Today I want to talk about the necessity of setting your dog up for success.
Over the years many new dog owners have come to me in frustration with similar complaints…
“My dog won’t listen!”
“My dog is just dumb!”
“My dog can’t do that!”
Whatever the complaint, the theme is always the same: “my dog can’t/won’t”.
Most of the time all it takes for these owners to understand where things are going wrong is a little reframing.
When a dog “can’t/won’t”, 99% of the time it’s because they haven’t been given a clear enough understanding of what it is they are being asked to do. All dogs “can/will” do just about anything, but only when they understand what they are being asked.
So…how do you make your dog understand what you are asking them to do?
Let’s Take a Quick Trip…
Imagine that you have been transported to an alien planet. You disembark your spaceship and are greeted by an extraterrestrial being. This being looks nothing like you and although they vocalize, the sounds that they make are completely foreign to you. The creature extends his hand and referencing the behavior of your own species, you extend your hand and shake hands.
You shook his hand because this is what the framework of your culture told you to do. You guessed based on your own experiences that this was what was being asked of you.
In this instance, you guessed right.
The creature shakes your hand and then begins to speak.
You know he is addressing you and you know that you are expected to understand what he is saying…but you don’t. There is no similarity in your languages at all and the creature’s facial expressions aren’t like your own because their facial structure isn’t like your own.
The creature stops speaking and looks at you expectantly.
What do you do now?
Logic tells you to search your mental reference points for a similar situation, similar visual cues, similar expressions, or similar vocal patterns. And, while you don’t have an identical reference point, you may be able to find something that seems to fit the current situation…or you may not.
The bottom line is – you do the best with what you know.
Giving Your Dog the Tools That They Need to Succeed
The situation above is exactly how your dog feels when you give them commands that they don’t know or have not yet mastered.
In response to these commands, your dog does just as you did when you met the creature above – they utilize the framework they have to interpret the situation.
If their framework is lacking, they do the best they can with what they have and if that framework is non-existent, they may not do anything at all.
Your job, as your dog’s guardian, parent, and teacher, is to provide the necessary framework for them to reference before asking them to reference it.
But how do you do that if you both speak different languages?
Think back to the extraterrestrial in the example above…how would you communicate with this being?
Turning the Tables
Now, imagine the scenario with the extraterrestrial, only this time you are the extraterrestrial being and your dog is you.
You have asked your dog to “sit”. It’s a command that they haven’t heard before and your expression and body language give them no clues as to what it is you want them to do. So, your dog looks at you, confused.
You are asking your dog to reference a framework that does not yet exist and he has no similar framework to reference.
Now your job is to build that framework and the first thing you need to do is to find a language that your dog understands to do so.
You don’t speak “dog”, however, you do know that most species respond to food motivation.
So, you start with a treat that piques your dog’s interest. Using that treat, you give the “sit” command again while using the treat to manipulate your dog into position. Your dog then sits and you reward that sit with a treat. You have begun building your framework.
By repeating the command and manipulation series you reinforce the framework that you set down. Eventually, that framework becomes etched into your dog’s memory bank – the word sit means I get rewarded with a treat IF I perform this action. The more repetition, the stronger your dog’s framework is going to be.
So now, when you tell your dog to “sit” they can reference that framework and know exactly what they are expected to do.
You have given your dog the tools that they need to succeed by using a mode of communication that they understand to interpret a mode of communication that they did not understand.
So, whose fault is it if your dog lacks the necessary framework to perform a task that is asked of them?
I’m sorry to say it, but the blame lies squarely on your shoulders.