I was looking through old files and found this article. I wrote this exactly two years ago when Lilu was a teenager. How did it work out for me two years later? Stay tune for Part 2: The Update!
As my teenage dog, Lilu, continues to grow and her Aussie instincts get stronge, her behavior has been “clashing” with a few human social norms. What I perceive to be normal teenage Aussie behaviors–such as barking at strangers, barking at people who get close to me, barking at dogs running, nipping at dogs during play, or nipping my family member’s noses–other people might perceive to be signs of aggression. At the peak of Lilu’s adolesence, these behaviors occurred daily and her barking was evident at work, while visiting my parents, and even during workshops we attended. Friends and family would often joke around, saying things like, “Look at the trainer’s dog!” They asked why I would not correct Lilu when she was barking. In response, I just smiled at them and silently and smoothly move my dog away.
Most people are confused by my reaction and surprised that a trainer would not yell “no” or do anything to correct this “bad” behavior. The truth is, I was doing something: I was dealing effectively with the situation, and I was doing it without letting people’s reactions affect my ability to remain calm and under control. Why? Because I am a positive trainer, and positive training involves much more than just doling out treats. A good positive trainer stops unwanted behaviors in a calm manner, using the least amount of pressure possible and no physical force. A positive trainer assesses behavior and is always two steps ahead of the dog: I envision the way I want Lilu to behave, and search for those behaviors. Once I have that vision and identify those behaviors, I put them “on cue” and reward Lilu when she does them. This increases their frequency. I also do everything I can to control Lilu’s environment and manage the situations she is in so that those desired behaviors are possible.
As a behaviorist, I have been trained to observe behavior, including human behavior. One of my favorite things to do with Lilu is watch her while she’s doing activities that channel her natural instincts. Although Lilu has not seen sheep since the age of 7 weeks, I have been able to observe herding dogs at work. You can learn a lot about a dog’s bite by watching a skilled herding dog work sheep. When a herding dog feels she needs to bite to move a herd, she will bite with the least amount of pressure needed and without any emotion. Now ask yourself, when you feel the need to “correct” your dog, do you do so without any emotion and with the least amount of pressure needed? More often than not, people who use punishment in dog training are also letting out their own anger or frustration, and because of thestrong emotions, they have poor timing and poor judgment about how much pressure is called for. Bottom line: they are doing more harm than good.
In dog training, punishment (often called “correction”) suppresses a dog’s emotional state while the dog is in the company of the punisher. In the parallel human-to-human scenario, the first human becomes the oppressor. So, in the presence of the oppressor, the dog’s emotional state becomes suppressed or the dog becomes so scared he does not behave in any way. To an untrained observer, the dog looks “trained”–but to me, the dog looks very clearly stressed, unhappy, and scared. (And remember, stress is not any better for dogs’ health than it is for our own.) Only rarely will the dog make the connection between its behavior and the punishment; they simply learn to recognize your body language and start to avoid you in order to avoid danger. Dogs will even start to find safer times or places to rehearse the behavior the person has been trying to correct, doing them when the “oppressor” is not present. The behavior hasn’t been stopped, it has merely been made covert, often making matters even worse.
Most of Lilu’s so-called “aggressive” barking are self-reinforcing, because they are instincts. So, how can I stop Lilu’sbarking? Not by punishing her for barking, but by teaching her to remain calm and quiet around movement and when her space is invaded. I am teaching her to be calm when my family members greet her (and teaching my family to greet her calmly—it works both ways). I am teaching her its okay to chase and bite a Frisbee or a ball. I am stopping her barking episodes by remaining calm and using techniques that manage rather than scare her.
The next time you think about correcting your dog , ask yourself: Am I really teaching my dog something, or am I just frustrated and scaring him? Will yelling and punishing my dog solve my problem in the long run? Will my dog’s unwanted behavior not show up again in times when I am not there to scare him?
Let’s all become effective leaders by really listening to what our dog’s behavior is saying, and then successfully solving the problem using positive training methods.
I learned my lesson the hard way and I am not going to repeat the same mistake. Before I becam a trainer, Puffy’s first years of “training” consisted of a lot of yelling and “no.” Already a fearful dog by nature, this correction-based training only escalated his shyness into fear biting. Puffy’s positive training not only made him reliable, but built his confidence and made him a happy dog. Even in pictures you can tell the difference in his character from a year old, 10 years and 14.5 years old!