I don’t see any hands.
I don’t see my own hand either. (More confessions down the page.)
If you have really and truly never shouted at your dog - in frustration or annoyance, then I admire you! You are one in a million. You can go to the top of the class and give out the bones - while I continue with the other 999,999 people.
Now I’m not talking about fury or abuse. That would be inexcusable.
I’m talking about the daily niggles that cause us to shout at or nag - even those we love most in the world. As soon as we’ve done it we wish we hadn’t. Because, apart from damaging our relationship, it really doesn’t work to get us what we want.
It doesn’t work for family members or work colleagues, with our sophisticated human brains, reasoning power, and social skills.
So there’s little hope of it working for your dog!
Dogs are simple souls
They do what works. They aim to please - but it’s often very hard for them to know how to please. We say one thing when we mean another; we call them, ask them to sit, tell them to go away, to lie down, to vanish - what do we want?
You have to look at the bigger picture in order to convey clearly what it is you’d like your dog to do.
For example: You call your dog. He comes bounding over to you with enthusiasm, ready to jump up to give you an extra special slurpy kiss. You say “Sit”. “Sit. SIT. SIT!!”
One of two things will happen here:
- You are clearly responding to his bouncing with excitement, so he bounces some more. Now you’ve taught him to jump all over you. Out of frustration you begin to sound crosser.
- He’s done a smashing recall and instead of appreciating that and congratulating him for his speed and enthusiasm, you are nagging him now about something he doesn’t understand. He mooches off feeling deflated. What’s going to happen next time you call him? Hmm, not so speedy or enthusiastic, I think.
So separate out in your mind what your dog is doing when, so that you can respond to the individual actions rather than the whole thing at once. If you call your dog, you reward him for coming to you. That’s all. Fancy stuff, like sits, can all be added later, when you’ve got the recall down. Allow the little doggy brain to focus on one thing at a time, get it right, and enjoy a reward.
When you learn ballet you don’t launch into a dance straight away. You learn to stand correctly, to point your toes, to hold your head right. (I’m making this up. I’ve no idea how you learn ballet. But I do know that you start with component parts and gradually fit them together.)
If you can pick out the little things your dog does which you like and respond to those, he will do those things again and again - because it works.
Yes - dogs can learn to do extraordinarily complex tasks, like opening the washing machine, pulling out the washing and putting it in the laundry basket, for example. But this takes time to teach, and has to be broken down into little stages, each of which is taught separately. When all the parts are mastered, the whole sequence can be put together. On a technical note, this is often taught backwards. The dog first learns to put washing in a basket, then they learn to pull it out of the machine to put it in the basket, and at the end they’re shown how to open the door (stage 3) to get the washing out (stage 2) and put it in the basket (stage 1).
So if you want your dog to perform a complex behaviour, like coming when you call and sitting before you, then you must teach the recall on its own, and the sit on its own. Only when they are both 98% reliable do you join them together. If the recall is rocky, then you’ll never get to the sit. And if the sit is wobbly, you’ll only spoil the recall by focussing on the wrong thing.
If we can keep our part of the bargain, and ensure that we teach what we want our dog to do, and not expect him to learn it by witchcraft or thought transference, life will become easy and frictionless.
Why did you shout at me?
Now recollect the last time you shouted at your dog. You can put up your hand now - no-one’s looking.
- Was it because he had dug up the flowerbed? (Who left him unattended in the garden?)
- Was it because you were in a hurry, the phone was ringing, the saucepan was boiling over? (And that’s his fault?)
- Was it because he jumped up on a visitor and you felt social pressure to have him behave nicely? (Have you taught him how you’d like him to greet visitors?)
- Or was it because he did something infuriatingly bad which you thought he could be trusted not to do? (He’s a dog.)
No, my dogs aren’t perfect either.
And I’m certainly not.
But I know that whenever I catch myself losing patience with my dog it’s my problem, not his.
Maybe it’s because I’m tired and rushed - that means it’s the perfect time to have a game in the garden with the dogs. That’ll relax me, please them, and get things back in proportion.
“There are no pockets in shrouds,” my grandmother would recite serenely, as she nodded slowly and sucked her teeth. And there are no prizes in heaven (where all our dogs are waiting for us) for having a beautifully clean house and a snapped-at pooch; or a flourishing business and a dejected dog.
What’s more, getting short with my dogs is a sure sign that my teaching has flagged and they have been left without guidance. So I need to up my game and re-teach with crystal clarity the things that are sure to please me. (These things may be incomprehensible to your dog, by the way, but they’ll do them - for you.)
Shouting at a dog is not only unfair, it damages the trust your dog has in you. You have suddenly become unreliable.
Dogs (and children!) need to know that you have feelings too and they can only push you so far. But shifting the blame onto them is never the answer.
And for all those things which your dog does which frustrate you beyond measure, have a look at the many “recipes” for changing them to things that you’d like him to do, with our free 8-part email course - all force-free, of course. Jumping up, Barking, Digging, Chewing, Nipping - they’re all there!