Why Dogs Misbehave – Is the Price Right?

Dog and human shaking handsSo far in this series, I’ve covered several reasons why dogs are perceived as misbehaving. They include:

Adding to this list is the failure to keep a very basic tenant of teaching; we need to make learning a fun and worthwhile thing.

Remember your Parsimony

In its simplest form, parsimony is merely an economic transaction. How much do I have to spend and what do I get in return? Our job is to make it worthwhile for the dog to expend physical and mental energy in order to earn a reward. The reward we give, be it food, a chance to play, or our attention, must be high enough on the list of the dogs priorities that it will engage in behavior that probably is not a natural thing for a dog to do.

Pressure can Cause a Boil Over

Now if the reward value is high enough, the dog should have little trouble with the training process and will be engaged in trying to figure out how to earn the reward. Provided that is, we are in a suitable training environment and are operating within the reasonable expectations of a dog’s attention span.

As humans, we have an assumed rate of progression. Once we feel a student has grasped certain rudiments, we expect a rapid progression towards full understanding. We start to apply pressure for the student to learn more and to learn faster. However, when training dogs, that pressure can unbalance the parsimony equation causing the dog to consider the energy expended too great a cost for the reward given. The pressure has caused the dog to shut down and if the process is continued then frustration will be the result.

Rebalance the Parsimony Equation by keeping it Fun

Remember back to when you first started to train your dog? You had genuine enthusiasm. You had a positive energy that you communicated to your dog through your voice, your body language, and even the odors given off by your body. Your dog perceived all of these things and responded in kind. Learning was a fun thing to do and this all made the parsimony equation easier to balance.

But as we come to expect more from our dog, things start to change. The enthusiasm in our voice is replaced with a sterner, harsher tone. Our body language becomes tense and less fluid, communicating to our dog that there is something disconcerting going on. And the scents coming from our body have changed, indicating stress and maybe even anger. We’ve raised the mental and physical cost of doing business and our consumer may balk at the price.

Rebalancing the equation is simple, but requires us to again be a proactive participant instead of a reactive one. First off, we must remember to keep our training sessions short and sweet. Several small 5 minute session spread out over the day is preferable to one marathon session. Second, we need to remember to keep the session fun. We need to convey encouragement, not expectation, through our voice and body language. This helps to keeps the dogs focus on the thing being learned and not the frustration of the teacher. And finally we need to end each session on a high note. Instead of offering a food reward for the last successful behavior, offer the high praise of a job well done and engage the dog in one of its favorite games. This signals the end of a very successful transaction for both you and your dog and ensure that both of you will look forward to engaging in this kind of transaction again.

Notes

For the men of my audience, conveying enthusiasm to your dog need not involve octaves we are not capable of or animation that is just not our nature. Everyone has their own way of conveying confidence and encouragement. I believe that if you convey enthusiasm and encouragement in a way that is natural to you, your dog will pick up on, and respond to it.

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