I know my clients, friends, and family undoubtedly get tired of hearing me advise: “IGNORE the behavior you DON’T want to see repeated and PAY ATTENTION to ANYTHING you want your dog to keep doing!” I know I often sound like a broken record to myself! For everyone’s sake, I’ve got to think of other ways of getting that point across because, to me, it is training in a nutshell. Everything else is just techniques and strategies to help you accomplish those two things.
As humans, we are so terribly tempted to TALK all the time in training, thinking that will help the dog learn faster. But dogs don’t automatically understand what we’re saying. They don’t have a natural predisposition for verbal language like humans, so they’re not even listening for verbal cues. I saw a cartoon once with a lady talking to her dog. The “speaking” balloon coming from her mouth said something like, “You know better than that, Fido, but you just had to do it anyway!” The “thinking” balloon coming from the dog’s head looked like this – “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah FIDO! blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” you get the point.
Dogs watch what we DO far more than listen to what we SAY. It takes many, many, many repetitions for most dogs to correctly connect the sounds coming out of our mouths with specific actions or situations. They pay a little more attention to tone of voice, but it still doesn’t help them as much as we think it should. My mentor, Humane Society of West Michigan’s behaviorist Namiko Ota-Noveskey, says that she can tell when she’s being an effective trainer because she’s not saying much! Then, she knows she’s focusing on the dog’s body language and using her own to teach the dog!
Something happened in my backyard today that really illustrates how effective IGNORING a dog can be! My GSD mix, Kita, is 9 years old and never was one to play a lot even in her youth. A new Daycare client is a Black Lab/St. Bernard mix named Sheba. She’s only 9 months old and already as big as Kita. Sheba also LOVES to play and spends HOURS trying to persuade Kita to join her. Sometimes Kita does – actually to my surprise! However, today wasn’t one of those days.
Sheba tried every ploy in the book! Huge play-bows right in front of Kita, front legs spread wide and chest on the ground, rear and tail wiggling madly. Then, Sheba tried lying down head between paws to give Kita the ole sad-puppy dog eyes with some begging-whines! After that didn’t work, came the bouncing all around from every angle in play-bows — barking all the while. Through all that Kita continued sniffing the ground and the air without so much as a glance in Sheba’s direction. So, Sheba started dashing right up to Kita, nose to nose and then would run away in the “butt on fire” gait of a dog that’s expecting to be chased. Kita looked in the other direction. Now being a bit of a distance away, Sheba charged, in huge gallumphing strides directly at Kita looking for all the world as if she was going to bowl her over. Kita calmly lifted her nose a bit and gazed off at the horizon. As a last-ditch effort, Sheba tried some deliberately provocative actions: nudging Kita’s nose and face repeatedly, then “T-ing” (putting her head over Kita’s back.) Kita remained unimpressed. Sheba at last acknowledged defeat and looked for a stick to chew.
Kita never once lost her cool. She stood her ground, but never made eye contact. She never wrinkled a lip or made a vocalization, even when the “puppy” was in her face and being a bit of a brat! Now, T-ing is a form of jockeying for dominance, and Kita does not take kindly to being so challenged. Sheba clearly was trying that to get ANY reaction out of Kita – even a negative one! I think Kita knew just what the puppy was doing and wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction – the ATTENTION!
Sheba didn’t give up easily! Her behavior got worse before it got better! Kita didn’t have human language skills to help her, but she didn’t even use a dog’s limited repertoire of vocalizations to “say” anything. She didn’t even need to take any direct action to get HER point across to Sheba! I’m not too proud to learn a lesson from my dog! She’s not the most patient animal I’ve ever met, and probably wouldn’t have taken all that from an adult dog. But Kita today gave me a textbook example of how to teach a puppy some manners!