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What and Why: Training and Behavior Change

“He doesn’t listen.” 

“She’s stubborn.” 

“He has no respect.” 

“She pushes boundaries.”

Have you ever found yourself frustrated with your dog, wondering why they can’t just listen? You are far from alone if so- as a dog trainer, I hear the above statements at least a few times a week. And I have quite a bit of empathy for people who feel this way- dogs can sure test our patience!

However, much of my work involves encouraging guardians to shift their thinking. Dogs are delightfully simple creatures. They have no moral compass (and even if they did, it almost certainly wouldn’t match our human standards), and they have no concept of respect (and again, even if they did, would it match ours? Can you get 10 random people to agree on exactly what respect is?).

Dogs ask just two questions of us:

“What are you asking me to do?”

“Why should I?”

Let’s start with the first question: “what are you asking me to do?” Our dogs are not able to respond to our requests without knowing exactly what we are asking them of them. This seems like common sense, but in reality, our dogs often really don’t have a good understanding of cues we think they know.

Dogs do not generalize well. Have you ever taken a training class with your dog, where they respond perfectly to cues, but then when you get home, they act like they didn’t learn a single thing? That’s the lack of generalization at work!

People understand concepts in a much different way than dogs. If you asked me to sit down, I understand that I could sit on a chair, on the floor, on a bench, even on a table or a counter. I understand the concept of “sit”.

Dogs, on the other hand, learn much more specifically. A dog that learns to sit in a class away from home will not necessarily know what sit means at home right away. A dog who learns a “leave it” for dropped items in the kitchen will not necessarily know what the cue means for discarded food found on walks.

Because we, as humans, understand the concepts well, we often put it on our dogs to do so as well. Next time your dog isn’t listening, ask yourself- do they really understand what I am asking them to do? Have we practiced this skill enough (practice makes perfect)? Have we practiced in this context?

Our dogs’ second question is more often maligned by guardians and even some trainers. “Why should I?”

Murphy knows exactly why she should listen to my request for patience (quiet): beef liver.

Our dogs don’t ask this question to be stubborn or defiant. It is an innocent query, one of motivation. There is an often quoted statement by Jean Donaldson, dog trainer and educator: “No motivation, no training.” Our dogs require some form of motivation to respond to our requests.

In modern dog training, our dogs respond to the promise of good things: food, affection, play, access to fun. People respond to these types of rewards as well- have you ever helped a friend move solely for the implied promise of pizza as a thank you? Older styles of training rely on different motivators- pain, fear, and intimidation. People also respond to these motivators- remember the threat of “or else” as a child?

We now know that the good motivators- the basis of positive training- are more effective, and kinder on our dogs, than the “or else”. These good motivators work, and work well; we just have to use them.

Too often, our idea of a well-trained dog does not involve treats or rewards of any kind. Dogs listen because they “should”. Often this “should” is a soft veil for “or else.” After all: no motivation, no training. We have to use some sort of motivator for behavior change. When our dogs get no response to “why should I", they are left with an obvious answer “you shouldn’t".

When your dog does not respond to a well-trained cue, ask yourself: why should they? Teach your dog that good things- really good things, like special tasty treats- come to those who listen. Remind your dog of this often, almost always. Give bonuses for good performance, and don’t be stingy! When our dogs have a clear answer to “why should I”, you’ll see that they don’t hesitate to respond.

So next time you get stuck in negative thoughts about your dog, in stubbornness and lack of respect, ask yourself: does my dog know what I am asking? And do they know why they should listen? Give them the answers, kindly, and watch your partnership blossom.

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