One question I am often asked is this: “How do I correct my dog when he doesn’t do what he’s told?” In our society, we tend to be quick to want to dole out punishment for “misbehavior” or doing something “he knows was wrong.” Dogs are often labeled stubborn, defiant, dominant or other terms that imply willful disobedience. We expect our dogs to do what is “right” immediately and without question.
Yet, how many of us do so? You know that breaking the law is wrong, don’t you? Yet, I am willing to bet that just about every one of you has broken the law in the past week. Probably today even. Don’t think so? What’s the speed limit on your route to work? Did your speedometer ever creep up over the speed limit, even by a few miles per hour? Then you broke the law! You know it’s wrong, but you did it anyway! Were you being stubborn or defiant? Were you trying to dominate the world with your speeding?
Yet, we are quick to judge our dogs when they don’t do the “right” thing every time. First and foremost, I want to make sure the dog actually understands what you expect. I often see people who assume the dog “knows” what to do, but in many cases, I see a dog who does not understand what is expected. Just because he’s gotten it right some of the time, does not mean he truly understands what is expected in this particular circumstance. So, before I even think about correcting or providing a consequence, I want to make sure the dog truly understands what you are asking.
Beyond that, I also want to ensure there is some incentive for the dog to do so. Just because you know you should do something, doesn’t mean you will see enough incentive to do it. Perhaps not consistently, anyway. Anyone on a quest to lose weight? You know you shouldn’t eat that dessert tonight, but do you always have the willpower to resist it? Perhaps your dog does know he shouldn’t eat that sandwich on the kitchen counter. (Or perhaps not.) But does that mean he has the willpower in this moment to resist it? We get so upset when our dogs can’t resist their impulses yet many of us are not consistent about resisting ours either.
Should there be consequences for misbehavior? Sure, but I need to make sure that I first have helped my dog to understand what I expect. Then I need to make sure I am providing the right incentives (positive, reward-based incentives) for my dog to do what I want. Then, and only then, should I consider providing some negative consequences for not doing as I have asked. However, even then, there is never a need to provide harsh, physical consequences. There are better ways to provide fair consequences that will be effective. More about those in my next post. . .