It’s Not Misbehavior, It’s a Training Opportunity

Happy cartoon dog wagging tailWith the fast pace of life in the modern world, it seems that our reactions to everyday situations are less and less thoughtful; not that that they are unfeeling or unkind, just that there is not as much thought behind the reaction. I read an article recently that reminded me, that if we think first, before we react, we discover opportunities to teach and to learn that are otherwise overlooked.

The story concerned a father, his young son, and a video game. The father had a rule about the type of video games he would let his son play. He would not let his son play violent games. His son wanted to get a game about World War II that has realistic depictions of wartime violence. When the son asked about buying the game, instead of saying no outright, his father took a second to think before he reacted. He saw an opportunity to teach, and told his son that he would buy him the game on two conditions. First was that he studied The Geneva Convention before playing the game. Second was that he kept a journal of how the game followed and broke those rules.

After reading the article, I thought how fortunate that young man was to have a father who looked for opportunities to teach. Then I thought about my dogs. How much easier it would be for me and my dogs if I took opportunities to teach them what I want them to do— instead of reacting to what I don’t want them to do.

All of us, to some degree or other, treat our dogs like little humans. We expect them to understand all that we humans do just because we show disappointment or anger or frustration in our voice. Our dogs may understand that the tone of our voice means that were upset or unhappy— but they don’t understand why what they did was wrong, or what it was they should have done in the first place.

So the next time you catch yourself reacting negatively to something your dog does, stop. Think about what you would like you dog to do in that situation, and then train them to do it.

For instance if your dog runs out the door in front of you, instead of yelling at them for running out the door, make them sit at every door as a condition before the door even opens. Make them continue to sit as the door is slowly opened; and then only after they are sitting quietly— you give them the reward of going out the door. The dog will come to learn that the unlikely behavior of sitting quietly is the easiest way for them to get what they want, the chance to go outside. In training circles the fancy term for this is Premack’s Theory. A more understood term is Grandma’s Law; in simple terms “Eat your peas and you’ll get ice cream.”

So remember if you don’t like a behavior, don’t yell at the dog, just train the behavior you do want.