Do or Don’t

Jen at The Elka Almanac got me thinking this morning.

If you ask an average person what a good dog looks like, they’ll tell you a list of things like this that a good dog doesn’t do. Good dogs don’t bark. They don’t steal shoes and underwear. They don’t eat the garbage. They don’t try to pull you on their leash. They don’t run after squirrels. They don’t dig in your flowers. Chances are, in fact, that your dog does one of those things, and you, too, are bothered by it.

You have three options when faced with any of these problems.

First, you can shrug it off. “Dogs do that,” you say. It irritates you a little, but it’s not a big deal.

Secondly, you can manage the problem. Put the garbage can behind closed doors. Buy landscaping material that your dog cant get through and a completely dog-proof laundry bin.

Third, you can train the problem away. That negative list of things a good dog “doesn’t” do isn’t very helpful as a training project, though. Sure, you could take that list of “don’ts” and punish your dog every time he does one of them. If your punishment is successful, you’re likely to get a dog who doesn’t do any of those things. He also won’t do much of anything else, because he’s never sure what sets off that crazy lady with the rolled up newspaper. The completely passive dog as model of “good dog” is, I think, why punishment is still so pervasive in dog training. Worse, even the heartiest, most resilient dog is going to be afraid of you at some level of his brain.

So, what are those of us who aren’t interested in punishment to do?

Let go of the word “don’t.”

You can’t positively train a “don’t.” Even the most brilliant trainer in the world can’t clicker shape a dog to “not eat underwear.” Instead, you have to decide on a do. What behavior would you like to see from your dog? What would you prefer your dog to do instead of that “bad” thing? Be careful not to answer that with another “don’t”–you can go around in circles all day. Now, go out and train that.

4 thoughts on “Do or Don’t

  1. Nice post. Hurley, by the way, does all of those things. As we train, those so-called bad behaviors get more mild in nature. Just yesterday, we took him to the dog park & he whined & barked like a crazed pup before we entered. I saw all the people look and put their guards up. Crazy loud dog = crazy bad behaved dog right? But once he entered, he made friends with every dog, very politely, quietly & appropriately. The dogs prone to correcting others (and there were a bunch yesterday) all told him what’s what and he simply turned his head & walked away. He didn’t even care when one dog repeatedly mounted him. We will continue to work on his excitement & vocalization but the dog he is is pretty fantastic even though he does all of the things you mentioned.


  2. Good for Hurley! I do like to hear about his progress.

    Silas has never been interested in eating garbage, and we had what turned out to be a dog-proof clothes hamper even before we got him. Otherwise….


  3. Delilah does just about all of those things, but she really is a good dog and while eating garbage, poop and underwear isn’t exactly my ideal behavior I will work on minimizing her opportunities to win at that as I know her time with me will be shorter than I would ever want it to be.


  4. Great post! I think this is such a good reminder for all of us with dogs and everyone who is an aspiring animal trainer. Happy to have found your blog (via Jen at the Elka Almanac)! I am looking forward to reading more!


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