Imagine, if you will, an alternative world…
It’s Tuesday. You get in your car ready to drive to work. You live on a quiet road; no other traffic until you get to the main junction. So far, so good. You carefully creep up to the junction line – your heart starts to beat faster, senses on high alert.
“Which way will the traffic be coming from today?” you wonder to yourself. You wait and watch: “Ah! Today is a ‘right side of the road day!’ Relieved at having solved that mystery, you pull into the flow of traffic and carefully proceed on your journey.
Eventually you make it to work in one piece. Your nerves are a bit frazzled after second guessing the ‘rules of engagement’ at a number of tricky junctions, but other than that, you’re ok.
Other end of the day: you’re ready to drive home. Once again, you carefully watch to see which side of the road is being used to go in your ‘home’ direction. You check which way people give way on the roundabouts. Brilliant! The rules are the same as they were in the morning. That’s not a given – sometimes they’ve shifted during the intervening hours. You breathe a sigh of relief when you get home.
So why did I give you that alternate universe?
I know, I know. The above paragraphs describe a totally ludicrous world that obviously wouldn’t work. The road rules can’t just swap and change randomly – there would be carnage. Drivers would be having nervous breakdowns every 5 minutes due to the impossible stress of trying to work out what was required to stay safe.
But for many dogs, this is exactly the world they live in. Think about it, the above scenario gave you no understandable reason WHY the rules were changing; no way to predict that they were changing (or had changed).
A dog’s world is often similar. A dog doesn’t know why the ‘rules’ are what they are – or why they might change. Changes seem random, and ‘random’ is often scary. If a dog lives in a world where the ‘rules’ shift and flip, it’s incredibly hard for them to know how anything they do is going to turn out! This can lead to all sorts of behavioural fallout.
Consistency = predictability = safety
The best a dog can do is memorise the ‘rules’ and then abide by them. If your dog can do that, then there’s no stress and your dog can relax and feel safe. You’ve provided a stable environment which is predictable; consequently, he knows how to navigate through it successfully.
However, if the world doesn’t have consistent ‘rules’ and outcomes, a dog has two choices:
Become totally neurotic and worry about doing just about anything (and avoid all potentially negative outcomes). These dogs often present as being very ‘well behaved’ and spend a lot of time doing…nothing. Alternatively, they have stress and displacement behaviours that cause both themselves and their people all sorts of heartache.
Disregard the ‘rules’ completely and just do ‘whatever’ because for at least some of the time the outcome will be great! (Maximise reward opportunities by disregarding all negative outcomes and focusing on the ‘wins’.) Very few dogs will opt for this and stay with their family long.
Consistency is the key to happiness
Neither of these behavioural strategies is going to lead to happiness for dog or person long term. In the first case the dog will either display aberrant behaviours or just give up doing much of anything at all. In the second, the dog’s family is often frazzled beyond tolerance and the dog is either surrendered or euthanised.
For any Being to feel safe, it MUST be able to predict the outcome of its actions most of the time. And this is where consistency with ‘rules of conduct’ becomes really important.
Your dog needs to know from day to day which behaviours will be rewarded and which won’t result in a reinforcing outcome. This is the function of manners training: teaching your pup which behaviour he can use to get his needs met, every time.
Time for examples:
Here are some of the common ways people are inconsistent, and what to do instead:
Dogs will solicit and ‘ask’ for interaction and attention in many different ways. From barking, jumping, being ‘naughty’ and stealing things, to pawing, nudging, resting heads in laps, presenting toys, and sitting and staring at you. Which of those do you like? Choose a couple and ALWAYS respond positively to them. Ignore and/or prevent the other options.
In our house Felix is the ‘needy’ one – he has a strong desire for social interaction with people – he needs to feel loved! He now understands that he can get my positive attention at any time by sitting politely or by resting his head on my leg or in my hand. Because he knows he can get that reassurance, he actually needs it less!
Getting on furniture
This is a biggie! You can’t blame your dog for not understanding that sometimes couch cuddles are fine and he can freely jump on the furniture next to you, but other times he’s not welcome. Or that sometimes the couch doubles as a dog bed, and sometimes it doesn’t.
You have a couple of options here – never allow couch cuddles, always allow couches to double as dog beds, or put couch cuddles on a VERY clear signal – and stick to your guns. Any of those options work, just remember that if you mix and match, you’ll be messing with your poor dog’s mind.
This is just another version of the furniture scenario. It’s confusing to allow jumping up at the weekend (track-pants and sweatshirt days) but not allow it on work days (posh togs or tights). Either allow it, don’t allow it or teach a very clear signal to invite your dog to do it.
If you’re going to insist that your dog sits and waits at doorways, make sure to do it in such a way that you can open the door WITHOUT your dog having to move first! I’ve lost count of how many dogs I’ve seen totally scrambled at doorways because sometimes they have to sit and wait, sometimes they’re allowed to dash through (but sometimes the door shuts on them!), sometimes they have to move because the door is opening into them – but then they get in trouble for moving pre-emptively. No wonder they act up around doorways!
I could make a very long list of ways we mess with our dogs’ heads by being inconsistent! I’m sure you get the idea though so I’ll leave it here.
‘Consistent’ doesn’t mean ‘draconian’
I’m not suggesting for one moment that you have to be draconian and micromanage every little thing your dog does! Your dog does need to be able to make choices; their mental health depends on being able to make active decisions and have ways to get their needs met. However, that doesn’t mean that ‘rules’ have to change.
The point I’m making is that your dog needs to be able to live in a predictable world to feel safe and content. Don’t go switching the ‘rules’ on him. Decide what you want your dog to do, or not do, and stick to it.
Consistency when you want to bend the rules
If you think the rules need to be flexible, teach the behaviour and use a clear signal or word to tell your dog when its ok to do it. ONLY allow the behaviour when you’ve given your word or signal. That way you maintain consistency but can have your cake and eat it too.
Take the time to teach your dog how to appropriately get his needs for attention, contact, mental stimulation and play met. Remove opportunities for him to experiment with behaviours you don’t want (unless you can interrupt or correct Every Single Incident – good luck with that).
If your dog knows what works for him, and what doesn’t, he can relax without fretting – you’ve given him predictable control over his environment. He’ll thank you for it.
You can learn more about the art and science of using reward based training by signing up to receive this blog, and other training tips, to your inbox.
Sarah and the Gang
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