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.