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"He knows what he's supposed to do"

June 12, 2017

The Furry Frolics Dog Blog is back! I know I should have been keeping it updated, it's a nice way to keep customers up to date with what's going on in the business and to share insights into life as a trainer and walker. The people around me nag me about doing it all the time.

 

I know it's something I am supposed to do.

 

And that got me thinking, this is a phrase I hear from dog owners alllll the time: "he knows what he's supposed to do, he is just stubborn". But is it really fair to use that phrase in relation to a dog? What does "supposed to" even mean when we are talking about a species who has a completely different set of motivations to us?

 

You've probably guessed that, at least for me, the answer is "No That's Not Fair".

 

There are two reasons for this.

 

Firstly, there is no "supposed to" in the dog's head. In other words, the dog does not have some kind of inner sense of morality that is magically intertwined with what we want him to do. Just because we want the dog to sit when we say "sit", it doesn't mean that if he doesn't do it, he is committing some kind of offence towards us. He is not refusing to sit because he wants to give us a metaphorical middle finger and rebel like a human teenager might. Either he wants to do it, or he doesn't. Either there's a motivation for him to do it, or there isn't. Either it works for him, or it doesn't.

 

Whichever way you word it, it all comes down to the same thing: we need to train him better.

 

That could mean any combination of the following:
- Increasing the rate of reinforcement for correct responses (dog trainer talk for "reward him more often")
- Making the behaviour easier to ensure the dog is set up to succeed

- Giving the dog more rest breaks
- Reducing anything in the environment which may be distracting him or making him feel stressed.

 

Either way, it's on the human to sort it out, it's not the dog's problem.

 

 Which brings me nicely on to my second point. In my experience, most of the time when a dog won't perform a previously known behaviour it's because they are stressed. They avoid eye contact with the owner, they display calming signals and everything about them is screaming "help me!". I try to instill in my students that if the dog knows a cue and doesn't perform it, the first thing to do is stop training and take some space away from any potential triggers, because there's a really good chance the dog is stressed out. It's not fair on the dog to say "he is being stubborn" when actually he is over threshold and can't think about anything but what's making him feel on edge. The dog's emotional well-being must always be our first concern, not the dog's trick repertoire. If we don't subscribe to this, we are hypocrites calling ourselves force-free trainers. Nobody likes a hypocrite.

 

So, what are owners supposed to do (see what I did there?!) in this situation?

 

My best piece of advice is to sympathise. Think of it from the dog's perspective. Ask "why won't he do it?" but instead of asking in frustration, ask with compassion. Don't take it as an insult, take it as a piece of communication. What is the dog telling you by his lack of response? He is telling you something, and it's your job as his guardian to work out what that is.

 

I practiced this earlier, when I asked myself "why won't I get on with it and write a blog?"

 

The answer was that I was distracted by other tasks which always seem either more important (writing training plans, helping customers, walking dogs etc.) or more motivating (going to the pub, watching Netflix etc.). Once I knew what I was up against in my own head, I knew what I had to do to resolve the problem. I just set aside an hour with no distractions, particularly my phone.

 

Seems simple now. And it'll be the same for you when you work out what's holding your dog back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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