Talking dogs: 'Problem' pooch may stem from owner's misbehavior

August 4, 2014

Last month I had a particularly challenging client to work with, and as usual, Iím not describing the dog. More often than not, what we trainers are called out to work on is a "problem dog," a stubborn dog, a dog that just "wonít listen." Usually 90 percent of the issue is the miscommunication between dog and owner and the inappropriate actions the owner has taken that create the problem.

By the time weíre called out, the owner has a lot of built up frustration, is often in a permanent scolding and angry state with dog, and, of course. the dog has begun to tune out, ignore and stay away from this grumpy, confusing person. Saying "No!" to a dog 15 to20 times a day is not the way to teach him how to behave, but itís a great way to teach him how to avoid and ignore you.

The hardest part in these scenarios is to convince the owner to let go of the dogís past transgressions, and begin anew. Clients seem disappointed when we donít offer a supreme way to punish the dog that he will finally understand. But we never do that, because it isnít a solution.

Most pet owners donít correctly interpret their dogís body language, but itís apparent to us trainers when the relationship between dog and human is off. Frustrated dog owners only take into account their feelings, taking no note of the dogís feelings. Taking a moment to ask the client, "Why do you think your dog ignores you?" or "Why wonít your dog come to you?" can be the beginning of an enlightening conversation that gives the owner a new perspective on the howís and whyís of dog behavior and training, and why training in a positive way yields great results, plus an enthusiastic and attentive dog.

Due in great part to the resurgence of old and scientifically refuted dominance-based training techniques, many dog owners are under the impression that dog training by definition is supposed to be rough and corrective. A trainer well-versed in the science of learning theory, using non-corrective, positive techniques often has to "prove" to the client that it really can be easy and fun to train their dog ó even the most ill-behaved dog.

We humans seem to be hard-wired to correct the misbehaving dog, and ignore the dog that isnít causing any problems. If we can agree that teaching dogs how weíd like them to behave takes some effort, doesnít it just make sense to apply that effort toward what youíd like the dog to do, instead of what you donít want him to do? How is correcting the dog somehow easier to do than praising and rewarding the dog? Alfred Mercier wrote "What we learn with pleasure we never forget," which holds true for all species, including humans and dogs.

So a challenge to all of you who have a dog, regardless of its age and level of home training: For the next week, commit to removing the word "No" from your doggie vocabulary, and instead make it a point to acknowledge and praise your dog each and every time he is doing something that you like.

This gives the dog a wealth of information, and as all dogs strive to do things that yield rewards for them, your dog will begin to figure out many of the ways he can get you to praise him, pet him, play with him and maybe even treat him ó by laying at your feet, standing close to you instead of jumping, being quiet instead of barking, etc. This isnít the end-all of positive, intelligent and gentle training, but itís a good start. And at the end of the day, your dog still will want to be around you, and want a relationship with you. Isnít that why we have dogs?



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