Clarity vs Correction

What would happen if we were clear about what we wanted from our dogs instead of what we didn't want?


As a dog trainer, I live for the moment that my dog looks at me and I can all but hear him thinking “this is what I need from you.” The more consistent I am in training my dogs, the more “ah ha” moments we seem to have. I wanted to share one of those moments with you.

So I have shelties, and anyone who has been around shelties for more than a few minutes know that they bark… a lot. Now I have done a lot of work with them, reminding them that being quiet is more reinforcing and practicing excitement in more acceptable ways, but occasionally it happens. As most of you know, I just moved and am living in an apartment. I have been so concerned that my dogs will disturb the neighbors that even the slightest peep from the dogs makes me upset. Today, I found myself yelling “QUIET!!!” across the apartment. There are a few things that are funny (okay, not funny) about this. 1) One of my dogs is deaf and can’t hear a word I say. 2) The other dog has no clue what quiet means. I might as well be yelling about chicken nuggets. 3) My yelling is probably louder than the dogs barking.

Now I am far from a perfect trainer, but I know better than this. So why is it that my first instinct is to yell? If you’re ever interested in some cool science related to dogs and humans, you need to read Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the Leash. She discusses how primates (ie humans) use an increase in volume to get what they want. This seems fine and all until you realize dogs do not work this way. Dr. McConnell shows that vocalizations of this type in dogs are typically an alarm. Best case scenario, the dogs have no clue what I want from them or how to respond. Worst case, I am chiming in with the dogs, letting them know that their alert was warranted. I guess that means there is a scientific reason for why my first instinct is to shout, but there has to be something I could do better.

Let’s think back to the work I had done before. They have skills and more acceptable ways to handle their emotions, but in the heat of the moment I was giving them no information that they could use to make the right choice. Consider an alternative situation. The dogs bark at someone knocking at the door. I call them to me (well Skylar, Ryder can’t hear but will follow), I give a cue for one of their practiced behaviors, and they respond with the correct behavior. Now, instead of escalating their barking and getting even more upset, I have created an opportunity for reinforcement. Odds are, do this a few more times and it will become habit.

Imagine if we took this approach in more areas: when you catch your dog in the trash or when they pull on the leash to get to another dog? What would happen if we were clear about what we do want from our dogs instead of telling our dog that they are doing it wrong. Clarity breeds confidence, and confidence will instill a desire to play this game that is training with you.

Originally published 1-22-19

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