Dogs are super observant. They are always watching, hoping they might find an easier way to access something they want or to avoid something they don’t want. There are times in training when I will catch myself following a dog into doing something I wasn’t intending to do because they subtly manipulated me into doing it. Tricky little critters! That’s part of why of love them so much. They’re crafty. When I was getting my feet wet with dog training, a friend told me “In order to train a dog, you have to be smarter than the dog.” Now he was being sarcastic, but he was right. If you want to get a dog to do something it wouldn’t naturally do, you have to be smarter than the dog and that is harder than you might think.
Dog training is like a chess match; think at least 3 steps ahead. Understand that if you reinforce or punish a behavior (intentionally or unintentionally) it will have an effect. I guarantee you that if you look at your interaction with your dog on a day to day basis you will see areas where you are unintentionally reinforcing bad behaviors and there are probably some areas where you have unintentionally punished behaviors that you wanted to happen. I can’t say this enough BE INTENTIONAL! That goes for more than just dog training, but that is a message for another time. If you are intentional about your reaction with your dog you will find that training doesn’t have to be a fight. It can be one of the most fun and rewarding activities, but you have to be intentional and you have to think deeper than surface level. That also goes for more than just dog training.
Here’s an example of how people unintentionally set their dogs up for failure. I see this a lot. Sally is crate training Lucy, her lab puppy. Lucy doesn’t like being in the crate. Lucy wants to be with Sally. Lucy starts whining wishing she could be with Sally. Out of frustration Sally walks over and pops the gate, letting Lucy out in an attempt to make the whining stop. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Here’s what went through Lucy’s mind. “Gee, I sure would like to be with Sally, but this thing is in my way. I wonder how I can get around it so I can get to Sally.” After several attempts to shrink her body down to a size small enough to fit through the slots in the door of the crate, in frustration Lucy started to whine. When she did, Sally opened the door for her. “Sweet!” thought Lucy. “All I have to do to make that barrier go away is to make a whining sound. I’ll have to make a mental not of that.” The next time Lucy is crated she will remember that the action of whining is the escape from the crate. The simple action of popping the crate door open to shut the dog up was actually reinforcement for the behavior of whining.
We unintentionally reinforce bad behaviors in our dogs A LOT! It happens, but it doesn’t have to. If we take the time to think about our actions before we do them, we can avoid creating scenarios like the one between Sally and Lucy. Take a minute and think about your interaction with your dog and see if you can identify some areas where you might have unintentionally reinforced or punished behaviors with your dog and leave me something in the comments. I’m going to attempt to do a better job of posting on a regular basis. Let me know if there is a subject or a specific issue you would like me to address. Until next time, teach . learn . play!