A Dog's Eye View: Learning the consequences

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Sandra Kruczek

“He knows better; he’s just being stubborn!”

If I had a dime for every time I have heard this, well, you know the rest. Think about the times you have called your dog to come and he hesitates. He might stand still and look at you, and you think he is being stubborn. My question is, “How did you teach your dog to do that?”

Dogs are so good at reading our body language and are quick to learn the consequences of their actions. It’s how they survive. Labels such as “stubborn” can get in the way of understanding the real problem. Dogs know what works for them from past experience.

We expect a lot of abstract thinking from our dogs. That’s not to say they are not intelligent — they are. They are constantly amazing us with their ability to sort out situations and learn new things.

Here’s a common scenario: You leave your dog loose in your house and go to work. When you come home, you find that he has chewed your expensive throw pillow. You are weary from your day, and this just puts the cap on it. You call your dog to you and take your frustration out on him. You scold him and perhaps abruptly put him outside in anger. What do you think your dog learned from this scenario?

We know the length of time between an action and the understanding of the consequence is a matter of seconds for dogs. What you probably taught him is that when you walk through the door, he had better be wary. You might explode and come after him. The next time you come home and call him to come to you, he might stand back and look at you. He might be sizing you up to see what the consequence is going to be this time.

Think about this scenario: Your dog is playing with another dog at the park. You haven’t been there very long when you look at your watch and realize you might be late for an appointment. You call your dog to come to you, but he is having a great time. He has been cooped up all day and needs this playtime. You are getting upset and anxious because you have to get going, and he is not responding in the same way he has in the past when you’ve had more time. You finally get his attention. He comes toward you, and you grab his collar, snap on the leash and drag him off to the car in a huff. He will remember the consequence of coming toward you the next time you call him at the park.

Both of these scenarios might help us understand something about ourselves and how dogs learn. In the future, let’s strive to think more carefully before we put a label on our wonderful companions.

Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience. She is a teacher with Total Teamwork Training.

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