I’m a person who likes ORDER and ROUTINE. I balance my budget to the penny. I always go to the grocery store with a list. I read the care labels before I do the laundry. My husband and I once went to the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for six months.
In other words, I’m a control freak who doesn’t tolerate change well.
As I’m sure you can imagine, Silas and I struggled a lot in his early life. There’s some of this evident in the earlier parts of the blog, but most of it had happened before then. The dog training facility we used rolled puppies straight from puppy class to Obedience I. There were our pals from puppy class, gazing adoringly at their humans, begging for instructions. And then there was Silas, at the end of his leash, checking out everything but me. That’s how he was everywhere. When he was about a year old, we were on some trails with loose dirt over rock, and he pulled me completely off my feet. I went back to the car and cried. It wasn’t that it hurt; it was because my dog didn’t seem to even know I was outside with him.
I wasn’t “in control” of his behavior. I couldn’t even influence his behavior.
It changed everything when I realized that he constantly scanned his environment, apparently not paying me any attention, because I was the one thing out there that he could count on.
I also distinctly remember reading a passage in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. McDevitt brings up that old saw–you need to be more interesting than your dog’s environment in order to get your dog’s attention, and you need your dogs attention 100% of the time. Then she says that it just isn’t true:
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be interesting or rewarding to your dog. But I am relieving you of the burden of having to be the best thing in the galaxy at all times….It should be very rewarding for your dog to work with you, and I hope it always is. If it isn’t, you need to thoroughly examine your training structure and methodology. But you don’t have to take this concept to the extreme to train your dog…and you don’t have to feel like a total failure if your dog occasionally wants to act like a dog. (54)
Since then I’ve thought a lot about control. How much do we need in our relationships with our dogs? What purpose does it serve?
Force-free dog training changed the methods that we use to teach our dogs, but it hasn’t always changed the assumptions that underlie what “good dog training” looks like. I touched on this a few weeks ago when I wrote about failure. We don’t want our dogs to fail, because we still believe that failure is something bad that needs to be punished. Since we know we don’t want to punish, we feel like we can’t allow failure.
Control is on that same continuum. Traditional dog training said that your dog should be “under control” 100% of the time. Obedience trials are expressly designed to test that level of control. Will your dog stay in a cued position even when you aren’t there? Will your dog work devotedly even when there are no tangible rewards?
Perhaps ironically, positive dog trainers are often more intense about control than trainers who are willing to use punishment, because we feel like we have fewer options. I’ve seen a good bit of paranoia about dogs “self-reinforcing.” There is a real fear that our reinforcements won’t be reinforcing enough to get the behavior that we want, unless we keep the poor dog in some kind of sensory deprivation the rest of the time.
Obviously, an “out of control” dog is a problem. Dogs have sharp teeth, strong muscles, and poor judgment. Dogs need to be kept safe, from themselves and from the world, and people need to be kept safe from dogs. Also true, a dog with unlimited access to reinforcement isn’t going to make a great training partner. Why work for something you can get for free?
There is, however, a vast amount of grey area between no control and too much. Most importantly, trying to control your dog all the time is filling your world with NO, and that’s exactly what positive dog training is trying to change. Our dogs will be happy to work with us without Stockholm Syndrome. Let yourself off the hook. Sometimes it’s okay for your dog be a dog.