Because I Said So

On occasion – actually fairly often – I receive an email inquire from someone who is having a dog behavior issue.

Today, I received this question, “We recently learned that Maggie resource guards her food around other dogs. We plan to get a new puppy.  We want to train Maggie to not snarl and snap. What can we do for this?”

Whether a dog is barking out the window, jumping up on people, climbing on off-limits furniture, or any other unwanted behavior (including resource guarding of food, toys or even people), there’s one thing that a dog needs to understand.  It is the concept of “don’t do that” and even more importantly is the second half of that sentence, “…because I said so!” 

If you watch a socially balanced group of dogs interacting, you will find that they don’t present a vast array of unique “don’t do that!” interventions for various offenses.  It’s pretty clear and simple.  If the higher ranking dogs in the pack do not accept or tolerate a pup’s behavior, there’s a warning and then a correction if the warning is not heeded.  Their actions are the same whether the puppy is about to steal a toy, climb on the older dog’s back or even bark at the cat!  It all distills down to a simple message:  “Don’t do that….or else!”  

The warning (“don’t do that!”) is provided with visual and auditory cues like a curled lip or low, almost inaudible growl.  Warnings are not paired with frantic, angry or disappointed energy.  They are just information.  That’s tough for many humans to emulate because we tend to want to apply shame, disgust or anger when we correct others.

If the wayward dog doesn’t change her behavior, then the higher ranking dog follows up with a correction.  Like the warning, the correction is not paired with frantic, angry or disappointed energy.  It’s just delivered quickly and effectively without reckless emotions.  Most often, a correction is physical; a quick, in-and-our jab or snap at the neck or face area.  The intention is to provide an experience which is unpleasant enough to be effective and long lasting while not being so over-the-top that the recipient is psychologically scarred or physically damaged.

In order for the pup to comprehend the “or else” part of the communication, the warning must be followed by the correction.  Warnings alone are likely to become irrelevant, background gibberish. Without the correction, education doesn’t happen.  The dog continues the unacceptable behavior.  The human becomes irritated and the dog learns to ignore his owner.

If the correction is effective, the pup learns to heed the warning to avoid the consequence.  Then, when the pup begins to act out, the dog’s owner can present the warning and the pup ceases the unacceptable behavior on that verbal communication, alone. The need to deliver a correction only occurs when the warning is not respected. 

If the initial attempt at correcting the pup fails and falls below the threshold necessary to be perceived as a true punishment, then the pup may continue to offend. 

Dogs are all different.  A soft natured dog may consider a clap of the hands not only as an interruption, but as a correction.  A tougher dog, especially one that has little reverence for his owner’s position of authority, may need a fairly stiff physical correction.  The level of correction required to shut down a dog’s behavior is highly related to how much motivation the dog has to continue the behavior.  It is important to evaluate these variables and makes changes as necessary.  The level of a correction needs to trump the motivational units for a specific offense.  A calm, relaxed and still proactive dog trainer will be highly successful.

The most important elements of the, “don’t do that, because I said so!” narrative are the last four words.   A dog that has little or no respect for his owner doesn’t honor the idea of “because I said so!”  That is because the dog doesn’t actually care about the person.   A dog that believes he is the higher ranking one in a relationship, is not motivated to adhere to his owner’s standards. Worse, he expects his owner to obey his demands.

That is why, when a client calls with a very specific behavioral issues, I often find myself saying, “we can’t train a dog with an ala carte strategy.”   We can’t simply address the idea that a dog is growling at another dog near the food bowl, if the same dog won’t obey his owner in other areas of their life together.  And yet, if the dog does obey her owner (doesn’t bark out the windows, refrains from jumping up on people, willingly gets off the furniture when instructed) she can be corrected for growling around a food bowl and it will stop the unwanted behavior.  She just hasn’t been taught it’s unacceptable – but, she is teachable and willing to comply to the new rule. 

If your dog is already compliant in other areas of your relationship, then the answer to the question, “how do we address the fact that Maggie grows at other dogs around her food bowl,” is simple.  Employ the strategy that you have used to correct Maggie when she was, say, jumping up on you when she begins to growl at her food bowl.

On the contrary, if your dog has never learned how to listen for warnings and cease an unwanted behavior to avoid getting the ultimate correction, it hasn’t assimilated the most basic relationship rules of cohabitating with humans.  It seems unreasonable to initiate the warning = correction lesson at the food bowl.  It is more fair to begin the lesson with something far less motivating than food, like going across the threshold of a specific room, or barking at leaves blowing outside the window.  Food is a huge motivator.   After all, it’s impossible to survive without it.   To start training a dog to respect you in that situation is not prudent.

A dog that has been taught to stop doing a behavior when he hears his owner’s warning is prepped to learn that the rules apply around food, too.  If a dog understands “stop doing that,” the same process can be used if she begins to show any signs of guarding her food bowl.  Make certain that she will move off the bowl when another dog approaches, because you said so.  Approach the problem like any other that you have conquered when you taught Maggie that she isn’t allowed in the room with the new, white carpet, or she should not jump up on the counters. 

It isn’t uncommon for a dog owner to report to me that she has been successful teaching her dog that it cannot eat the food under the baby’s chair, or that the puppy cannot go upstairs, or she can tell the dog it’s not allowed on the bed, but she is struggling with communicating some other standard or boundary to the dog.  But, from the dog’s perspective, it’s all the same. What is different is whether the person believes she can control the dog in that situation, and whether she is serious about fixing it.

We humans might categorize various behavioral issues quite differently, yet to a dog, it’s all about what is tolerated and what isn’t.  However, that thought will never cross the mind of a dog that doesn’t recognize his owner’s rank over him.  If a dog is running the house in his head, he’s running the house physically, too.  If he understands who the boss is, then it’s just a matter of following the steps of canine socialization that I write about in 10 Most Common Mistakes That Dog Owners Make – And How To Resolve Them:

  1. Define your standards.
  2. Pay Attention.
  3. Give a warning when the dog begins to break the standard.
  4. Correct if the dog doesn’t heed the warning.
  5. Repeat.

This strategy works great with humans, and in fact it is the basis of human social order.

  1. Define standards = write laws (speed limit will be 55 MPH)
  2. Pay attention = law enforcement activities (Police officer observing motorist traffic activity)
  3. Give a warning = Posting the speed limit on signs.
  4. Correct if the warning isn’t heeded = write a ticket.

It’s simple stuff, really, that we practice all the time.  We just need to add our dog’s behavior into that which for we set and enforce standards.

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