Control Issues

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.

16 thoughts on “Control Issues

  1. Those ears! I’m becoming obsessed with them! I swear, sometimes when I read your posts, I am reading about my own dog-life experiences. That passage from “Control Unleashed” really speaks to me, I think I’ll have to track down a copy. Thanks for the rec!


    1. Control Unleashed has some of the most practical dog advice for difficult dogs that I’ve ever read. Just be warned: think of it like a garage sale. There’s a really awesome pair of roller skates in there, but one of them is on top of a work bench, and the other one is underneath a kayak. “Disorganized” is putting it very mildly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I hope you won’t mind my saying so but as a control freak myself, I think having a dog in our lives is the best thing that can happen to us.


  3. I definitely don’t do enough training but I can say that I find value in at least not controlling what dogs do all of the time. Gretel is anxious too but not like Silas so maybe it is easy for me to say but I love to let them concentrate 100% on the smells of the trail when we go out hiking.


    1. I feel so bad for dogs whose owners snatch them along without letting them sniff. It’s like us having to go out with blinders on, so that we could only look straight ahead. Where is the fun in that?


    1. I do think that to a point you do have to be more interesting than the environment. But, I think there’s more to that than putting on a hat made of bacon and dancing the limbo. For one thing, the more you work with a dog in a variety of environments, the more the dog will find the work itself to be a good use of his time. Plus, you will build up a reward history with behaviors.

      I think it’s also important to keep in mind that some environments are just too overwhelming for a dog. It’s not the dog “blowing you off” because you’re “boring.” I find that the “always be more interesting than the environment” line of thought can suppress that distinction, and it’s important.


  4. Oh, Control Unleashed. I read the “puppy program” version because I heard that it was less of an organizational disaster. It made plenty of sense at the time, I suppose, and I use its ideas every day, but I’ll never be able to find them again and confirm that I am doing things correctly because they are lost in the vast morass of her indexless, associative prose.

    That said, I love that she “de-emotionalizes” attention–it’s just a behavior, and its absence is not an irrevocable condemnation of your relationship with your dog. Such a relief! And such a relief to let my dog be a dog, and to just let her burn off steam prancing around at squirrels in our yard. Now if only she would not insist that I accompany her and watch every time (my fault for handing out cookies and tug sessions for checking in, perhaps. It’s a fine problem to have, except that we are at a saturation point with mosquitos).

    Also, maybe you would have hated us in class. But my dog stares at me there because sometimes she gets jackpots for being calm and attentive there, and she has not generalized that behavior to our walks. 😛 She is not begging for instructions; she is simply quite sure that this is how she gets cookies (and she is not so overstimulated there that she does not wag at the thought of cookies). She’s right, of course.

    Nala is easy to live with (sometimes deceptively so!), so I don’t worry about this too much. But since she’s a stable, well-socialized dog, one of our goals is to have the skill-set necessary for us to trust her off-leash for hikes and such. Thus, I do fret some over how to convince her that I am cooler than deer. Are you sure that bacon hat won’t suffice?


    1. Dogs who have the natural desire to pay attention have a different set of issues–even before we were out of that first class I realized that the attentive staring gave me the willies. I know people with Border Collies who have to make sure and give at least some treats while the dog isn’t watching.

      Now that he’s older and more stable, Silas is capable of great attention, but I also know when to save my breath. He’s going to do a certain amount of environmental scanning when we’re outdoors; it’s just a fact. What that amount is varies. There are places where he’s capable of scanning for a few minutes then engaging; others not so much. He’s never going to default to being right with me all the time. It’s not in his largely-terrier personality, and his anxiety gets in the way, too.

      Everybody’s got problems.


      1. Yeah, Nala stares at me a lot. But she makes a variety of hilarious faces, so I don’t mind too much. In the house I definitely have done some “reinforce when you relax without staring,” and it has helped. Of course, other times, she lays down, puts her head down (as has been reinforced), and then stares plaintively at me the whole time I cook dinner. Melodramatic shepherd.

        Is there a dog in the world that isn’t at least somewhat interested in its environment? That was my major take away from McDevitt, and I’m grateful for it–it keeps my feelings from getting hurt when my oft-staring shepherd spends every walk huffing the whole world through her giant nose and scanning for interesting stuff. Anyway, I’m glad that Silas is shifting from paranoid scanning to something more pleasurable for both of you!


  5. I totally agree. Being off leash most of the time, Kaya & Norman are under a different type of control. Their favorite reward for recall or listening to me is just to be allowed free reign again over treats. They’re kind of like wind up toys, the come over to me and wait for me to say “go running!” Then they sprint off like 100 feet and sniff something ’til I catch up.

    Earlier on with Kaya, I did come home in tears a lot, wondering if my dog even gave a shit that I was with her. I wondered, do I have to do jumping jacks with a high pitched voice and a fist-full of bacon whenever I want her to listen to me? I’m glad I’ve chilled out a lot. I get anxiety thinking about the past!


    1. Ah, good old Premack. I’m not sure you have a more valuable reward than letting them run free again. Good stuff.

      As for anxiety about the past: it’s a good thing. It means that you’ve improved. The trick is to acknowledge that without wallowing.


      1. True! I don’t think I wallow. If anything, I find it funny. It’s exactly like when you think, someday I will find this funny but right now it really sucks. I’m glad it’s now someday:)


  6. Yes!!! It’s good for dogs to be dogs.

    I’m a major control freak in crowded settings. I insist Honey focus on me so I can keep her safe. But the rest of the time, I’m fine with letting her control me. She gets to choose the direction we walk. And as long as I don’t have to be somewhere else, she can choose the length of our walk as well.

    You’re right on the money that force-free training is often as focused on control as old, less humane methods. It’s good to questions this. I love the way you think.


    1. Thanks, Pamela. My brain goes in a lot of different directions; sometimes I can even channel it productively.

      And yes, crowds and such are what I had in mind about protecting the dog and the world from each other. I keep Silas on a 4 foot leash anywhere that I don’t have good visibility, for instance, because it’s possible he will react badly to any surprises.


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