I was out with my dogs at a local park when my attention was caught by a woman loudly saying “FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE JUST SIT!” As a dog person, you can’t help but look. As I turned to see what was going on, the woman was tugging on her leash repeatedly while her Labrador Retriever was excitedly trying to move toward an approaching dog. Obviously the woman and her dog were meeting a friend and their dog for a walk together. The woman continued to yank on the dog’s leash and insist that the dog sit each time they wiggled with anticipation or tried to get up.
As I walked by, I overheard the exasperated Lab owner tell her friend, “I just want him to be polite when we’re out.” That’s a phrase I hear a lot from dog owners – “I just want…” It seems that we want a lot of things from our dogs. The woman at the park just wanted her dog to be polite which obviously meant that her dog should sit quietly at her side in public. Puppy owners just want their young dogs not to jump up on people. Dog sports people just want their dogs to focus on them and attend to the cues in a highly distracting environment. And so on.
It seems that when humans say that they “want a dog” in their lives, there is a lot of wanting that comes with that. Many times dog owners don’t know that they want something from their dogs until they don’t see it or see something in their dogs that they don’t like. A busy working woman may WANT her dog to go out and do his business quickly each morning before she heads off to work. A family with young children may WANT their dog to be a calm and patient playmate for the children. We ask a lot of our dogs.
The fact is, we all have lives. When we decide to bring a dog into our life, we will need to show our dog how life with us works or we will need to adjust our lifestyle to accommodate the new dog. It’s likely that most of us will do both. There will be some training to help the dog fit in and some changes in our routine to deal with doggy needs. The one thing that is certain is that each household will have its priorities for how life with the dogs will work.
When my wife and I got our first dogs, we were encouraged to get them off to “obedience class” as soon as possible. We were given the sound advice that we should teach our dog basic “manners.” Back then, we just signed up for the classes offered by the local dog club. It was a lot of repetition of the same few behaviours – Sit, Down, Heel, Stay. The instruction was focused on how to get our dog to do these behaviours when we said so. We were told how important it was that our dogs knew we were in charge and that they did what we told them without hesitation.
There was a lot of leash yanking. There was a lot of “NO!” There was a lot of getting my dog to do what I wanted. Looking back on it now, there was not a lot of instruction on how to watch my dog to see how they were doing. Unless a dog acted out in some extreme way, we were just told to work through the disobedient behaviour. “Don’t let them get away with that!” was a common admonishment. We asked the dog for what we wanted and it was imperative that we get it from them. That same mentality followed us home from class. We wanted to be able to take toys or food away from our dogs on a whim. We wanted them to “be polite” when out on walks.
Wants and Needs
When I decided to change the way I train many years ago, one of the most important things I had to do was to take a hard look at why I wanted to train my dogs. There were the simple answers I discussed above like managing our life with our dogs. But it really came down to a deeper consideration about what I wanted versus what I needed from my dogs. Back in the day, I was taught that my dog was supposed to sit when I said “Sit!” because I said so; because that’s what I wanted her to do. But learning about behavioural science and modern training methods made me reconsider everything I was doing with my dogs.
I had to consider why I wanted my dog to sit. When I looked at it, there many different answers. In some cases, I just needed her to wait a moment while I did something else. In other cases it was about grooming or trimming nails. In still other cases it was about keeping her safe from strange people or dogs. Clearly I didn’t need my dog to sit just because I WANTED her to sit. Once I started to see things from this perspective, it became clear to me that I didn’t need my dog to do a particular behaviour, what I needed was for her to cooperate with me to do what we needed to do whether it was allowing me to do something, grooming her, or keeping her safe.
What I found was that I didn’t necessarily need my dog SIT to accomplish some of those things. Simply waiting in place was enough to allow me to load packages from the car or get the mail. Standing still would allow me to do grooming or nail trimming. Moving away from strange dogs or people would keep her at a safe distance and out of harm’s way. What I wanted and what I needed were very different things.
I know what dogs want
I thought I knew what I needed. I needed my dog to do a behaviour because I wanted her to do that behaviour. And those classes all those years ago impressed on me the importance of getting what I wanted. Don’t let your dog disobey, that’s a recipe for disaster. But my reading and experience with modern reward-based training was showing me a very different story.
From the time she was a very young puppy, I trained my dog Tiramisu using Clicker Training; one form of Mark & Reward training. At the time I was fairly new to this kind of training so I followed the instructions from various books and websites very carefully. One part of this training that was stressed over and over again was that it was important to watch the dog. That careful observation served two purposes. First, it was important to see the behaviour I was trying to train in order to mark it and reward my dog. But secondly, it was important to watch my dog for signs of frustration, confusion, or fatigue.
It didn’t take long for my old training style to bump up against my new training style. There was a training session where my Mark & Reward training was working very well and little Tira seemed to understand the behaviour I was teaching her. I was proud of the work we had done and I asked her for the behaviour once, twice, and even a third time. She did it brilliantly and I marked and rewarded her. But then I wanted to see her do it a fourth time and she paused and did the behaviour again but more slowly this time and I marked and rewarded. When I asked her to do the behaviour a fifth time, she looked up at me for a moment and then wandered out of the room. That’s when the light bulb went off and I understood.
What the dog wants
I realized that I wasn’t programming a machine. I was working with a thinking animal that had thoughts, ideas, and emotions of her own. Modern training and behavioural science has shown that the best training takes this into account. It’s not all about getting my dog to do what I want her to do just because I said so. My dog is more eager to learn and work with me if her needs and wants are taken into account. That opened up a whole new set of possibilities for me and my dog. If my dog had lots of needs and wants, then there were rewards I could provide her other than just food!
Over the months and years that followed, I discovered that Tira loved to play tug, she loved to run, she loved to chase our other dogs, and had other favorite things beyond just food treats. I used all of those things to train with her and we developed a wonderful partnership. There were also things she didn’t like. She didn’t like to be cuddled. She didn’t like to be picked up. She didn’t like to do the same thing over and over until she got bored. And she certainly didn’t like being forced to do something. I used those things in her training too. When I noticed that she was getting bored or was feeling pressured to do something, I could just change what I was doing. Giving her a break or giving her what she wanted was also a reward.
Looking back on it now, I don’t know why I got so focused on that because I said so mentality. If my dog is reluctant to do a behaviour I know we have trained, there is probably a good reason. I have found that it is in my best interest in those moments to consider what I need rather than insisting on getting her to do the behaviour I asked for. I can change the reward, I can ask for a different behaviour, or I can most move on to something else and make a mental note to do some additional training.
Is it important that I get what I want from my dog? Sure. I have changed how I think about that. I want her to be a happy and enthusiastic partner with me. It turns out that the best way to do that is to give her what she wants some of the time. It certainly makes her more willing to cooperate with me.
I think Mick Jagger said it best when he said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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