I am often reminded of a phrase my grandfather would say to me as a child when I did something wrong. “Well kid, I guess you zigged when you should have zagged”. I genuinely appreciated his calm response to my mistakes. His loving composure drew me to him for guidance while going through the learning phase of many life lessons. I didn’t feel the need to hide my errors from him nor did I ever fear harsh judgment. His approach created a strong willingness in me to reflect and learn from my behavior choices. Isn’t it amazing how moments like that in your childhood can have such a profound impact on your behavior as an adult?
I have found my grandfather’s wisdom to be very useful in my relationship with dogs. I have learned to look past the initial moment of frustration with a dog’s undesirable behavior choice and seek understanding of why it happened. From this calm and reflective state, I can learn how to prevent the dog’s behavior from being repeated AND formulate my plan to teach them what behavior I actually want.
Harshly correcting a dog does not equate to a constructive learning experience. Take the picture for this blog as an example. Obviously, Fido (dog in the picture) zigged when he should have zagged! His guardian is not happy with his behavior and is emotionally displaying his displeasure to Fido. How do you feel when someone points their finger at your face? If you didn’t speak their language, how would you know what you did to create that response? Does that physical gesture teach you what you should do? What information is Fido receiving from his guardian’s body language? Based on Fido’s body language, he is feeling threatened and stressed. How is Fido to know what behavior choice he should make next time? Frequently people say in defense of their harsh responses to their dog’s undesirable behavior that the dog KNEW they did something wrong and that is why they look so “guilty”. It is my experience that the dog’s guilty or remorseful appearance has a lot more to do with trying to calm their guardian down and a lot less to do with their actual behavior choice. Dogs only associate a consequence to a behavior if it occurs in the same millisecond following the behavior. More times than not when we react to a dog’s behavior with anger and intimidation, they do not make the association to the behavior we are trying to correct. Instead they learn to “hide” the behavior choice in the future or just offer a myriad of calming signals to appease their human. Even if our timing in correction was perfect so that they could associate the negative consequence (our emotional correction) to a specific behavior, we lost the opportunity to actually TEACH them what we WANT them to do instead.
Dogs are opportunists….they make choices based on what will bring them the best experience. This is why building value and strong positive reinforcement history for desired behaviors is the MOST powerful method to achieve reliable results.
I think back to the start of my career and the perception that strong corrections were the means to the end of an undesired behavior. I compare those memories and subsequent results to the very different approach I employ now. I simply allow dogs to learn through gathering information (what works to get what they want and what doesn’t) from our interactions. Establishing effective and meaningful communication in a relationship founded on MUTUAL trust, respect, compassion and cooperation is essential. The best training takes place when we use the opportunities presented in every interaction to teach them. This is why a lifestyle approach to training is so meaningful. The foundation of our relationship must be solid in order for them to be consistent and confident. Positive reinforcement training is counter intuitive to a lot of humans. We are so well versed at pointing out all of the things we don’t like about something/someone but genuinely struggle to as passionately reinforce the things we like. Can you imagine how awesome our relationships with other humans would be if we spent more time reinforcing what we love about them versus communicating mostly what we don’t like?
So what could we do differently to achieve the right behaviors?
1. Manage our dog’s environment (distractions, options, mental state, etc.) so that they are most likely to practice the RIGHT behaviors
2. Highly reinforce the right behavior choices
3. Give them many opportunities to rehearse the desired behavior and experience the benefits of doing so
4. Behavior is just information. I assure you, as intelligent as dogs are, they are not plotting to ruin our day, embarrass us or destroy things we consider valuable.
5. Before we respond to an undesired behavior choice out of anger, let’s Get curious, NOT furious!
6. Stop, BREATHE, Seek to understand why, Plan for many rehearsals and Reinforcement of the DESIRED behavior and Implement!
With all of that said, I completely understand my suggestions may sound great but ARE challenging to execute, especially in the heat of the moment! I have had furniture ruined, my favorite shoes destroyed and have been embarrassed by my dogs’ unruly behavior (because the “Trainer’s dogs” are supposed to be perfect-LOL) on more than one occasion. However, with time, patience and commitment, MOST days my grandfather’s wisdom guides me to respond to my dogs’ less than desirable behavior choices with productive curiosity and composure instead of destructive emotion and reactivity!
Remember, harsh judgment does not create positive change.
Stay tuned for more “Happy Woofs” from the K9 Professor!