Self fulfilling prophecy of control

Many pet parents fall into the trap of over-managing and over-controlling their dogs. I see this most typically in terms of using force in training (using physical punishments, or threats of punishment, or physical molding), a handler’s leash skills, and overly crating/tethering. As we all know, I am a big fan of using management techniques to set dogs up for success but I absolutely think some handlers go way too far with over managing their dogs. I’ve found that control is like a self fulfilling prophecy–the more control that is exerted on the dog, the more the handlers need that control. It’s not that the DOGS need that control, but because of the control previously put on the dog, more control is ‘needed’ by the handler.

Confused yet? Let me explain.

When dogs are really tightly controlled, they are never given opportunities to learn how to choose let alone learn how to make good choices. So if that control is ever removed, the dogs do not make good choices (because they don’t know how) which makes the handler believe that the control is needed. So, a dog who has been trained using lots of tight leashes (not even necessarily leash popping) or heavy leash control, often has much less compliance when the leash is either removed or the handler keeps the leash loose. Dogs do not know what to do with the ‘freedom’ of having choice because they’ve never had a choice previously. For dogs who have a long history of being crated as management often get themselves into trouble when they are not crated because they have not been taught otherwise. The guardians just see the trouble the dog causes out of the crate and believe that the dog NEEDS to be crated.

Management is absolutely important and critical in some instances, but the same can be said for teaching our dogs how to make good choices in life. If we do not teach our dogs to make good choices, how can we expect them to make good choices in critical moments? Yes we need to use management but we also must teach our dogs how to make good choices.

This does not mean we throw them in the deep-end and hope they can swim. It starts really small, we give them a choice that is not REALLY much of a choice–You can keep licking/biting/chewing my fist with treats in it and not get anything OR you can choose to stop the licking/biting/chewing and get what’s inside. We set them up so they are LIKELY to make the right choice–in a boring room, I’m betting Fido will make a choice to look at me. The more the dogs are set up to make good choices and are rewarded heavily for those choices, the more likely they are to continue to make good choices in increasingly difficult situations.

Valuing choice is truly one of the biggest benefits, I believe, to using clicker training, force free, and positive training. We allow and encourage dogs to make decisions because we have taught them how to make good choices in life. It’s a great feeling to trust my dogs to make good choices. If we see squirrels/rabbits/deer out on a hike, I trust Rio to make the choice to check in with me before being released to chase the critter or told to leave the critter alone. I trust that Shayne will make a good choices when we see dogs on leash.

Dogs who are “well trained” are not always dogs who will make good decisions. They may be good listeners and respond rapidly to cues, but that doesn’t mean they know how to make good choices. What that results in is a dog who requires a handler to always be “on top of them”–the handlers cannot trust the dog will make a good choice so the dog must always be either managed (leash, crate, shock collar) or being actively cued to do things at all times (must be told to go into a down-stay while people eat v.s. a dog who has learned to choose to lay on their bed during dinner).

The benefits of a dog who makes good choices in life is one of the main reasons I train like I do… I love not having to have dogs under my thumb at all times–YES I use and love management… but I also rely heavily on teaching good decision making as a foundation in my training.

When does your dog make good choices?

1 Comment
  1. Your posts always make me reflect on the holes in my own training. While I use a lot of shaping techniques and there are many times my dog does make the right choices, such as at the dog park, I still find myself directing or cueing her perhaps more than I should be at this point. She does lay on her mat while we eat but I do have to tell her to do so every time, otherwise she would probably choose to sit at our feet drooling. Part of this might be consistency as I don’t always direct her to her mat if I am eating alone, but I also wonder if I have ever really given her a chance to make the right choice. Something to think about for sure.

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