Attitudes and Consequences in Dog Training
We all know that our personal attitudes impact our overall happiness and success in life. So, it should be no surprise that our attitudes towards our dogs impact their quality of life. This article shares a few of the most common (yet incorrect) attitudes about dogs and dog training, as well as discussion about how those attitudes impact our best friends. Enjoy!
Attitude: It’s just a dog.
When people say “it’s just a dog” (which tends to reveal an overall disregard for a dog’s worth … and usually extends to other animals as well), they are ignoring mounting evidence that humans and dogs share a unique relationship with one another. Research shows that dogs see us as family, yet many people do not treat their dogs like family members. The way we view our dogs is reflected in our attitudes toward their care and training. Poor living conditions, a lack of medical care, or the use of harsh, outdated dog training methods are all justified by saying “it’s just a dog.” By failing to see a dog’s actual need for relationship, a person also misses out on all the benefits that dogs can bring to humans. Viewing a dog as a family member (not to be confused with viewing a dog as human) will improve the quality of life for both the dogs and the humans.
Attitude: The dog is trying to dominant me.
It is widely accepted in modern dog training that the focus on dominance hierarchies to explain dog behavior problems has caused more harm than good. The natural response to being “dominated” is to try to dominate back. This leads dog owners to behave toward their dog in ways that are unnatural to both the person and the dog. Scruff-shaking and alpha rolling are just two examples of incorrect and unnatural behaviors. In some cases, attempts to be dominant toward dogs can increase or induce aggressive responses from them. Even the perception of dominance in your relationship with your dog can be damaging, as it tends towards conflict instead of understanding. While dominance exists, it has a very tightly defined scientific definition, namely “the demand for priority access to resources,” which is not the cause of most common dog behavior problems. Instead of focusing on dominance, focus on developing a healthy, positive relationship with your dog, which will decrease stress between you and your dog and increase your dog training success.
Attitude: He’s just a puppy; he’ll grow out of it.
Puppies go through developmental stages, which will change how they respond to certain situations. However, this should not be seen as a free pass to ignore their behavior. If puppies continue to practice unwanted behaviors without intervention, they will be deeply entrenched in the behaviors by the time they reach adulthood. Ignoring a puppy’s behavior hoping that he will grow out of it can lead to a multitude of behaviors that people find problematic, such as jumping up, mouthing, barking, pulling on leash, and more. In a nutshell, if you do not teach a puppy how to get what he wants, needs or likes, he will find a way to access those resources on his own — and you likely will not like the ways he comes up with. Most dog owners seek help when their dog is older and has adopted bad habits. But, in reality, the help should have been sought during the earlier stages of the unwanted behaviors. It’s always best to start training puppies when they are young, educating them on what behaviors we do want, and diminishing the desire to rehearse problematic behaviors.
Attitude: This dog is stubborn or stupid.
Saying a dog is stubborn or stupid gives the owner an excuse not to address the dog’s behavior diligently. It also assumes that the dog’s personality traits or behavioral problems are hopeless and can not be changed. By assigning a dog these negative qualities, a person is really saying they are unable to change the dog’s behavior, or that the dog has learned a behavior that the owner doesn’t like. Using this language to describe a dog leaves the owner feeling hopeless and frustrated, and it leaves the dog unchecked to rehearse bad behaviors so that they become deeply ingrained. Either way, the quality of the dog’s education is negatively impacted. There are other — more likely — reasons a dog may seem stubborn or stupid. For example, a dog may not actually understand what is expected of him, or maybe he is not motivated to execute the desired behavior. By taking a patient, diligent and thoughtful approach to your dog’s training (rather than resigning your dog to being a hopeless personality), you will increase your dog’s success at adopting desired behaviors. In summary, if your dog is persisting in a problem behavior, be more persistent in figuring out what might motivate your dog to learn alternate behaviors.
Attitude: The dog is my baby.
Referring to your dog as your baby may be your way of expressing how much you love your dog. That’s great! We should all see our pets as family, deserving of our love. However, this can also predispose owners to thinking of their dog in a human construct. This leads to anthropomorphizing, or attributing human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human animals. The problem is that dogs are often expressing something entirely different from what their owners think. Anthropomorphizing tends to break down correct communication with our dogs, as we are trying to communicate in human terms with a non-human animal. Spend some time learning about dog body language and communication so that you can decipher your dog more accurately and interact in effective, correct ways with your dog.
Attitude: He knows he did wrong (which is why he looks guilty).
If someone knowingly does something to wrong to you, it can be upsetting. When dog owners believe that their dog misbehaved knowingly based on how the perceive their dog looks, they are more likely to react to their dog dealt out a personal slight to them. Evidence shows that dogs are not exhibiting “guilty” behavior, even if that’s what it looks like. Therefore, getting upset or feeling insulted because of the dog’s behavior and punishing the dog based on incorrect notions about the dog’s perceived intentions is neither appropriate, fair or productive. Dogs do not have a moral code of what is right or wrong. When a dog behaves in a way that the owner perceives as guilt, the owner is more likely to get angry with the dog, causing the dog to exhibit more fearful behavior — which looks like guilt. Thus, the cycle continues, with the dog’s fearful response increasing with each interaction.
Attitude: The dog should do it because he loves/respects me.
Some dog owners believe that dogs should behave in certain ways out of either respect or love for their owners. While this is a nice notion, it’s also a fairy tale. This isn’t how dogs’ brains work. This particular attitude creates an unreasonable expectations for dogs, which is damaging to the relationship. If a dog should behave out of love/respect, then it follows that misbehavior is a result of lack of love or disrespect. Neither of those feel good to people, and it changes their perception of their dogs in ways that leads to heavy-handed or punitive treatment. This, in turn, results in a dog who obeys out of fear (which is mistaken for respect) rather than a dog that enjoys obeying. Using external motivators such as food, toys, or freedom, does not diminish our relationship with our dog; instead it keeps obedience based on motivation rather than on the human notion of respect. While we know of no scientific studies that prove dogs can (or cannot) show “respect,” it is our opinion that it is unlikely. For further reading, this non-scientific article digs deeper into the topic.
Attitude: I don’t want to use treats forever.
Imagine if you went to a job interview, and the boss said, “I just want you to know, I don’t plan on paying you forever, but I do expect you to keep doing your job.” Would you sign up for that? Food is a currency for most animals; it is a primary reinforcer in the animal kingdom … meaning you do not have to convince most dogs that it is valuable and worth using their behavior to obtain. In fact, removing treats from dog training robs you of making use of your dog’s powerful instinct to use his behavior to obtain what he needs, wants or likes. It also forces you into a position of having to use a more heavy-handed method of getting compliance for your dog. If you really want to dig deeply into it, you’ll find that YOU work for food as well! So, why expect your dog not to? Utilizing food in clever ways to reinforce behaviors you want is both a powerful tool and just good sense. As behaviors are learned and practiced, less treats are necessary to reinforce the behavior and food can be both randomized and replaced by real life rewards — such as the opportunity to run, or greet a favorite friend. Besides, a few treats in your pocket take up less room than an e-collar remote control. Think about it. For more information of the use of food in dog training, read this article.