rest on my laurels and just enjoy teaching him whatever I wanted to.

Then there are the others. The ones we seem to have to sweat over for even the slightest bit of attention or compliance. The ones we seem to constantly feel frustrated over; dogs who make us have to think outside the box - WAY outside the box, to get even the smallest successes to foster our motivation to continue. That dog was my Jayden. Jayden was a beautiful, bouncy, happy Toller puppy. He was the same breed of dog as Tyler, but that's where their similarities ended. Jayden was, by far, the most independent dog I've ever owned. When I visited his litter, he was the one playing in the dirt under the deck by himself, while all of the other puppies were keen on each other and the guests who were gushing over them.

With the grace of hindsight that life gives us, I now know how lucky I am to have loved and shared my life with both types of dogs. As I write this, I feel choked up by the absence of the dog I had to fight the hardest over. Turns out that life with Jayden was also magic - it was a completely different kind of magic, but it was magic nonetheless. Jayden taught me how to train dogs. I never once got to rest on laurels with Jayden, but as soon as I figured out how to make things intriguing for him, I enjoyed Jayden in an entirely different way. Jayden had a long and wonderful life that ended just shy of 14 years. He titled in obedience, agility, flyball, rally-o and field work. He was an amazing demo dog while teaching classes and running with the McCann demo team at events like the Royal Winter Fair and the Toronto Sportsmen's Show. He had a full and wonderful life and despite the frustration of him being an independent dog, he's the one I will compare all other dogs to for the rest of my life. He became THAT dog! What some would call a Heart Dog.

We see this so often. Dogs who are totally out of synch with their owners. The dog who pays zero attention to their handler and the handler who is frustrated beyond description at the dog on the end of the leash. I can't count how many times I've heard one of the following from a frustrated student:

  • "He has a mind of his own!"
  • "Why doesn't he listen me?"
  • "Why doesn't he like me?"
  • "My dog's too stubborn to be like your dog."

And to that, we often respond with the following:

"They lack relationship."

These 3 words say it all. There is no mathematical formula to training dogs. Every dog is unique and an individual. They have breed traits and predispositions, but other similarities are very limited. So, by their very nature, not all dogs will fit into a "2 + 2 = 4" sort of mold when it comes to breaking through with your training.

Dog training fits the same description. We have practices we use commonly that will work on about 80% of dogs, but when you come into contact with those other 20%, you'd better have some other tricks up your sleeve or a soft wall to bump your head repeatedly against. This is where relationship plays a very strong role. If you have it, your dog will look to you for guidance and will try their best to figure out what it is you are asking of them. If relationship is lacking, dogs are much more likely to continue looking for reinforcement elsewhere.

All of the above complaints could have been made about Jayden at the beginning of our time together. When Jayden and I didn't see eye-to-eye initially, it was because we lacked relationship. We didn't have the easy and convenient "click" that I got with Tyler. Ours started out as a round hole and square peg deal, and it was my job to foster a better relationship so that we could find a way to fit. Once I realized I needed to build my training program around him rather than trying to make him fit into my preconception of who he should be, we found our stride.

If you find yourself with a Jayden, it's okay and more importantly, it's not anything you're doing wrong! You'll have to learn as you go. Don't give up and most of all, train the dog you have, NOT the dog you wish you had. This is your learning opportunity - your chance to make it work despite the obstacles. Build a relationship and watch magic happen.

So, what does all this mean? Relationship is such a "buzz" word these days when you talk dog training, but it is crucial to the outcome and success of your endeavour to train the new puppy in the house. Relationship is such a broad term, but it truly is central to creating a dog who wants to listen and looks to you for guidance. The key is viewing life from their perspective. What does your puppy need? What do they want?

Now, how do you prove to them that you can fulfill those wants and needs?

Reinforcement in the Home

This is where it all starts since this is the mainstay of your dog's life. There are many resources that you can use to help enhance a relationship.


Freedom is a huge commodity in any puppy's life. Allowing them too much means they will make the wrong decisions (accidents in the house, chewing the wrong things, etc.), but it will also allow them to entertain themselves. In a perfect world, we want our dogs to look to us for entertainment. That means, we need to expend the energy it takes to manage and entertain them! Rather than letting the pup or dog make up their own fun, play with them! Play is an amazing way to build a bond with your dog. Yes, sometimes life is busy, but we need to make the time if we expect to reap the rewards. Use your crate to control your puppy's freedom and when they come out, use that time wisely! These are the opportunities to train, play and get to know them. It doesn't have to be formal training. Training tricks and cute behaviours are just as important as obedience and manners. Have fun with it. Get them used to earning rewards from you. Establishing value for working for you is crucial to creating a good relationship. Teach them fun games like scent work, tug and retrieve which will go a long way toward fostering relationship.


Food is a giant commodity that all puppies want. Even those that aren't extremely food motivated need to eat to live. Refrain from free feeding (leaving a full bowl down for the dog). You will only create a lack of value for food if it's always available. Put the bowl down at set meal times and if the measured out bowl isn't empty in a specific amount of time, remove it. You can offer it again at a later time, but make sure the puppy isn't allowed to graze.

Sometimes, use your puppy's meal as training treats. We want our dogs to see that this very important resource comes from you.

Reinforcement on the Street

This is tricky because it entails trying to control the environment and other people around you. Who doesn't love a cute puppy? We always want to say hello when we see one on the street. So does everyone else when you're walking with your new pup. This creates a great socialization opportunity, but it also can create a problem with manners and overexcitement toward people. I always try to give permission to my dogs to greet strangers. Yes, I want them to be friendly with people on the street, but not at the cost of jumping all over every new person to come along. I ask for simple focus and a simple task before I allow them to say hello. Usually, with a youngster, it's something like a shake-a-paw, sit or a spin. One of their easy tricks or skills that holds its own value already (you'll need to have established this first). That way, they get reinforcement and permission from me before heading off for "free love" from that stranger. Most of the time, people are really good at being patient if you let them know that your pup is in training. Allowing your young pup to pull you to a stranger for greeting sets a bad precedent and it allows the puppy to reinforce themselves when they want to.

Reinforcement from Play and Exercise

Play is huge for most dogs. That means we have to own it! We know that life is often busy and sometimes, we don't have the energy after a long day to exercise the dog. In this "fast food" world, we often look for the quick fix. With dogs, that might mean a trip to the leash-free park. There are so many issues that can be created by leash-free areas. We won't get into that here. Check out this article on the Pros and Cons of Leash-free parks for the inherent risks these areas have. I will say this, none of our instructors would ever take their dogs to a leash-free zone.

Taking the easy road when it comes to exercising the dog can have a damaging affect on relationship building. If you allow your dog to meet their exercise requirements with other dogs, they will look to other dogs for that reinforcement. This dog is the one who becomes so over enthusiastic about meeting other dogs, that they are difficult, if not impossible, to control on outings. Instead, play with the dog. Take him for a short walk with some training elements to help curb some of his mental energy. Tiring your dog mentally will go a long way towards shedding excess energy. Teaching a young dog to retrieve for you is a great way to get them running and to burn off some steam. It also reinforces them playing with you, which will enhance your relationship once they start to look to you for their exercise needs. Get to know your puppy and learn what tires them out best, while still helping to build your relationship.

To build relationship, one must think about things from the dog's perspective. Break it down between wants and needs and try to ensure most of those are covered by you. Jayden's life could have gone much differently had I continued to view him as independent, or worse, stubborn - a term grossly overused in the misrepresentation of dogs like Jayden.

In hindsight, when I think back over Tyler's life, aside from his death, I can't think of a single time I was ever upset about that dog. He was easy. He wanted to please me. He wanted to work with me. It was who he was. Quite the contrary, Jayden was his own man. Jayden did what Jayden wanted to do and that was who he was. Trying to change who he was wasn't an option and I'm so glad I didn't have that power, for in the end, it was he who taught me, and far more than I ever thought possible. When I think back at all of the frustration, all of the perceived misses and do-overs, these days, they always make me smile. You see, I had it all wrong in the beginning. It wasn't my job to change who Jayden was, it was Jayden's job to change me.... and there will never be enough gratitude. I thank you, Jayden.

Happy Training!

Hi! I'm Shannon Viljasoo and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members.

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