If You Didn't Teach It, Don't Correct It

October 17, 2012
Share this:

As I was running in my neighborhood today, I witnessed a disturbing interaction between an owner and her dog; it really irritated me. Let’s see if you feel the same way.

The dog was a friendly looking chocolate Labrador Retriever in his unfenced yard with his owner. The owner saw me coming and pointed toward the house as a signal for her dog to go in. He looked at her and didn’t move. She took the newspaper that was in her hand and smacked him on the butt lightly. He put his tail down and his ears back (signs of fear, not defiance). His expression was one of complete, utter confusion. She pointed again. I couldn’t hear what she was saying to him and I don’t suspect that he understood a word she was saying either because he just stood there. She pointed and swung her paper again. Down went the tail. He moved toward the door. At this point, he was unlikely to be obedient because he was scared. Because her misguided tactics weren’t working the owner decided just to push him on the side of his body. And so it went until he was back inside the house.

I would like to say that this type of interaction is rare, but it is not. Clearly this owner thought that the dog had a clue what she wanted, and it was clear to me, sadly, that he didn’t. What she has done in the time that it took me to run 1/10 of a mile is make her dog afraid of her, make her dog more likely to ignore her and make her dog think that she is a certifiable lunatic. But, don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the learning.

The trouble generally starts when the misguided owner, whom we will call Ms. Jones, started training her dog, whom we will call Fido, as a puppy. She took him through puppy school and assumed that he had learned all that he needed to know. I always think that this type of thing is hysterical. Like my child knows all there is to know when she graduates from preschool. I wish that was the case because it would save me a lot of money paying for her college. Anyway, while puppy classes lay a good foundation, like anything else the skills learned there have to be practiced. If behaviors are not practiced they will be extinguished. So, Fido starts to forget these behaviors.

Next, Ms. Jones starts to use the behaviors that she taught in class in her daily life with Fido. She doesn’t always practice them under controlled conditions and doesn’t always reward Fido for these behaviors. While Ms. Jones is not rewarding him for moving to the house when she says so, the environment is rewarding him for not moving toward the house. In other words, there is inherent reward in staying outside — sniffing new smells, watching squirrels, hunting lizards, etc. Behaviors which are not rewarded (going into the house) will be extinguished. Behaviors which are rewarded (staying outside) will increase. Translation, pay up for good behavior or your dog won’t offer good behavior.

Finally, when Ms. Jones doesn’t get compliance from Fido she acts irrationally by getting physical and raising her voice. She is under the assumption that when she taught her dog (who has the brainpower of a 1-year-old child) something two years ago, but didn’t reward that behavior for two years, he would be perfectly compliant for the rest of his life.

Oh, if life was that way, wouldn’t we all be happy? I mean, I could tell my husband only once to clean the cat box and he would do it forever and ever. Not! Unfortunately, the punishment that she applies to the behavior (hitting Fido with a newspaper) is paired with her, not with the behavior itself, because the dog doesn’t know what she is asking him to do in the first place. The result is a disobedient and fearful dog. Nice job.

Let’s talk solutions.

Your dog should be in some kind of class until he is about 3-years-old to keep his behaviors strong and keep you on your toes practicing.

Reward him for doing what you ask consistently until those behaviors are 90 percent accurate. Then you can decrease the rewards, but they shouldn’t stop altogether or that behavior will disappear.

Don’t slump to the tactics of hitting, pushing, and fear mongering to get your dog to do what you want. This will not serve you well.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Suzi Nelson / via Shutterstock