Tuesday, March 6, 2012

It's Your Choice.

As a volunteer for our local (amazing) shelter, I recently attended an adoption event at a large area pet store. While walking one of the shelter dogs and working on some really simple leash exercises, I jokingly said, "Alright, let's make good choices!" Oddly enough, even though I knew the dog had no idea what I was talking about, I wasn't really kidding.

"Shiloh" the shelter dog
learning the beginnings of
impulse control.
The reality is that anytime I have a shelter dog (or any dog) on the other end of my leash, I'm very much focused on the choices he's making versus the ones that I want him to make. Is he lunging at other dogs? Is he pulling me around like crazy? Even though dogs are usually very impulsive creatures, they have to make choices just as we do. Our responsibility is to teach them to consciously make the appropriate decision even under challenging (exciting) circumstances. Trust me, you want a dog to stop and think before he acts. Acting purely on impulse tends to be bad for anyone, human or pet!

So, how do you want to accomplish this? How can you possibly keep your crazy, unruly dog from making bad decisions when he has no apparent interest in doing what you ask?

Some of you might choose the route of using an ultimatum. Either Fluffy does what you ask or else. The "or else" is usually a jerk on the leash, smack on the bottom, or other aversive measure. If Fluffy truly knows the command that you're asking of her, then those corrections could be enough to make her do what you want.

Then again, let's say your reprimand is a smack on the bottom but Fluffy is in a brand new place and really excitable around other dogs. There are at least a few other dogs around and Fluffy is losing her cool every two seconds. In turn, you lose your cool and after yelling "NO" several times you resort to smacking her rear end. Depending on her personality, it might actually work. However, in this scenario, Fluffy is a feisty dog with a real zest for life (i.e. "attitude") and continues yapping, lunging, and carrying on in the most embarrassing way imaginable.

So, now what?

Even Obi practices tolerance with the
foster puppy, Kota.
If you're like most people I've observed, you'll stand over Fluffy relentlessly repeating commands as you grow more and more frustrated. In order for your punishment (be it spanking, leash jerks, etc.) to work you will obviously have to be more harsh with them. Meanwhile, Fluffy continues to get more worked up by the other dogs and excitement around her. This is usually the point when I see a very angry and mortified dog owner reach down and physically turn the dog around, grab its muzzle, snap the leash, or otherwise maneuver the animal with some level of force. This is also a common scenario during which I've observed a nip from the dog who is now completely overstimulated. Once your dog reaches this state of anxiety/excitement, it isn't learning. Chances are, if you've let it go this far you're not really using your brain very much either.

The alternative to this, and what most people (and even trainers) do not focus on, is to teach your dog the correct way to behave. Physically pushing, shoving, or jerking your dog around doesn't really accomplish this. In your mind you're trying to teach her what not to do, but that seldom gets you very far when you've laid no foundation on teaching impulse control or working under distractions.

What if your dog truly obeyed when you told her to "leave it" and knew that doing so was a great decision? Sure, it takes a little time and practice, but it's a fantastic tool when taught properly.* The same goes for any obedience command; they exist for a reason and if you haven't trained your dog to the point where those commands are actually useful, then you've got a lot more work ahead of you. Just because your dog has mastered commands at home or in the back yard doesn't mean she's acquired the impulse control and expertise she needs to exercise those lessons in a busy park or store. Practice! It is an unfortunate fact that there is no easy way around this unless you're ok with upping the ante on the amount of fear or pain you're comfortable exerting upon your pet. Some of the more timid dogs will respond to those things quickly but the more outgoing animals may very well require a real beating before your punishment outweighs their desire to explore, play with, or greet things in a very stimulating environment. I doubt any of us really want to take things that far and if you do, then it's time to find a new home for your dog (not to mention, some mental help and anger management for yourself).

Using rewards doesn't make you weak. Rewarding your dog doesn't magically take away any "respect" that he has for you or cause him to think that you're a two-legged joke. What rewards will do is quickly create a thinking animal. I strongly prefer to see a sparkle in a dog's eyes as it tries to figure out how to obtain his reward than a cringe, jump, or cower when he suddenly worries that he's going to get in trouble for getting something wrong. Dogs trained solely with reward-based methods and true understanding of dog behavior will guess at things and work for you. They will actually make up new "tricks" when trying to figure out what you want. When working on teaching Obi to pick up a toy and hold it, he offered many interesting behaviors including picking up the toy, walking backwards, then sitting against a wall! Sometimes they can over-think things.

Foster puppies make for great
Rewards can be anything from a treat, to a toy, to a life-based reward (such as allowing your leashed dog to explore a grassy area because he chose not to pull you there). Believe it or not, when you train a dog with rewards and teach him the right thing to do rather than focusing completely on what he's doing wrong, he will learn to immediately listen to you and to do so habitually. He will defer to your clear direction whether or not you have treats. Proper training results in your dog learning that he can communicate with you and that you're able to communicate back. Frustration, pain, and fear will eventually lead to aggression and a dog who no longer has the confidence to stop and think about what you're asking. On the other hand, a confident, thinking dog can go on to accomplish nearly anything that his owner/trainer desires.

*More to come on how to teach and proof the "leave it" cue.


  1. This was a really great article. Because my mom person has been sick and in hospitals for several years, I am not properly socialized. Now that she's doing much better she hope to train me more this spring.

    Nubbin wiggles,

    1. Thanks Oskar! I am so glad to know that your mom is doing much better and wish you both the best of luck in your future training! :)

  2. Love it! Completely see this overthinking in Buster ... if he thinks I have a treat he will sit, down, spin, roll over, sit, spin, down, high, sit, sit, down ... just to see if gets the treat!!! Can't wait for more teaching "leave it"!!!