By Erin Moore, Vancouver BC Canada Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Pawsitive Connection Dog Training
It’s easy to forget that dogs operate in very simple ways: Does it work for me? Does it not work for me? Is it safe? Is it dangerous? Unfortunately, what works for dogs often is not what works for us dog pros: jumping up on us when we pick them up for their walk, deciding to roll in a stinky dead fish right before it’s time to head back inside, chasing the cat/squirrel/bicycle/crow instead of coming when we call, dragging us down the driveway to the car…the list goes on.
As human beings we often believe that, because other dogs have “understood” what we wanted, because we’ve shown this dog what we prefer once or twice, or even because he got it right in the past, he understands what we want, and any behavior contrary to that is “stubborn” or “willful” or “blowing us off.”
But dogs are honest. Their behavior very clearly shows us what they do and don’t understand. They aren’t built with the capacity to be stubborn or to blow us off. If they aren’t doing what we’ve asked them to do, it’s because we haven’t successfully shown them that it works for them to do it. Getting mad at a puppy for peeing in the house because “he knows better” is the equivalent of getting mad at a toddler for having a potty training accident. The understanding just isn’t quite there yet, requiring us to be better teachers and to manage the situation to set the dog (or child) up for success.
Unfortunately dogs don’t read minds, and we can’t make them understand what we’ve tried to teach them simply because we desire it or other dogs have gotten it. This way of thinking sets the dogs up for failure, sets our relationships with dogs up for conflict, and sets us up for irritation, anger, and frustration on the job.
Next time you’re feeling frustrated with a dog who “should know better,” try a different viewpoint. It’s a matter of helping the dog understand what you want by making what you want work for the dog. Manage the dog’s space, time, and access to anything she wants to set her up for success, and then consistently reward the resulting desired behavior. For example, if you’d like your canine charge to sit while you converse with her owner, ask for or lure the sit and then reward it. Lean your body towards her to help her remain sitting and continue to reward her as long as she holds her position. By identifying what you want, helping the dog to do it, and rewarding the results, you set the dog up for success. This line of thinking and action removes conflict, pressure, and irritation for dog and the walker both.
Here are some questions that can help when you’re facing a training challenge on your walks: How can I help the dog understand? How can I make this more rewarding? How can I teach him that doing what I ask yields the biggest, best, most fun, most rewarding experience, so he sees that doing what I ask works best for him? These questions can help create a more pleasant outing for walker and dog alike, help maintain the bond and trust we can have with our dogs, and ensure we’re helping our charges really and truly understand the precise behaviors that we might be asking of them in that specific environment, in that specific moment and on that particular day.
Here’s another example: Say you’ve got a dedicated leash puller on your hands. Every day this dog strains your shoulders and back trying to get to all his favorite sniff spots. He wants to get to that great pee-mail bush on the corner. You want him to walk nicely alongside you. How can you make doing so more rewarding? How can you get him to see that walking alongside you works? One strategy would be to head toward the bush while he’s not pulling and to turn around in the opposite direction when he does. Take a few steps away from his desired object, then turn around and try again, rewarding with forward progress toward the bush and, if you want to up the ante, treats, too. It may take a few minutes to get to that bush for a few days, but eventually he’ll realize that it works to walk patiently with you to get where he wants to go. This way works for everyone—you get what you want, the dog gets what he wants, and your back probably feels a lot better, too.