Any animal trainer will tell you that dogs aren’t stubborn, hard-headed, spiteful, angry or know better. Those words are an indicator that the person hasn’t thoroughly taught their dog what to do, how to do it and when to do it. And they probably also haven’t noticed when the dog does the "good" behavior. And more often than not, the person has been stingy with reinforcements to reward that behavior, if they did indeed notice the "good" behavior.
You’ll notice I put those words in quotes. Animal trainers don’t describe behavior as "good" or "bad." Behavior is behavior. Instead we use labels like "appropriate" vs "inappropriate." "Bad" dogs bark when someone’s at the door, but would also be praised if they barked to ward off an intruder. Behavior itself isn’t good or bad – it depends on the context. And we usually put an awful lot of responsibility on the dog to figure out when they should — and shouldn’t bark.
If your dog sits beautifully when the house is quiet and no one is around, but can’t keep her rump on the floor when she meets neighbors, your dog isn’t dumb or stubborn. You’ve simply not taught your dog to sit in such a distracting environment. The fault doesn’t rest with your dog. You just need to work more with her in slightly distracting environments, rewarding her successes. Good animal trainers make it really easy for their animal to succeed. So if that means working 100 feet from the corner where the kids are, that’s where you work. Meet the dog at her level and you’ll find success after success.
Here’s a real-life human example of how powerful distractions can be. Remember back when you were first learning to drive? You were probably about 15 years old or so and just getting behind the wheel could be nerve wracking. But you practiced and you learned all about turn signals, side and rear-view mirrors, navigation, turning, steering, and braking. You got to the point where you were pretty darn good tooling around your neighborhood.
Now, what if I asked you to run into downtown D.C. right around 3:30p. I’ll give you turn-by-turn directions, a map, everything. Oh, and by the way, can you take two toddlers down with you, too. They’re a little cranky, so they’ll probably fuss a bit. You should be fine, right? You know all the mechanics about driving a car — piece of cake, right? You should be able to zip in and zip out without any trouble at all.
So you’re in a traffic circle, trying to look at the map, trying to quiet the screaming toddlers, and I tell you how stubborn and hard-headed you are because you forgot to use your turn signal or look over your shoulder before you changed lanes. How much is that going to help you complete the task I’ve given you? Not much. If I were smart, I’d have someone watch the toddlers, I’d be your co-pilot and navigator, and I’d be doing everything possible to make this trip in and out of the city at rush hour easy for you. Especially if I have any hope that you may one day willingly repeat this task for me.
So next time you hear any of those words come out of your mouth, stop and re-examine the situation. As your dog’s teacher, how can you help your dog succeed? How can you make it easier for your dog to get it right? I promise you’ll have much more success if you take on the responsibility of teaching!