By Tracie Korol
People tolerate behavior in their dogs they would never tolerate in fellow human beings. You would never allow your nephew to punch visitors in the crotch to say hello, or slobber on your girlfriend because he’s happy to see her. Dog owners make excuses like, “oh, he’s just being friendly” when the dog leaps up and rakes his nails across the neighbor’s bare legs or “she must have done something to upset him” after the dog rips a hole in the mail carrier’s sleeve. My favorite excuse for bad dog manners is “he was abused before we got him.”
When an owner has been unsuccessful in creating clear rules and expectations for his dog and then said dog couples that with her instinctual mantra, “what’s in it for me?”, the end result is some form of chaos. For instance, Merlin, a large exuberant herding cross, does not come when he is called, ever. Why? Because there’s nothing in it for him. However, he has learned that if he plays chicken in the front yard long enough, his exasperated owner will open the car door, cheer him in and then take him for a ride around the neighborhood. Score! There’s something in it for him now. Merlin loves car rides. And because Merlin is a clever pet, he added door crashing to the activity. (You know, that unattractive behavior when you crack open the door and the dog muscles you out of the way and speeds out in a blur.) Now he gets his car ride on demand. What a brilliant manipulator!
June bites at her owner because it elicits a huge response, guaranteed. Biting usually does. June doesn’t get enough attention in her busy household so she has learned exactly what behavior is going to get her the biggest reward. (Dogs don’t differentiate positive from negative; attention is attention.) In both instances the manipulator is in charge. In both instances there is a lack of leadership.
A dog’s mental health depends on leadership. People will often mislabel this as dominance, but that is a simplification borne of watching too many dog-training TV shows. When living in social groups, canids will establish leadership hierarchies that dictate access to resources such as food, resting places, favored possessions, territory and mates. The social relationship is naturally extended to the human members of their household. These leadership behaviors often occur without aggression and instead, come to be about control of the outcome. In domestic canid groupings, overt aggression is rare and deference common. Owners often inadvertently reinforce a leadership outcome for the dog by deferring to the dog’s demands. Plus, some owners are pure patsies.
This sets the dog up as the one in charge, and each interaction that ends with deference to the dog reinforces that behavior. Each time Merlin hops into the car and happily rides shotgun around the block, his bad manners of not coming when called are reinforced. The high point of Merlin’s day is the reward of watching his owner shrieking, waving her arms around, chasing him around the yard and then, taking him for a ride. It sounds like great dog fun.
Other behavior occurs because it can. In other words, the owners do not prevent the dog from engaging in a certain behavior and that in itself can be reinforcing. For instance, counter-cruisers (usually the tall guys) will occasionally score a huge reward that only encourages them to keep cruising. How many times have you heard the story of the rump roast taken out to thaw that was sucked down in seconds by the family lab? It happened at my house. Once.
The solution to curbing a manipulator’s creativity and enthusiasm is a three-step process. First, your dog gets a new mantra — “nothing in life is free”. The goal is for the dog to “earn” everything he desires by deferring to the owner. Deference is accomplished when the dog follows the request to do, whatever — sit, down, come, get the ball, be a dog and stay on the floor. The catch is that he has to do what you ask when you ask it, not before and not 20 minutes later. It takes a little discipline on our part to remain consistent and not give in to those big, sweet eyes, but the reward is that our pets are not a constant trial.
Then, he learns that you have opposable thumbs and are in control of his environment. Any attention he receives is at your grace. You give him attention on your initiative; you only give attention and reward his fine behavior when he is calm and quiet and acquiescent. And finally, he learns that you are center of his universe. You call the shots. He learns to focus on you and wait for instruction.