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Learn from experience changing your dog's behavior PDF Print E-mail

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 4/24/11
By: Gail T. Fisher


As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.” Learning from our mistakes is often difficult. It seems even harder when the mistake is related to the family dog. Could it be that we have a scapegoat – or is it a scapedog? When we punish a dog for bad behavior and the dog repeats the same behavior it seems that the dog learned nothing from our punishment. It cannot possibly be that the punishment was wrong or ill timed. It can’t be our fault that the dog didn’t learn. Clearly, it’s the dog. He must be stupid. Is he? While not every dog is a quick learner, responsibility for the dog’s failure to learn lies firmly with the human.

Inappropriate punishment doesn’t cure a dog’s bad behavior any more than the wrong medicine can cure an illness. Punishment rarely works. Most of the time it is poorly timed and poorly selected, yet humans repeat the same futile, ineffective strategy over and over, while blaming the dog for failure to learn.

A friend adopted a wonderful dog that was responsive and well behaved both on and off leash. When my friend was walking Domino at the end of a quiet, dead end street, he let him off leash to work on his training. When Domino stepped off the sidewalk into the street, my friend called him to come, said “No!” and put him back on leash. The next night, the same thing happened. And the next. When this obviously smart dog was still venturing off the sidewalk, and was becoming more reluctant to come when called, my friend asked for my help.

What was the problem? Was Domino really not as smart as we thought or could it be that the punishment – a verbal reprimand followed by being put back on leash – wasn’t getting the point across? From Domino’s perspective, there was no punishment for stepping into the street. The reprimand was timed with Domino’s getting out of the street – for coming when called. Time after time, he got reprimanded for going to his owner. No wonder he started being reluctant. He knew he’d get yelled at.

Last Christmas another friend asked how to get her dog to stop eating pine needles off the Christmas tree. “You’d think he’d learn. I bring him over to the tree and yell at him.” Time and time again, she’d repeat this punishment, and the “stupid” dog never learned. Of course not. From this dog’s perspective, he was getting yelled at for getting pulled over to the tree. This, too, has nothing to do with eating pine needles.

A dog’s failure to learn from our reprimands is most often related to our own poor timing. Dogs learn from the consequences of their behavior – the behavior of this moment. Not one minute ago, but right now, this instant.

Many dog owners find it helpful to keep a journal of the dog’s behaviors. When the dog does something wrong, when you discipline your dog for an undesirable behavior, write down the relevant details – the behavior; what you did; what led up to it; who was present; what time of day was it – and anything else you can think of. Often you’ll see a pattern emerging, which can be helpful in solving the problem.

“To err is human.” We all make mistakes. And we all have the wonderful ability to learn from them. Failing to do so dooms us to repeat the same mistakes with the same results. Insanity. So who is at fault?

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2011. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.

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