Sunday, August 28, 2011

We've tried *everything* . . .

I hear this phrase from clients usually followed by the laundry list of things they have tried to do with their dogs (or kids!) and then it's followed-up with . . ."but nothing works."  

Let's take a look at the "I've-Tried-Everything Theory".  First, this can apply to humans not just dogs so whether you are a pet parent or otherwise, this could help you out. . . .  Now, my first thought isn't that of, oh dear this dog must be difficult, but rather that the person has failed somewhere along the way.  Dogs don't fail us, we fail them.  It may be a big fail or small one, but it's us who fails.  So when our dogs are not "getting it" or they keep repeating some unwanted behavior over and over it's time for us to take a step back and re-evaluate what we are doing.

First, I don't know how to get this across to some people because a lot don't get it but--dogs aren't little humans.  While they are intelligent, fascinating creatures capable of some amazing things they still lack many things that the human mind doesn't.  Like reasoning and complex understanding.  Until you can actually wrap your brilliant human mind around this you won't be able to move very far with successful results with your dog.  Dogs are dogs, whether superheroes or not they are still dogs.  

So now that you realize your dog is a dog we can now move forward.  First comes the part any and all dog owners know they need to do but fail to--be consistent.  This doesn't mean for 24 hours, it means always, everyday.  Consistency will yield reliability, stability and trust--here is where this applies to humans too!  I'm a parent of an almost 3-year-old and so I'm around a lot of toddler parents.  I often hear this statement from parents--"Oh we tried that, it didn't work for us . . ."  and again my brain goes back to--Really? So does that mean you attempted it 4 or 5 times and it didn't seem to work so you gave up?  Probably.  And this is what I run into with dog training.

But know this too.  There is a fine line.  You need to know what is going to work with a dog on his level of understanding, as well as with a toddler.  As with kids we assume that this little thing is so brilliant (afterall they understand so many things we say!) that we put way too much expectation into what they actually understand and comprehend.  Everything has to be appropriate for what you are working with.

If you have tried something that is punishment-based (tugging at your dog's collar for a "stop-it" for an unwanted behavior) but the actual behavior isn't going away after repeatedly doing this then you are probably not doing something correctly.  However, on the flip-side if you are using positive-based methods and you think it's "not working" then you are probably not utilizing it appropriately either.  

I don't condone punishment-based methods for dogs or kids.  In the long-term it doesn't work.  What happens with punishment is that if and when it does work you will suppress a behavior but you haven't actually taught the lesson you were hoping for.  You cannot teach any living thing what is wrong if you havent' taught it what is right first.  A great example: If you dont' want your dog to jump instead of kneeing it in the chest or jerking it's leash to get it off of you why don't you tell it what you do want it to do?  The kneeing will usually only work on the people that consistently knee the dog.  What does that mean?  It means the dog hasnt' learn not to jump it's learned that jumping on you (or whomever does this method) is bad and receives a punishment.  However the dog's desire to get what it wants (usually attention is what a dog jumps for) is so strong that it needs to know that it can get what it wants by offering a more desirable behavior (sit instead of jump and then you can get the attention you want).  With punishment you don't give options.  You just attempt to teach it to stop jumping but you don't teach it what it is that you would prefer.

As humans we also want instant results.  We don't want to mess with training and taking time to practice, having to proof behaviors by going in different places, etc.  That's too time consuming for us busy Americans these days.  Who has time for that?  

A well-trained dog or a well-behaved kid doesn't happen with militant rules or punishment.  While appearances may show what looks like instant results you can be rest assured that other behaviors that are unwanted will result when you leave out the actual act of teaching a dog what is right and then when you do tell him he's wrong it will actually count . . . and make sense.  Also, when you do this the punishment doesn't have to be physical or harsh.   I can actually say "Hey!" to my own dogs with an instant whip of their head and they stop doing what they were doing. 

Some dogs, like some kids, can "tolerate" being yelled at or given ludicrous rules, or even physical punishment.  However, those that are taught with positive discipline, over time, will be much more relaxed, comfortable with others and have better self-esteem.  They also learn better and retain knowledge better.  So, if you are finding yourself in a quandary then take a step back and re-evaluate.  Does your dog understand what you want?  Does your dog know a better behavior than what you are trying to say "no" to?  Do you find your dog doing the right thing (that could be just lying calmly on the rug!) and you acknowledge this with even just a simple, "Good boy!"?  Have you taken the time to teach your dog basic things (sit, lie down, come when called, walk nicely on leash) so that communication is easier for the both of you?

Do you just feel like maybe you need a coach to show you how to accomplish some things or even get rid of some behaviors?  Then give me a shout!  I'd be more than happy to show you the way!

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