A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Who Trains Whom?

Dogs train us as much as we train them

By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.

About 15 years ago, my interest in dogs resurfaced.

I’d grown up with dogs, but had been dogless after that, and had set aside my deep connection with them as my life took many roads. But now I found myself with some free time, and was considering volunteer options.

I always liked to stop, pet and talk to the dogs in my apartment building when I met them on their way in or out. They responded enthusiastically to me. Some would jump up on me, to the consternation of their guardians. Others joyfully wagged their tails and bodies. There were also the kissers who gave my face a tongue wash. (No mind, I love doggie kisses.)

Zoe, my friend’s dachshund, would get so excited when she saw me, she would pee on the spot. One day, Lynda, her mom, called to report that Zoe wasn’t feeling well. I told her I would drop by later in the day to cheer up Zoe.

“You don’t understand,” Lynda said plaintively. “She hasn’t urinated all day.”

“Put paper on the floor,” I replied. “I’ll be right up.” I ran up the flight of stairs to Lynda’s apartment, and as soon as Zoe saw me, she peed. From then on, all bodily systems were a “Go.”

I was having such a positive interaction with the dogs in my building that I started volunteering a couple of times a week at the local shelter. It was a great learning experience. As a shelter volunteer, I could attend classes on dog and cat behavior and training. I was encouraged to attend adoption events and to help out in other ways benefiting the animals. I soon found myself ordering books and reading articles on dog training, dog breeds, dog health, along with other dog stories. I also attended lectures and workshops at the shelter aimed at training dogs to become good four legged citizens in the house and in the community.

Armed with all this knowledge and years of experience training, walking and socializing shelter dogs, I agreed to dog-sit my friends’ and neighbors’ dogs for a few hours – even sometimes for a couple of weeks.

But I soon realized that my training was for naught. The dogs, it turned out, were training me!

The greeter

I practice psychotherapy in the office at my apartment. And Maggie, my neighbor’s Westie, who is a frequent visitor, has become my official greeter. When she hears the doorbell ring, she hurries to the door to welcome the next patient.

Then, as soon as we sit down to begin the session, Maggie walks into the adjacent kitchen, stands under the cabinet where I keep the dog treats, and starts to whimper. That’s her signal that she wants a treat in exchange for silence during the session. She has been known to turn away her snout and reject the treat unless it’s her favorite duck wrapped around sweet potato. If at first, I don’t pay attention to her whimper, she gets louder and more insistent. Needless to say, I am trained to rise from my chair at the first whimper and head for the treat jar.

Recently, Maggie has raised the ante. Now, I have to pretend to want the treat that’s already between her paws. She growls, albeit quite harmlessly, until I retreat – at which point she’s convinced I am sufficiently intimidated and she settles down with her treat and remains completely quiet throughout the session.

“Do me!”

I’m beginning to wonder if there might be some secret canine counseling society or network that offers advice and guidance to dogs on how to train their guardians and sitters.

Zoe, whom I mentioned earlier, along with Maggie, must be members of this special group. When Zoe visits, she commands total attention. If I’m working at the computer, she will jump on the couch and bark. If I ignore her, she barks louder until I turn around to face her. Invariably, she’s sitting on her rump, head held high as if to say, “I’m here, what are you doing over there? Come here and DO ME” – which, translated, means “Give me a body massage and tummy rub.” As an unabashed sucker for her antics, I stop what I’m doing and go over to DO HER.

Happy, a toy poodle, also visits occasionally. He loves to run into the hallway, give a few barks and roll onto his back for a tummy rub. What he really wants is for me to pick him up and carry him like a baby into the apartment, where he can remain in my arms or on my lap. I always oblige and he kisses me before snuggling deeper into my arms.

What is it about my personality that allows the dogs to dictate my behaviors? The dog and I are in a special relationship. Granted, we are not equal, but each dog gives me so much pleasure, joy and comfort, I want to reciprocate. What could be better than that?

What do you say? I would love to hear if you have been trained by your dogs or cats, and, if so, how. Let me know in a comment below.


Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.