When Labels Limit Action

We are all guilty of it. Assigning a blanket adjective, a label, to things around us such as people, pets, even inanimate objects like cars. Surely it's a part of human nature as a means of categorizing information in our environment based on collective experience. So is it harmful to label?

 

Growing up, my older sister was “the smart one” and I was “the athletic one.”  Our parents didn't realize it at the time, but these labels were factors of limitation for us. We behaved accordingly to our labels, and our parents accepted our behavior without question. We did not realize our true talents and interests of all things intellectual and physical until we became adults, away from such implied personality descriptions.  Those labels became an excuse for our parents to accept our behavior simply because they didn’t know how to address it otherwise.

 

Although some labeling isn't harmful, using labels as an interpretation of behavior can be very misleading. As dog trainers and behavior consultants, we hear examples of this everyday- “my dog is stubborn” or “my dog is dominant.”  Statements like these don't accurately describe what the dog is actually doing.  It becomes a cyclical conversation with no clear means for action.


Client: My dog is dominant.

Trainer: Why do you feel that way?

Client: Because she growls when I try to take away her toy.

Trainer: Why do you think she growls?

Client: Because she’s dominant.  

 

The brilliant Dr. Susan Friedman, faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University and proponent of changing behavior through facilitation rather than force says, “Behavior is not who you are - it's what you do.” When we use quick interpretations instead of an objective means of describing behavior, we are more likely to misunderstand the reason behind the dog's behavior.  With only the information provided by the client above, a trainer may suggest a training plan for one of the following diagnoses:

 

Dominance: A science-based, formally educated professional trainer would inform the pet guardian that dominance/status seeking does not generally exist within the domestic dog-human relationship and therefore “dominance” can’t be addressed via accepted behavior change protocols.

 

Resource Guarding: A professional trainer would follow the Humane Hierarchy to address resource guarding.

 

Fear: A great trainer and educator, like Pat Miller, would also never punish a growl nor influence a dog to stop communicating its discomfort.

 

Play: There are many reasons for a growl, play could be one of them. Imagine the damage to the relationship if the training plan was to “defeat dominance” when the dog was actually growling as a component of play.    

 

The recently released website www.ispeakdog.org, supported by the well-respected Pet Professional Guild and the Academy for Dog Trainers, provides a great formula for translating behaviors that accurately describes what’s happening.

 

  1. Describe what the dog is doing

  2. Describe the dog’s body language

  3. Describe what is happening in the dog’s environment

 

Using these guidelines, the example conversation between client and trainer then becomes this:

 

Client: When my dog has a toy in her mouth, she will lower her front elbows to the floor with her hind end raised, her tail high with quick swoops and she will not release the toy from her mouth when I reach for it. She will growl when I try to pull it out of her grip. This only happens when I am trying to leave for work each morning.

 

This description paints a completely different picture than what we assume when we hear “my dog is dominant.”  This dog doesn’t seem to be displaying any aggression, resource guarding or fear.  This description sounds like the dog is engaging in play and thinks this is a fun game where Mom plays tug before she leaves in the morning.

 

Dogs who are categorized as “stubborn” or “stupid” are commonly ones that aren't aware of what's expected of them. Most have learned that cues which are repeated time and again are irrelevant because they are missing consequence (good or bad) or that the risk of failure, and therefore punishment, is too high to offer behavior. Unfortunately, in our society, dog’s aren’t often allowed to have choices.  We force them into situations, such as grooming, when they express discomfort, we say they are “uncooperative” or even “aggressive.”  If we look at the possible reasons behind a dog’s behavior, we can better identify how to change that behavior.

 

The way most progressive trainers change behavior is through positive reinforcement. As teachers, guardians or trainers, we have to be keen on what's motivating to our learners. Reinforcement by definition is something that will increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. Reinforcement is in the eye of the learner, despite how much you paid for those “high-value” treats. In some cases, the environment, the opportunity to play a favorite game, or social interaction is more of a reinforcer than food.  For those dogs that lack the ability to perform a task they have previously learned, the dog likely doesn't have Attention Deficit Disorder (although that is becoming a real diagnosis in dogs), he's probably not been incrementally taught to perform the task in the environment you've set (generalization) or your reinforcer isn't high enough to trump environmental reinforcers.

 

Behaviors are treatable, labels and constructs are not.  Your dog trainer won't know how to treat “jealously” between dogs because we don’t know what behavior that describes. Interpretation varies from person to person. A label stands in our way of seeking valuable information to understand what is happening with the animal and the environment that's affecting the behavior.

 

How do we better explain behavior without using limiting constructs? Think about how to describe the behavior in terms that are observable.  When does the behavior occur? What is the consequence of the behavior for that animal? With this information, we can clearly define behavior change targets, environmental predictors, and consequences that will either strengthen, reduce or maintain the behavior.

 

It is our job as caretakers, teachers and guardians to create a relationship of support, compassion and understanding, even when we feel like we've run out of information and want to default to using a label. Because we are the ones with expectations, the only way a learner can meet those expectations is through scenarios where they are set up to succeed. Use the ispeakdog.org formula to identify the possible reasons for behavior and use reinforcers to influence behavior (this also works on children and partners!)  Avoid using labels to describe reasons for behavior and you’ll find that solving problem behaviors becomes much easier.

 

- Kimberly McRae, CPDT-KA

LEADER OF THE PACK

If you ever talk to people about dogs, you've probably come across someone who espouses "dominance theory" - the idea that dogs are constantly grappling for rank with other dogs and with humans. Proponents of dominance theory often advocate for "training methods" (I use the term loosely) that seek to prove the human's "alpha" status over the dog(s). These methods range from fairly benign - always cross through a door before your dog, always eat first - to downright abusive, including physically bullying or forcing the dog to roll over, inflicting pain or fear, and in extreme cases even choking dogs on leashes until they pass out. All in the name of "showing the dog who's boss."

While I find these methods personally distasteful, more importantly, they are also appallingly misinformed. 

Behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel is one of the men responsible for the origination of dominance theory. In the 1930s and 40s, Schenkel studied groups of captive zoo wolves, noting how they interacted, how they resolved conflict, and how they determined who had priority access to resources. As a result of his observations, he determined that wolves were constantly vying with each other to achieve higher status. It was a short mental leap to extrapolate this idea to dogs; after all, dogs are domesticated wolves, so the assumption goes that they must have the same social and behavioral patterns. Dr. David Mech, a research scientist, later popularized the concept of dominance theory with similar studies and conclusions, the findings of which he published in the 1968 book, "The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species."

Here's the problem with dominance theory: the study was performed on a group of unrelated captive wolves. A wolf "pack" in nature is a family group, typically a mating pair and their offspring, and sometimes other family members. They operate as a family, and they have relationships that we would likely recognize as similar to our own. There is no struggle for dominance - the adult pair are "in charge," for lack of a better term, in the same way that the adults in a human household are in charge. They enforce established rules and the younger members typically follow, and sometimes test. The adult wolves are responsible for the well being of their pack. They have conflict, as any family group does, which is resolved with ritualized aggression. This means that they have posturing or fights to resolve conflict without anyone actually getting hurt. It is the human equivalent of an argument. They do not jostle for rank, they do not physically harm one another, and they do not fight over who gets to walk through the door first. There is an understanding of how resources are distributed, and each wolf knows what resources are important enough to them to engage in conflict over, should they take issue with the established system. 

Captive wolves, in contrast, are rarely a family group. More often - and this was the case in the original study done by Schenkel - they are unrelated wolves who are forced to live together. These wolves do not have the benefit of family ties (which, significantly, means no genetic interest) and no history of conflict resolution with one another. There is no understanding about who has access to resources such as food, space, or reproductive opportunities. Therefore, there IS very frequent conflict, vying for resources, and often, physical fighting and injury. Unrelated wolves do not have an interest in the well being of the group in the way that a familial pack does; they are primarily concerned with their own survival. 

So right away we can see how dominance theory is based on a flawed premise. However, it gets worse. 

Dogs, while descended from wolves, do not have the same social structure or behavioral repertoire as wolves. Behaviorally, dogs are more like juvenile wolves, an attribute called neoteny (the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood.) So, to put it plainly, dogs behave more like wolf puppies. They play, vocalize, and socialize with unrelated conspecifics far more than adult wolves do. And that latter behavior is important, because what it indicates is that dogs aren't pack animals. While there are certainly many instances of dogs who dislike strange dogs, that is typically attributable to poor socialization. Properly socialized dogs are generally friendly or at worst indifferent towards strange dogs. It's why we have dog parks. We don't have wolf parks*. 

To apply wolf behavior framework to dog behavior is to ignore the glaring and significant differences between the species. It's akin to trying to use primate behavior to interpret how humans interact. Yes, there are useful comparisons, however there are as many differences as there are similarities. Domestication makes all the difference, in this case. 

But, HERE’S the kicker: Dr. Mech himself has denounced dominance theory, for the reasons I've outlined here, and has admitted that he was mistaken. He has explained at length that his theory was flawed and that we should not be using it to describe wolf OR dog behavior, because both are far more dynamic and nuanced than was understood by the original dominance framework. This is very nearly the Wakefield Study of canid behavior. 

It is my sincerest hope that not only do we leave the language of dominance theory behind - stop using phrases like "pack leader" and words like "alpha" or "dominant" to refer to our relationships with dogs - but also that we insist that dog trainers have an understanding of this very basic concept before we allow them into our homes to work with our dogs. This is entry-level stuff. If someone, dog owner, trainer, or otherwise, tries to whip out dominance theory on you, you should tuck tail and run - or tell them to look up Dr. Mech.

 

*except for Wolf Park in Indiana, which is not a fenced-in area to take your wolves to play off leash but an incredible organization dedicated to conservation, education, and canid behavior research

 

Further reading:

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior - Position Statement on Dominance Theory

University of Bristol Article on Dominance Theory  

"Dumbed Down by Dominance," a 2-part article by Dr. Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist 

"The Dominance Controversy" by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin 

 

- Ursa Acree, CPDT-KSA

 

The Perfect Bite

Recently, I was commiserating with a trainer friend of mine. One of her clients had contacted her to let her know that they had surrendered their dog to a shelter because the dog had bitten their ten year old daughter. My friend, shocked to hear this, pressed for details. It turned out the dog had gotten loose in a busy area, the daughter had grabbed him, and, startled, he turned around and bit her. The bite left no marks, so it was what trainers refer to as a "grab-bite." 

My friend was devastated, and I was too, once I heard the details. The owner felt she had done something right by relinquishing the dog, citing that she "couldn't take chances" with her children. As a parent myself, I understand that - but what this client didn't understand is that her (now former) dog had shown her that he absolutely could be trusted with her kids.

How could I say this about a biting dog? Wouldn't a dog with no bite history be better for a family with kids? My answer is: not necessarily. Bite inhibition is a concept that is well known in the training field, and it refers to how inhibited a dog's bite is - in other words, how much pressure they generally use when they bite. Do they leave bruises? Punctures? Scrapes or no marks at all? If and when a dog does bite (and remember, anything with teeth can bite - including your sweet dog) one of the most important factors is how much they inhibit their bite. Dogs with excellent bite inhibition, such as the one in the scenario above, are exactly the kind of dog that you want to have around kids. They are polite enough to express their discomfort (and dogs ARE allowed to express discomfort; they are living beings) without doing damage to the person knowingly or unknowingly inflicting that discomfort. Growling, snapping, and biting are the only ways that dogs have to communicate to us that they are scared, uncomfortable, or in pain. It is far, far preferable to have a dog that can inhibit a bite when he is pushed over threshold than a dog that does any kind of damage.

Bite inhibition is generally learned when dogs are very young - beginning from the time they start to nurse. Puppies who suckle too hard are taught by mom that it will make her go away. Then, as pups begin playing with their littermates, they learn that biting too hard makes the game stop - well-socialized dogs will continue to learn this as they grow. You can also help teach your puppy (or adult dog!) to learn bite inhibition with these excellent suggestions from Pat Miller, Dr. Ian Dunbar, and Melissa Alexander.

Coincidentally, just a few days ago, one of our dogs grab-bit our toddler. Our son, who is 20 months old and learning how to interact appropriately with dogs, was petting her gently one moment, then grabbed some fur and pulled the next moment (I was sitting right next to him.) Our dog, understandably startled, turned around and grab-bit him on the arm. Her bite was so inhibited that our son laughed when it happened. We did not re-home her. We didn't scold, punish, or otherwise respond punitively. In fact, I praised her as I ushered the offending toddler away from her. I was grateful for her tolerance. I would never, ever expect any animal to tolerate being startled and hurt, and she communicated that in an appropriate way - without inflicting injury. Her bite inhibition was impeccable. THAT is the kind of dog that I want around my kid because when mistakes happen (as they often do) nobody ends up in the hospital.

Until a dog bites, you don't know what their bite inhibition is like. Obviously, our goal should be to never, ever place a dog in a situation that forces them to respond defensively - if you see preliminary signs that they are uncomfortable with something, you should work with a force-free trainer to change your dog's association with whatever the anxiety-inducing trigger may be (never punish growling or snapping, either - your dog may learn that form of communication doesn't work and skip straight to biting.) But if your dog does bite without inflicting injury, be grateful - that is the best possible bite scenario. Perfect bite inhibition is a trait that should be praised, not punished.

Down In The Park

Ah, the dog park. Depending on your (and your dog's) experience, the dog park may evoke happy images of pups romping gleefully through grassy fields, or it may be more akin to a nightmare in - as a trainer friend of mine calls them - a "dirt parking lot." I have mixed feelings about dog parks, mainly due to the fact that not everyone uses them responsibly. Recently, here in Denver, a popular dog park was temporarily closed because people were misusing it, and I've heard discussions about other parks following suit. Even at the parks I really enjoy - ones with plenty of room for dogs to run and have space from one another - I often see people knowingly or unknowingly engaging in behaviors that range from inconsiderate to dangerous. So, in the interest of making a trip to the dog park more pleasant for everyone, and hopefully avoiding future shutdowns, I've compiled some suggested guidelines that we should all take into consideration when visiting:

Pick It Up

It's hard to believe this actually has to be said, but yes, you should pick up your dog's poop, including at the dog park. I'd even argue that because dogs are running around off-leash, they are more likely to step in it and therefore, it's even more crucial to clean up after them. I know of some parks where dogs may run off into chest deep weeds to eliminate and I'm okay with giving owners a pass on those instances, but if you can see your dog go, you should pick it up. It makes the park more pleasant and more sanitary for everyone (dog poop can spread disease!)

Play Nice

Again, it seems that it would go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: don't bring your aggressive dog to the dog park. Take them for a hike on-leash, buy a long line and go to the park, train with them in your neighborhood... there are plenty of other options for them to get exercise, but the dog park is not an appropriate place for a dog that is extremely fearful of or aggressive towards other dogs. Not only are you putting other dogs at risk, but you are further traumatizing your dog by forcing them to defend themselves against what they feel is a real threat (other dogs.) 

Stay Calm

That said, don't freak out if dogs get into a fight. It happens (although if your dog gets into a fight every time you're at the park, he is not an appropriate dog to bring to the park.) Every once in awhile dogs will have an altercation, and the best thing you can do is stay calm and try to break it up without using your hands. Clap, yell, dump water on them, grab anything you can and try to insert it between the dogs. When you do get them apart, leave immediately (do not pass go, head straight for the exit.) Dogs in a highly aroused state are likely to go off again if someone pushes their buttons - just like people. If you need to assess damage and exchange information, do so once the dogs are safely secured in your car. 

You may, however, see the occasional growl and snap, and those are generally not worrisome. That's how dogs communicate boundaries and discomfort to one another. If your dog growls or snaps at another dog (or another dog growls or snaps at yours,) as long as it doesn't escalate to a fight, let it go. Move on if they seem disinterested in playing. If they continue to play without incident, let them.

Leave Your Leash at the Door

I applaud those of you who always leash your dogs in public - off leash dogs are often a nuisance to those who obey leash laws. But an off-leash park is not a place for leashes. You should remove your dog's leash at the airlock, or as soon as you get through the gate. Dogs who are leashed and have off-leash dogs running up to them are more likely to be defensively aggressive - which is not fair to the leashed dog OR the off-leash dogs. If you're worried about your dog running off at the park, train them to come when called, carry treats to reward them for returning to you, or start at a smaller park where they can't go as far.

Use Legs, Not Wheels

In the larger parks you'll often see people biking or pushing strollers through as they follow their dogs. While this isn't typically against the rules, I'd like to urge caution. Some dogs will chase and try to catch bikes, potentially injuring themselves and/or the cyclist. Strollers are less of a problem because they typically aren't going that fast, but they are still susceptible to being knocked over by rambunctious dogs who aren't looking where they're going. I've seen dogs jump on strollers to look inside, nearly tipping them over with the unsuspecting kid still strapped in. Again, please use caution and be alert if you choose to bike or stroll through the dog park. And the same goes with kids - not all dogs are kid friendly, so be very careful about bringing your kids with you. Teach them not to approach or corner the dogs or take toys from them, and that if a strange dog comes up, they should "be a tree" (cross their arms and look up.) This will encourage the dogs to move on.

Keep it in Your Pants

Put your phone in your pocket. I know, I'm as guilty as anyone of succumbing to the allure of the screen, but at the dog park, I put my phone away and pay attention to my dog. I want to make sure they're not being rude or pestering another dog, in which case I'll step in and move them along. I also want to make sure I notice if they poop so I can pick it up. And if I see any sketchy interactions with other dogs, I'll call mine back to me and we'll head in another direction. I also just really love watching dogs interact and observing their behavior. You miss a lot of things when your head is in your phone - don't be that guy whose dog is being a menace to society while he's obliviously texting. 

 

Those are the big ones, I think! At least, these are the behaviors I see most frequently at the dog park that I think diminish the enjoyment for others. How about you? What behaviors do you see at the dog park that you'd like to change?

Will Work For Food (Or Fun!)

Today is National Take Your Dog to Work Day. We know that there are many benefits to having dogs in the workplace, but what many of us fail to consider is that most of our dogs, with the exception of joining us around the water cooler once a year, are themselves unemployed.

Most dog breeds were developed to perform a task - herding, retrieving, hunting, pulling, or the like - that in modern society is now performed without the aid of a dog. However, those drives still remain in our dogs. Do you have a Labrador retriever that will chase the tennis ball until he flops? Or a border collie that tries to herd your family from room to room? Or perhaps (true story) a Newfoundland who insists on dragging your kids out of the pool to "rescue" them?

Dogs who have an innate drive to perform a job need an outlet for that energy. For some dogs, a walk around the block is enough, but that's usually the exception, not the rule. The rest of our hardworking companions need structured tasks, problem-solving activities, puzzle toys, or targeted exercise to keep them from becoming bored and engaging in problems behaviors as a result. 

The first step to helping your dog become gainfully employed is to determine what they love to do. Chase? Fetch? Search for things? Chew? This will help you decide what games and activities are best suited for them. We have some suggestions to get you started!

Chasers/Herders

Dogs who love to chase or herd will enjoy any game that involves fast movement. One of our favorites involves using a flirt pole, which is basically an oversized version of a cat pole toy. Flirt poles are used to allow dogs to chase, catch, and "kill" prey, providing a constructive outlet for prey drive. They can also help teach self-control: the dog isn't allowed to chase until released. Bad Rap has a great video to get you started with the flirt pole.

Of course, most chasers also love a good game of fetch, so a session with a tennis ball or frisbee will make them happy as well!

Tuggers

There's a myth that makes the rounds among dog owners sometimes: "don't play tug with your dog because it will make them aggressive." This couldn't be more untrue! Tug mimics a collaborative "killing" of prey - your dog can't play it without you! However, you do need to establish some rules to ensure safe play:

  • Your dog should not take the tug toy until you give a cue.
  • Your dog should release the toy when asked.
  • If your dog's teeth touch your skin, you should stop the game for a minute.
  • Use a special toy for tug that your dog doesn't have access to any other time - it will make the game both more structured and more fun.

We like to use two toys for tug. Choose two toys that are equally appealing and exciting for your dog. Soft toys, rope toys, or other toys that are easy for both you and your dog to grab. Begin with toy A in one hand, and toy B behind your back. Engage the dog in tug with toy A, then, after a minute or so, release toy A. Immediately bring toy B out from behind your back and start making a big deal about it, until your dog drops toy A and runs to you to engage with toy B. Begin tug with toy B as you pick up toy A and hide it behind your back. Repeat this until you're ready to end the game. 

This method has a couple of benefits: it begins to teach your dog to drop a toy, and it makes you the most engaging part of the game - your dog can't play tug without you! Eventually, your dog will drop the toy as soon as you disengage with it.

Sniffers/Searchers

If you have a major sniffer or searcher (we're looking at you, Beagle and hound owners) you'll want to engage their nose for a truly satisfying game. We love activities that encourage them to search and find food, toys, or you! Suzanne Clothier has a great rundown of scent games you can play with your budding Search and Rescue dog. 

Alternatively, you can use food-based puzzle toys to delight your dog's senses. One of our favorites is the Kibble Nibble, a simple egg-shaped toy that you fill with kibble or treats; your dog then has to push the toy around to cause the food to fall out. Nina Ottosson also makes a great line of food-based puzzle toys that your dog is sure to love.

Chewers

Chewers can be a challenge if they aren't given plenty of appropriate chew items - they will often select their own, and it's usually something you like better without teeth marks. The key to keeping your chewer happy is continually providing them with lots of new chewing items that they love. Rather than buying new ones every few days, though, you can just offer a few toys at a time, and pick them up and rotate them out every couple of days. The "new" toys should keep your dog's interest for awhile, before you swap them out for others.

Diggers

Diggers and chewers are kindred spirits - both are activities that are totally normal for dogs, but that can be inconvenient for humans when they are expressed in a destructive manner. The first priority for diggers should be to prevent them from digging in inappropriate places - so if they are inclined to dig in the yard, make sure they are supervised or have plenty of other activities to keep them busy while outside. But our favorite solution for diggers is to give them their own digging spot - think sandbox for kids! You can either partition off a digging area with landscaping timbers and turn up the dirt between them, or get a baby pool and fill it with soil. Bury dog toys and scatter treats in the digging area to create interest, and guide your dog to "his" digging area anytime he begins to dig elsewhere. 

ALL Dogs!

No matter what your dog's preference, they can benefit from the physical and intellectual engagement of training. Whether it's manners, dusting off old tricks, or teaching new ones, training is a great way to bond with your dog and keep them busy and content. 

No matter what your dog loves to do, there's a "job" for them - you just have to consider yourself your dog's employer, and set them up for success! Dogs who go to work more than once a year will be more healthy, happy, and well-behaved. What job is your dog perfect for?

Great Expectations

In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, the author delves into what it takes to become an expert - an outlier - at something. It could be a sport, playing an instrument, or computer programming, but in any discipline, there are people who are outstanding in their field. Gladwell wanted to determine what factors set these "outliers" apart from the rest. Adjusting for things such as fortuitous connections, birthplace, or access to resources, Gladwell claimed to have found one consistent similarity among highly skilled people in any field: they had devoted over 10,000 hours of practice to their discipline. 

Since the book was published, however, the 10,000 hour rule seems to have been debunked.  Studies are showing that mere endless practice doesn't have as much of an effect on someone's skill level as the quality of the practice. Yet, the "10,000 Hour Rule" has become a pop culture paradigm, repeated by many people who believe it to be true. And the average person would have no reason to disagree, generally speaking - anyone who has devoted 10,000 or more hours to something would certainly seem to be an expert.

Why, if 10,000 hours seems reasonable for a human to master a skill, do we then believe that our dogs can master difficult skills for life, within minutes? As a trainer and behavior consultant, I stress over and over again to my clients that repetition and practice are key. Dogs don't speak our language, and they don't understand our world. Much of training involves asking them to go against their inherent behaviors and not act like a dog. This is a monumental request, and one that takes time and dedication to instill in an animal. They aren't born knowing what we want, and they need guidance and practice to develop new habits. 

And yet, time and again, I see this: I introduce a client to a new behavior. I explain, then show them how to teach it, then have them practice with their dog. We adjust for any issues. Usually, within a few minutes, the dog is performing a rudimentary version of the finished behavior. Sometimes, they are performing a flawless version of the final behavior. Nonetheless, the behavior is still in its infancy. But I'll hear from the owner a mere week or two later that the dog was asked to perform the behavior in a challenging setting and "refused to do it" even though they "knew better!" 

Knew better? How? Even if the owner practiced several times a day for the following week (which is rare - understandably, many people don't have the time to devote to training their dogs daily) the dog couldn't reasonably be expected to perfectly and instantly produce a behavior that he had, to be generous, less than ten hours' worth of practice performing. Let's say we began teaching a child to play the piano, and in a week expected them to perform for their friends on the playground, without missing a key. No stable-minded person would find that a reasonable expectation, and no one would blame the child for being "defiant" or "stubborn" if they couldn't perform to standard. 

Where are all those people who live by the 10,000 hour rule when it comes to their dogs? To reiterate: dogs don't speak English (or Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, or Tehuelche,) they don't understand many things about how our world works (traffic, for example) and, to top it all off, we humans are tragically inconsistent creatures. Some days, we want the dog to stay off the couch and some days we give in and let them lounge. All of this makes for a VERY steep learning curve, especially when we are asking them to go against their instincts: Yes, I know your brain and body are demanding that you chase that squirrel, but why don't you come back to me and sit quietly instead? And still, here we are, insisting that our dogs have mastered very difficult skills, in challenging settings, in a foreign language, after mere hours of practice. This is not a failure of the dog - of his understanding, his intellectual capacity, or his willingness to obey - it is a failure of the human to be a proper and thorough teacher. In doing this, we are setting our dogs up to fail to meet our unreasonably high expectations.

About a year and a half after I got my first dog, Ruckus, I took him to visit a stable where my sisters rode horses. I had adopted Ruckus as a puppy, and shortly after, I dove deeply into the world of dog training - in fact, that was the start of my career. I ate, slept, and breathed training and behavior (I still do, though much of it is with other people's dogs these days.) I trained with Ruckus every day, throughout the day. By a year and a half, we hadn't hit 10,000 hours, but we had a great deal of training under our belts. That day at the barn, I let him off leash. I wasn't paying attention to him - my fault - and he wandered off. I saw him, down the hill, barreling after a horse and rider. This was dangerous for everyone involved and I had to stop it immediately, from a good quarter of a mile away, with an adolescent dog with a herding instinct. I yelled his name. He stopped. He turned and looked at me, looked back at the horse, looked at me again. I yelled, "Ruckus, COME!!!" and after another second of contemplation, he came tearing up the hill towards me. I had treats on me, and backup treats in my car, and together we ran to the car and I heaped him with praise and food. I was astonished that he had chosen to respond despite the VERY reinforcing scenario of chasing a large prey animal. What was going through my mind at that moment, after a year and a half of daily training practice? It certainly wasn't, "what a brat for running away!" or "ho hum, he did what I told him to do." It was "WHOA, I can't believe he actually chose to do what I asked him to! Thank goodness we worked so hard on this - I never should have let my attention wander!"

His behavior was my responsibility, not his. I had been negligent by putting him in a situation that he was not equipped to handle properly, and I would have been at fault for not ensuring that his behavior was fluent enough for him to respond in such a setting (fortunately, it was.) When we expect an individual to follow rules, we must see to it that they understand the rules, thoroughly and under a variety of different conditions. Just as we wouldn't expect children - or adults, for that matter - to become experts in something after a minimum of practice, we shouldn't expect that of our dogs, either. The expectations should fall on us, the owners, to be clear, kind, patient, and thorough teachers. When our dogs fail, we have failed. 

It starts with you - developing the skills you need to be a teacher to your dog. It's not something you learn overnight, but with good practice, you will be more efficient at communicating to your dog what your expectations are. A good place to start is honing your technical training skills. Then, learn about how to communicate with your dog so you can be sure you're speaking their language. Finally, commit to practicing. 10,000 hours may not be the golden rule any longer - nor is it necessary in order to have success in training - but if you aren't an expert yet, your dog probably isn't, either.

Come A Little Bit Closer

Come when called, or "recall," as trainers refer to it, is considered by most dog owners to be a fundamentally important behavior for their dog to learn. Even If you never plan to have your dog off-leash in public, there may be many times where you need your dog to come back to you when requested - perhaps they slipped out the front door, someone left a gate open, or you'd like for them to come in from your yard. Whatever the reason, teaching your dog to come when called is a useful skill that can keep them safe in unforeseen circumstances. And while it's easy to train your dog to recall, there are some common mistakes you should avoid in order to produce a solid, reliable behavior.

BE A PARTY

One of the biggest mistakes we see owners make when calling their dogs is causing something unpleasant - or nothing at all - to happen when the dog returns. This could include verbally reprimanding the dog (for example, if they have just escaped and returned, or chewed on something inappropriate), restraining them to trim their nails, taking an item away, or putting them in a crate and leaving. If unpleasant things happen when your dog comes to you, they are going to think twice the next time you call. Imagine if your boss criticized or disciplined you every time she called you to her office. Would you be eager to go when summoned? A trainer I knew once advised owners to "be a party that your dog wants to go to," and this advice has stayed with me over the years. When you call your dog, first of all, use excited, encouraging body language and tone. Then, be sure to reward them for their efforts when they get to you - whether it's with treats, praise, a game, or something else they desire (it's best to mix it up depending on your dog's mood.) Even ONE adverse event after coming to you can diminish your dog's response to the word "come!" so be sure to go all out when they reach you - after all, they stopped what they were doing and ran over to you when you requested, so they deserve to be thanked for it.

SAY IT ONCE

Another common mistake is repeating the cue over and over again. If you find yourself yelling for your dog to come multiple times, one of two things is happening: either your dog doesn't truly understand what the word means (in which case, go back and train it some more) or your dog is too distracted (in which case, go back and train it some more while gradually adding distractions.) Standing and yelling the cue repeatedly is only teaching your dog that the word has no meaning. Instead, move toward your dog, get their attention with a sound, movement, or smell, and encourage them to come over to you. And remember to reward them when they get there so they continue to learn that coming back to you is a great thing.

BE CONSISTENT

Humans are fickle creatures. Most of us have dozens of different ways we call our dogs, depending on the context, mood, location, or urgency of the situation. When you call your dog over because you'd like to pet them, it probably sounds different than if you're calling them as they're running off-leash down the street. To us, it means the same thing: "come to me." But to our dogs, the words and tone sound completely different. "C'mere!" is different from "come!" which is different still from "COME HERE RIGHT NOW!!!" Dogs don't generalize this type of variation very well, so be sure that when you train your dog, you're using a cue that you'll actually use in real-life situations. 

PRACTICE X1000

Repetition is the key to learning anything. However, many dog owners make the mistake of getting a few successful repetitions of a behavior and assuming their dog "knows" it, when in reality, the dog only has a slight familiarity with the behavior in a very specific context. If you've only practiced the recall a handful of times with your dog in your living room, what is the likelihood that they are going to understand how to do it in the park, surrounded by squirrels, smells, and other dogs? There's no "magic" number for how many times you must practice a behavior with your dog before they can be considered fluent, but more is always better. Consider the idea that in order for a human to be an expert at something, they must have practiced it for at least 10,000 hours. If you want your dog to respond to your request with an expert-level recall, you need to invest some time in helping him practice the behavior in a variety of settings.

HAVE A BACKUP PLAN

So, maybe you have trained, and proofed, and practiced the behavior in many different contexts, and you feel that your dog truly has an understanding of what you're asking. But one time you call and your dog is too distracted by something else. Have some tricks up your sleeve to help guide them back to you without chasing them (which can often make them run away):

  • Pretend to look at something interesting on the ground. Many dogs will come over to investigate.
  • Lie down. Dogs will often run over to someone who is lying on the ground.
  • Run in the other direction - this will encourage some dogs to chase you.
  • Grab a handful of treats and throw them at the dog. The dog should stop to pick up the treats, giving you time to get ahold of them.
  • Grab a toy or other object and pretend to be having a great time playing with it. This may entice the dog to come over and join you.
  • Act silly - jump up and down, spin around, wave your arms, make unusual noises. The dog may come over to see what the fuss is about.

Remember, when you ask your dog to recall, you are asking them to immediately stop being a dog and come to you instead. This is not an innate behavior - they're not born knowing how to do this. Just like any special skill, it needs to be taught, and your dog needs to be motivated to drop what they're doing simply because you asked them to. Be aware of the pitfalls discussed here, which can undermine your training and cause the behavior to deteriorate. If you can avoid making these common mistakes, you'll be well on your way to a dog who eagerly and enthusiastically comes to you whenever you beckon.

What's your best trick for getting your dog to come to you when you ask?

No Puppy Left Behind

As trainers and behavior consultants, we are often asked "at what age can you begin training a dog?" We love it most when we are asked by prospective puppy owners, because the answer is: as soon as you bring them home!

Puppies begin learning before their eyes and ears are open. Smells and sensations provide important information about the world, and begin to shape behavior: moving towards warmth is rewarded with comfort. Moving towards the smell of "mom" results in feeling safe. From that point forward, puppies are never not learning about the world. 

This means that dogs are learning every waking moment from birth, whether we are teaching them or not. So, what do we want them to learn? Left to their own devices, they might learn the following:

  • Jumping on people gets me attention.
  • When I'm bored or lonely, barking entertains me.
  • Pulling on leash gets me where I want to go faster.
  • People only pay attention to me when I steal something off of a table.

While these things are normal dog behavior, they are generally considered inappropriate by most pet owners (and their guests). But, without feedback and proper training, they are likely to become habits by the time your puppy reaches adolescence. So, what could they be learning instead? With your guidance, perhaps the following:

  • Sitting politely gets me attention.
  • When I'm alone or bored, my person will provide me with an appropriate activity, so I can just relax.
  • Walking next to my person gets me where I want to go.
  • People pay attention to me whenever I'm calm and quiet.

With some upfront effort, you can not only prevent bad habits from forming, but you can teach your puppy to offer polite, appropriate behaviors instead. And they can begin learning these behaviors as soon as you bring them home! It's never too early to introduce your puppy to training and establish boundaries in a gentle, clear way. Begin by thinking about what behaviors you like, and start offering reinforcement (treats, attention, play, access to the outdoors) when your puppy offers them.

Also, consider the behaviors you don't like - such as jumping, chewing, or barking - and make sure you're not inadvertently reinforcing them with your attention or access to desired resources. Finally, think about what you'd like your dog to do instead, and make it easier for them to choose that behavior over the inappropriate one.

When did you start training your dog? What was the first thing you taught them?