Figuring out Fido
While out on walks with my own dog, I sometimes see others out there with their dogs and I’ve noticed an interesting human behaviour that is worth discussing here: lecturing dogs.
Perhaps you’re out on an off leash walk with your dog and they take off ahead of you. You call them, they don’t respond and you get frustrated and take off after them. Once you get to them, you grab their collar, kneel down and start to lecture them about how inappropriate their behaviour was and how it’s not nice to ignore you and pretend they don’t hear you. This act for you is pretty satisfying. You got to air your grievance and you think your dog will definitely do better next time.
Or, another scenario I’ve seen many times, you’ve stopped with your dog since another dog is coming your way. You get over to the side, you put them in a sit, you kneel next to them, hold the leash or collar and you spend the duration of the time the other dog goes by, telling your dog how you expect them to behave, to stop trying to get up, to listen to you and be calm.
So what is the harm in lecturing your dog? It’s not having the desired effect. In the first scenario described, where you lecture your dog for doing or not doing something you wanted them to, you’re either 1) wasting your breath, 2) developing a negative association between you and your dog in the scenario, or 3) making it less likely that your dog will listen to you in the future. This is especially true if you lecture them after not coming when called. Your dog has now learned that when they do come back to you, they get a human who is frustrated and stops the fun altogether, so why would they come back in the future?
READ MORE: Figuring out Fido: Skiing with your dog
For the second scenario, you’re potentially subject to outcome 1 and 2, and worse than those, you could create reactive behaviour in your dog. Forcing a dog who is perhaps anxious about other dogs, into a sit while other dogs go by is asking them pretend they aren’t anxious and to suppress that behaviour. But it does nothing to address the core issue, how they feel about the other dog. In addition, if your dog feels uneasy with your tone or actions, your dog can start to associate other dogs with bad things happening. That’s not the way you want your dog to feel. If your dog is the opposite and just very excited with other dogs going by, asking them to stay in a sit and listen to you is likely to fail. If you react more harshly, you’re likely to create a dog who also starts to associate other dogs with frustration and anxiety. A recipe for reactivity.
So what can you do when your dog doesn’t listen to you? Recognize that they are either not well trained enough to perform that behaviour in that environment with those distractions, or they are having an off day (dog’s have those too!) Behaviours like recall are rarely properly trained. Training a reliable recall requires proofing it in all kinds of environments in an incremental way. It takes time and a lot of repetitions to develop a solid reliable recall.
If you’re looking for your dog to be calm while other dogs go by, give them something to be excited about that is about you, like teaching them to focus on you for some delicious treats. You’ll have a dog who has learned that checking in with you is fun, rewarding and better than getting over excited at every dog they see.
Have any dog training or behavioural questions? Send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to post responses in this monthly column.
Lynn Gagnon is a certified professional dog trainer for Stoked Dogs. She has a BSoc.Sc. and CPDT-KA.