Finding the way
The great poet and philosopher Wendell Berry said that you don’t begin to farm land by telling it what you expect, but by asking yourself what it needs.
Same goes for a dog. You can desire certain behaviors, plan and aim for them, sure. But the most effective training starts by asking what the dog needs, and then meeting those needs first before anything else.by
How many times have you seen a forum post or blog comment like
“Mr. Dog does x,y and sometimes z and we need it to stop.”
For “x, y, and sometimes z” fill in the most complex and sometimes intractable, instinct-based behaviors a dog can muster. Or the worst bad habits that a dog owner can have a hand in.
The “we” isn’t the point, if you’re trying to figure out a dog’s behavior. It’s certainly only part of the solution. What does your dog want? or need? What are you aiming for? Is it realistic? Can expectations be lowered a bit? Can you live with a non-instant solution? Can you put some time into what you wish came in pill form?
Work to figure that out (but first do no damage) and you’ll find a way for both of you to be happy.
Humans develop lots of habits, and so do dogs. It just makes life easier, rather than having to rethink how to live each day once we get out of bed.
Unfortunately, habits can be easier to break than make (did you eat unhealthy stuff this past weekend after swearing you were “going to be good” at that event or other?)
This one time does matter because right now is all you’ve got to work with.
The same goes for your dog’s behavior. Overlooking obnoxious continuous barking or stealing the steak off the edge of the grill just this one time isn’t the problem—it’s that “one time” turns into twenty, and now it’s called “Habit,” a presence that has grown fangs, has its own bed and bowl, and gives you a migraine and it all happens faster than you realize.
Stay on top of each “one time” and if your dog’s behavior becomes mildly annoying, the retraining and solutions will also be less intensive and annoying, too.
If you think you can
…get on TV with your dog’s Frisbee-catching trick
…train your dog to close the bottom drawer that’s always left open
…teach him to walk calmly at your side
…encourage her to gently take a cookie with her teeth
And if you think you can’t, you won’t.
My dog knows what to do! He just likes to disobey! He has selective hearing!
Dogs don’t play that way. They do what feels good, and they avoid what doesn’t. Maybe he just does what he wants because he does what works, what feels good. Or he does what he does to help him avoid bad things. Just like humans.
You can ask dogs to override this natural inclination, but don’t fool yourself that it’s out of love and obedience that you get the results. On the way to what you want, make sure you remember his feel-goods, and see how fast you can get his attention.
When your dog doesn’t listen, she might be over it, or bored.
Change it up. Talk in a high squeaky voice. Whisper. Do nothing but look at your dog with a treat in your hand, waiting for something you like. Do the opposite of what you always do. Pull out a new toy, teach a new trick, play a new game. You might be surprised at how focused your dog becomes.
“He understands! He’s just disobeying to spite me!”
Have you ever said that about your dog and a behavior you’ve trained (or not, as the case may be)?*
No, he doesn’t understand. If he did “know” and you were the best thing to come around in his life ever, he’d be working overtime to earn your treats, praise and respect.
If he’s not “listening” or “behaving” or he’s “willfully” disobeying, you know you’ve got a lot of work and retraining to do. Starting with yourself.
*”He knows he’s doing wrong! He’s just doing it to spite me!” sounds as crazy out loud as it should in your head.by
Remember freshman algebra? How hard it was to understand the symbols and letters you were copying from the board in #2 pencil, let alone what they meant in relation to the numbers and everything else that was on the board? Forget about the “solutions” to the problems.
I flunked Remedial Algebra as a freshman in college. It was like I had math dyslexia. The tutor didn’t know what language to use, but he knew it couldn’t be English because we had tried that already.
Think about that the next time you’re trying to teach your dog anything. Are you saying “14 + 6 divided by 5 and then multiply that x 4 and then subtract SUBTRACT!”*
Or are you speaking kindly, starting over with patience and confidence in your problem-solving abilities when things go off the rails, using the language your dog understands?
*My mother usually yelled when homework wasn’t getting through. I can vouch for its ineffectiveness.by
Remember what it was like, learning to tie a shoelace? Read your first picture book? Divide fractions? Ride a bike?
Think for a second about what you found really difficult as a kid, and what happened after that: did the adults in your life take you to the side gently, and kindly explain how you could better achieve your goal? Then patiently wait while you tried to get it right?
Or did they lose their temper, ridicule or belittle you, laugh, get snappy or short, or walk away?
If they did any of those things, you probably still remember how it felt. How it felt to have the teacher’s eyes on you, waiting for you to do something. Remember what it felt like to want to do well, without exactly knowing how.
Your dog is trying to learn while you’re trying to teach. If they don’t pay attention, or act up, or get bored, be patient, take them back a step to something easier, and try again. Ease off. Try again tomorrow. Be kind.