Can't dogs "just behave"? From policing to coaching
Updated: Aug 16
Do you find yourself policing your dog’s behavior, always keeping an eye out for impending misdeeds? Are you always prepared to react with “no”, or lay down the law about what your dog should be doing ("No jumping!" or "No bark!").
This is a stressful way to live with a dog - and for a dog to live with humans. The policeman dynamic creates “cue-dependent” dogs who require constant supervision, commands, and corrections to behave appropriately. They may not even have been taught upfront exactly what the rules are for behavior in a given scenario, so attempt to do what their first impulse tells them. For many dogs it's: Open door - run outside! Food on counter - help yourself! The owner is peripheral in this calculation, entering in only later as a policeman to punish wrong choices or command correct ones. And those punishments and corrections may not be much help at all. After all, if all you say is "no jumping allowed", what should your dog work out to try next (and how likely is it to be better than their first attempt)? Trying to get a dog to do exactly what you want through process of elimination with "no!" and corrections is not very efficient or fun, let alone likely to be successful.
This dynamic is a disservice to the human and dog: often the human is put in the frustrating position of insisting an excited, distracted dog do a behavior they have not practiced enough to be realistic in challenging circumstances (example: “No jumping! Get down!” even though a favorite human is eagerly approaching to greet the dog). Although the dog is not yet capable of performing the requested behavior because they have not yet polished their skills enough, they are often subsequently punished for this failure they could not control. Especially since "no" and leash pops are not terribly instructive for an animal who clearly does not know what to do (after all, their first instinct hasn't worked out very well), they do not have much hope of avoiding a scolding. Some dogs even learn that the best way to get what they want (or need) is to simply try when their owners aren't paying attention. This is true of puppies that sneak away to potty in a concealed location, and also of dogs that only bark when their owner is on the phone, or go into the trash when left home alone.
It would be so much easier if dogs could “just behave”! Through training, it is possible to evolve from a dynamic of policing to one in which your dog knows to perform the behaviors you want in a given scenario. You are their coach who teaches them exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, then simply praises and rewards when it's done. This is a nice way to live with a human - or for a human to live with a dog. And it's not really that hard, you just need to learn to be a proactive coach rather than reactive policeman. All you have to do is:
(1) PREVENT other bad behaviors
(2) TRAIN & PROOF the behavior you want
(3) NOTICE & REINFORCE that good behavior so your dog keeps it up
Every time a dog performs a behavior, they are in a sense practicing it – especially if that behavior is fun for them to do! At the risk of oversimplification, every time a dog is permitted to put their feet up on the counter, that synapse in the brain “lights up” and the neural pathway becomes stronger. The dog truly is rehearsing the behavior for future performance, and is that much more likely to perform it over less-practiced alternatives. Even if we say “no!”, we are not negating the bit of reinforcement that already occurred just because the behavior was rehearsed. In addition, if the dog jumps up AND as a consequence gets closer to some food – or worse, eats some – this behavior has now been much more strongly reinforced. And so the time-honored cycle begins: the dog will develop a habit of entering the kitchen and checking out the counter, we will always be shouting “no”, and either nothing will ever change, or some owners may escalate to more aversive punishment methods to the detriment of their relationship with their dog.
Don’t let “bad” behaviors reinforce themselves into bad habits! Use management techniques to prevent behaviors from being rehearsed that you do not want or plan to replace with trained behaviors later. (Baby gate in front of the kitchen, anyone?)
TRAIN & PROOF
In the scenarios you’re currently saying “no”, ask yourself: what would you like your dog to do instead? Coach your dog to do just that in training sessions, gradually increasing the level of distraction or challenge until your dog can easily perform the behavior even under “real life” conditions - where it’s often most difficult. You are a coach who trains them exactly how to give the best performance, and to get all the rewards, freedom, and praise that come with it.
NOTICE & REINFORCE
If policing has one advantage, it’s that we’re always keeping an eye out to detect and react instantly to quash bad behavior. Be proactive – set your dog up for success by preparing him with training and proofing, and then be just as vigilant to immediately notice and reinforce good behavior.
Humans are good at immediately responding as soon as we see a dog do something we do not want. You notice with horror the instant your dog puts his feet up on the counter and licks the Thanksgiving turkey. But that same dog could have been standing or sitting politely near the counter for the previous 10 minutes, and no one says a thing to him until he puts his feet up on it. When he does, it's an assault of "NO! Bad! Sit!" So while humans are naturally good policemen, it takes most of us a bit more effort to coach. Be just as alert to your dog's good behavior, always ready to reinforce good choices in real life so that your dog has more reason to believe that doing what you want is the most rewarding option out there for him. Being good has to pay off more than being sneaky, impulsive, or opportunistic. The better you are at preventing alternative bad behaviors while you're training (and in the first months of life when rearing a puppy), the more likely it will become that the behaviors you want are the only options that occur to your dog - after all, they're all that's been rehearsed and reinforced.
By preventing undesirable behavior through management, and only reinforcing desired behaviors, we can achieve a better dynamic where our dogs actively seek to offer up the behaviors we’ve trained to secure the rewards they want. You'll find that often your dog really can "just behave". Instead of being the policeman in your dog’s life, be the coach who is always saying “yes”: set them up for success and notice, reward, and celebrate their good behavior with them.