Puppies — and many adult dogs — test your patience. Chewed furniture, barking at noises outside, puddles of pee, and don’t even get me started on the play biting! Besides buying wine in bulk, how can you cope? A lot of it has to do with the way you view yourself, and your role, in your dog’s life.
You may remember that one special instructor or coach from your past who motivated you to study harder or to aim higher; conversely, you may recall the teacher who simply seemed “out to get you,” waiting for you to make a mistake in order to punish you. Now it’s your turn to be a teacher to your dog, so which kind do you want to be? Here are some things to keep in mind, especially in those moments when you feel frustrated by your dog’s behavior.
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1. Be a Teacher
Teaching and disciplining are not the same. When we think about humans, it’s easy to see the effects of a good teacher. We already know a good teacher approaches her student with compassion and empathy, not dominance. She acknowledges that her student lacks something, possibly a life skill (“Kevin doesn’t share with the other kids”) or an academic skill (“Maggie is struggling to spell new words”), and then, she provides her student with the tools to overcome that hurdle. Ultimately, the teacher’s goal is to leave that student in a more skilled position than when they first met.
The same holds true for the relationship with you and your dog. For instance, a lot of dogs pull on leash during walks. As your dog’s compassionate teacher, you:
Remember: A good teacher asks, “What skills does this student need to become successful?” and provides the tools to achieve it, without force or pain.
2. Don’t be a Disciplinarian
Disciplining, on the other hand, is intended to stop an unwanted behavior at that moment. And it works! If the teacher snaps at Kevin, “Stop stealing Jenny’s snack!” and she slaps the cookie from his little hand, it will stop the unwanted behavior in that moment. But what has Kevin learned, except that teachers are scary? Will he stop stealing, or simply wait until the teacher’s back is turned? While his teacher may have scared him into not stealing for the moment, she has not given Kevin any productive skills to help him the next time he has the urge to grab someone's cookie.
When a teacher uses discipline instead of trying to understanding the student’s motivation for doing the unwanted behavior, the aim is to suppress, not to teach. All too often, discipline is simply a way for the disciplinarian to unload her own frustration on the student. And when something painful or scary is applied again and again, we need to acknowledge it for what it truly is: abuse.
It’s easy to apply this to the leash-walking example. Every time a handler pops the leash, euphemistically called a “correction,” the dog is yanked back and a little slack is created. In that moment, the discipline has indeed stopped the pulling. But what has the dog learned? And how many leash pops will a dog have to endure on every walk, without being given any constructive information about how to walk properly? In order to teach a skill, we cannot simply set the dog up to do the wrong thing (pull) and then punish him for doing so. This is a sure fire way to erode your dog’s trust in you and cause him unnecessary stress. Rather, we must create situations where it is easy for the dog to do the right thing (walk on a loose leash) and acknowledge when he’s doing it correctly. This not only builds skills but trust. We must set our dogs up to succeed, not fail.
Remember: A disciplinarian asks, “How can I make this behavior stop?” without providing constructive tools for the student to behave more appropriately.
While this may be a simplified example, you don’t need all the details of learning theory to grasp the main takeaway: You have a choice in what kind of role — teacher or disciplinarian — you will play in your dog’s training and daily life. Choose wisely.
Kate is a certified dog behavior consultant, certified dog trainer, certified dog parkour instructor, and award-winning author in NYC and Connecticut.
The views expressed on this website belong to Kate Naito and may not reflect the views of the agencies with which she trains.