The dog is always right

Rudy and Lola

In his 1948 utopian novel Walden Two, by BF Skinner, the character Frazier says, “I remember the rage I used to feel when a prediction went awry. I could have shouted at the subjects, ‘behave, damn you! Behave as you ought!’ Eventually I realized that the subjects were always right. They always behaved as they should have behaved. It was I who was wrong.”

Applied to dog training, Skinner’s quote would be that “The dog is always right.” It is up to us to teach our dogs, to help them form habits, to manage their possible behaviors so that they don’t harm themselves or others (or our stuff) – The dog is always right, because we are the ones in control of everything. It is us humans who form expectations and make rules, humans who decide our dogs shouldn’t pee there, shouldn’t chew that, should come when called. And whether the dog meets our expectations is actually entirely up to us. Have we formed unreasonable hopes or expectations? Have we spent the necessary time teaching the dog what to do, how to do it, and why it is in her best interest to do so? When things aren’t going as we hoped, have we asked for help from qualified trainers to figure out how we can do better?  Have we visited a veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a physiological reason our training is not going as we hoped? Have we considered the emotional perspective of our dog? Fear can be paralyzing or rage-inducing; either way, a fearful dog is unlikely to behave the way we wish or hope.

Stubbornness is a trait uniquely human. The most common reason most people experience disappointment or frustration in their training is that their hopes exceed their efforts. We humans are uniquely able to act in ways which are not really in our own best interest. Dogs experience, and respond to, basic emotions like love, fear, joy, and anger; it is doubtful dogs feel more complex emotions like pride, guilt, or shame. While it is not yet possible to prove they do not feel these things, many studies have been done exploring these possibilities, and there is little or no evidence that dogs feel these complex, or culturally-based, emotions. Whether dogs can or cannot feel these emotions, what we know for sure is that they never act in a way they perceive to be less rewarding than other behavioral options. We humans are uniquely able to make choices that harm ourselves, even when we can understand rationally that these choices are relatively harmful, or less likely to bring rewarding outcomes. We make these poor choices out of pride, spite, and guilt. Sometimes, it is because of that uniquely human trait, stubbornness. Whether or not they can feel pride, spite, or guilt, dogs don’t  make choices based on these traits. Furthermore, when humans claim a dog is being stubborn, it is actually because the humans do not understand what motivates a dog’s behavior, or simply haven’t practiced enough.

 Generalization is critically important.  Among the many reasons people mistakenly think their dog is being defiant, or stubborn, is lack of generalization in training. In this, dogs and humans are very similar. Both species usually perform better with less distraction than we do with more distraction. Consider the musician who plays wonderfully in rehearsal, but suffers from stage fright in concert; or the basketball player who can swish 9/10 free-throws in practice, but is lucky to make 5/10 during a big game. How many of us are able to read out loud to our children or partners, but would be uncomfortable reading out loud to a large group? Generalizing refers to practicing skills in a variety of environments and situations, so that our dog is able to behave appropriately and safely in these circumstances.

 It is our job, as our dog’s trainer, to demonstrate that the behavior we want will bring a good result for the dog, and then practice those behaviors enough that our dog learns to do them when we ask. And if they don’t? We haven’t practiced enough, or we have made a mistake in our training. Perhaps there is an arousing distraction, or a fear-inducing trigger interfering with our work. Perhaps our dog has an injury we haven’t noticed. Maybe our dog is just confused, and in her confusion, is doing what seems the safest option. Slow down, ask for advice, and consider stronger reinforcers (better rewards).

Remember: The dog is always right!

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