Good Boy, Gus

Gus is an inquisitive dog who likes to explore his environment and make games for himself when you’re not available to play with him. Sometimes Gus makes really good choices and other times . . . not so much. So as we’re training Gus, the question is: is it necessary to actively teach him what behaviors are wrong or can we simply focus on teaching him what behaviors we prefer him to do?

Let’s look a little closer at how we would go about teaching Gus which behaviors are wrong and compare that to how we teach Gus which behaviors are best. In order to teach Gus that a behavior is wrong or unacceptable, we first need him to *do* the bad behavior so that we can tell him ‘No. Don’t do that.’ In other words, we must set Gus up to fail so that we can punish him. On the flip side, teaching Gus what behaviors are best involves showing and/or luring him to do the desired behavior and then we reward him for doing the right behavior. In other words, we set Gus up for success and then tell him ‘Yes! Please do that some more!’ We can also capture Gus making the right choices on his own and acknowledging it with praise, affection, attention, play, food or any other interaction that Gus finds rewarding.

There’s another layer to this issue as well. In any given situation, there is usually only one (maybe two) behaviors that we humans will deem acceptable and appropriate, and there are potentially hundreds of behaviors that we would deem unacceptable or inappropriate. If we are attempting to teach Gus what behaviors are wrong, then we need to allow him to go through all of the behavior options available in each situation and punish each and every incorrect/ unacceptable behavior. This runs the risk of creating extreme frustration and even defensive aggression for Gus, or possibly causing Gus to simply stop offering behaviors altogether out of fear of being punished yet again. On the other hand, if we just teach Gus from the beginning what the right behavior is in each situation by showing/luring him to do the correct behavior and then rewarding him for doing it, we significantly increase the likelihood that he’ll do that behavior again the next time he’s in a similar situation.

In short, it’s far easier, faster and creates much more long lasting results to simply teach Gus from the get-go what behaviors we *want* him to do, rather than waiting for him to cycle through every possible wrong behavior and punish each, while we wait in the hopes that he stumbles onto the correct behavior. Whenever you’re deciding on a training plan for a dog, you must ask yourself what kind of relationship you’d like to have with that dog. Do you want a relationship built on trust, cooperation and joy of working together? Or would you prefer a relationship built on compliance out of fear of consequences? If you would prefer the former, then your best option is to show Gus from the beginning which behaviors you like best and reward him consistently for choosing those behaviors. And we can help Gus make the right choices by setting up his environment to make bad choices unavailable or difficult to do and good choices easy and readily available – for example if Gus is chewing on inappropriate things: prevent access to furniture and wires/cables that Gus might chew on while providing a variety of appropriate chew options such as Nylabones, antlers, Wubba toys and others with which your Gus enjoys engaging.  Now go enjoy telling your Gus “Yes! Please do that some more!!!”

About Jody

I have a masters degree in Animals and Public Policy with a minor in Animal Behavior. I also have 3 years of graduate education in animal learning and behavior through different graduate programs. For more than 9 years I have offered professional obedience training and behavior modification to clients in the L.A. area (and one year in MA while earning my masters degree). I have been answering behavior questions for people around the world since 2009 on the volunteer website All Experts. I educate pet parents in obedience, house manners and behavior modification for undesirable behavior issues. I specialize in timid/fearful dogs, resource guarding and leash reactive dogs.
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