Training “Negatives” This Way Could Save Your Dog’s Life

If you find yourself saying “no” or “don’t” to your dog as a frequent command, here’s something to think about.

It’s extremely difficult to train a “negative” – especially in the case of those pesky, persistent self-rewarding behaviors such as counter surfing.  It may only result in food 1 in 50 times, but once the reward is achieved, the behavior will continue. A better approach is to train and correct for a contrary behavior – for example, instead of training a dog not to jump on people, it’s much easier to train them to sit for petting.

When you use a voice command, it requires the dog to parse through all the thoughts in its head and figure out which behavior/thought caused the verbal response. An unwanted by-product of this style of training is that it also trains the dog not to “get caught” rather than teaching the dog to avoid the actual problem behavior. Since “getting caught” often only relies on one human’s presence in a multi-human household, the dog learns that it’s best to seek the self-rewarding behavior when the disciplinarian is absent (training dogs is a HECK of a lot easier than training a husband and teenage stepson!).

In addition, using voice (or any human-wielded tool) as positive punishment, reinforces the possibility of an adversarial/negative relationship with the primary caregiver/most trusted person. Too often – especially in the “loose dog” scenario that will happen in EVERY greyhound owner’s lifetime – I see dogs hesitate to come to their owners. Dogs have difficulty understanding the human difference between scared and angry – both conditions tend to cause similar body/voice changes.

I judge lure coursing, and previously held “fun run” days monthly for years, encompassing hundreds of retired greyhounds – believe me, I KNOW dog/owner response in the loose dog scenario.  It’s not a happy thing.

Here’s where a simple change of approach makes a huge difference.  Instead of the owner doing something to punish the behavior, the dog seeks the behavior and something “attacks” him (popper, scat mat, mousetrap – whatever will give him a scare without causing injury, that can be present ALL the time).

Dog: “Hmmmm….mom is in the shower and breakfast smelled really yummy….I’ll just check out the counter and sink and see what she left….she was really rushing this morning, so there MUST be something….not here….not here….YIKES!!!!! IT BIT ME!!!!! Yooowwwllll! Mom! Save me!!!”

You’ve accomplished two important successes in one: First, you’ve demonstrated that the behavior is NOT self rewarding – in fact, it’s downright scary! Second, you’ve become the person your dog runs TO when he’s scared. You get to respond “Poor baby! Are you ok? Did the nasty counter bite you? I TOLD you that room was dangerous! Let me kiss your head and make it better – maybe you should stick with me when I’m busy….”

(Note: if you own 34″ tall borzoi, you know then it’s mousetraps instead of a stubbed toe, because they’re hanging off their chest feathering <g>. Also, before you decide I’m the cruelest owner ever: mousetraps don’t close over a dog nose – although they sometimes get my fingers – the nose is too large for a small trap, and the cheap ones are so delicate that they tend to snap when they are nudged.  I NEVER bait them with anything, and I don’t put them out and leave food on the counters – the point is the dog needs to stop sneaking for food that isn’t usually there – and to keep him from grabbing dinner off a hot stove when I run to the restroom.  They feel like being shot with a weak rubber band.)

I think that setting up potentially adversarial relationships with greyhounds or other sensitive dogs is MUCH more damaging than a once-or-twice shock or pinch. Those occurrences fit the requirements for a correction: Immediate, Effective, Over.

Nagging at or sporadic corrections set you up as unpredictable and untrustworthy. The behavior problem isn’t solved, and a much greater problem is created – the dog no longer has complete faith in you as master and savior.

Any dog that has lived with me for any length of time quickly learns that whenever they are frightened, injured, or just insecure, all they have to do is find me and I will fix it. It’s better than a recall, because a recall requires action on my part – whereas this teaches the dog to find ME.

Think of the parallels: 1) Greyhound gets loose in public gathering, everybody starts yelling “loose dog,” greyhound gets spooked and runs away from people. 2) Greyhound gets loose in gathering, everybody starts yelling “loose dog” (let’s say that a friend was holding the dog while Mom got a plate of food from the picnic table), the dog gets scared and immediately runs in the direction where Mom is, knowing she will save him and tell him he’s a good boy.

Life saved.

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