Friday, March 18, 2011

It's not WHAT you say...

The Dog Team

The sled dog team came racing down the trail, tails high and heads up. Rounding a corner, the lead dog on the left suddenly veered toward a clump of bushes that looked like a million other bushes flanking the trail.  They were in fact the same as all the other bushes except these particular bushes only seconds earlier held a group of rabbits busy nibbling at the tender branches. Before they felt the vibrations in the earth from the approaching dog team, that is.

The dog dove into the bushes, nose first, only seconds too late for a bunny snack. The musher quickly hit the brakes. "NO" he cried out in exasperation. "Leave it! Eh-eh!" he continued as he strained to keep the entire team from disappearing into the brush, or worse, tangling the lines.

Satisfied that there were no bunnies to be had, the dogs swung back onto the trail, panting happily. The rest of the team followed, those who missed the excitement straining for a quick sniff as they ran past.

No, darn it!

"No!" we cry "Eh-eh!" But what do we mean? Of course, we mean "STOP what you are doing right now whatever it is, wherever we are!"

The problem is, this is not so much a task as it is a concept. One that requires the ability to generalize. Easy for humans, not so much for dogs. Add to this the "should" factor ("My dog should do what I say when I say it") and you have set the stage for a huge misunderstanding between species.

We place such importance on "words" we forget that for a dog, they are just "sounds". Of course, dogs can and do learn to pair a few words with their meaning. Just ask anyone who must spell the word "walk" around their dog! But concepts...concepts are a whole other level.

Please. Are you trying to say I can never say "no" to my dog!? Get REAL, Lady!

Consider this analogy: Let's say you teach your dog to use a soda machine located in a hotel lobby. If you then take him to a soda machine placed outdoors, he will have no clue how to use it-everything about it has changed because the context changed.

For most humans this change would be no problem.  This ability to generalize is such second nature that it never occurs to us that dogs cannot do this as well as we can, if at all.

To top it off, in most cases what we ask of them is so foreign to their world that it requires a great deal of concentration to get it right even under the best of circumstances. Add distractions, or change the context, and the meaning is quickly lost. And don't forget that the delivery method we use (words) to communicate our wishes is and always will be a second language to this species, canis familiaris.

Our response to any non-compliance from our dog is usually to speak louder, or more forcibly, or to repeat again and again what we are trying to convey. We rarely stop to consider that it may not be the messenger, but the message that's the problem.

 But I know he knows this!

The dog, upon hearing our sounds (Eh-eh! or "no!"), will generally offer an appeasement gesture, perhaps lowering his head, blinking, and turning away. This is polite dog behavior amongst normal dogs when faced with conflict. We see this behavior and think to ourselves, "Okay, he understood me. Message received loud and clear. I know this because he lowered his head and looked ashamed. I have therefore chastised this dog. Now he knows to not _____ (insert behavior here)

Well...I'm not so sure.

What you certainly have done is to interrupt his activity and elicit a response. However, do not mistake that response for proof that he understood your words!
In fact, his response more likely has little to do with your words and everything to do with their tone. Yes, he is avoiding conflict but he does not know the reason for the conflict, nor must he in order to react-this, again, is normal polite dog behavior to offer an appeasement gesture when faced with conflict.

Well, then what the heck are we supposed to do?!

Drop the "no's" and "eh-eh's" when training. Decide what you want your dog to do, and train for it, rather than trying to teach a negative ("I don't want my dog to _____")


"I do not want my dog to jump on people when greeting them"

Changes to:

"When greeting people I would like my dog to first sit, then sniff their hand when offered"

Can you see how much easier it is to teach the behavior once you define it? Of course, we are human and of course there will be times when we yell  out "No!!!!!" in frustration. The point of this article is not to have you create some fairy tale world drenched in rainbow sparkles, garden gnomes, and cotton candy. The point is to get real about what your dog can and cannot do, and what works best and what is a waste of time.

The world I live in is much easier to deal with if I am realistic. Learn from my mistakes, people! I would hate to think I make them all for nothing :)

Happy Training!

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