Updated: May 1, 2020
“But how do I let my dog know that what he’s doing is wrong?!” is the question I am always asked when recommending reward-based training to change unwanted behaviour.
I read every day on Facebook groups “she knows she’s not allowed on the sofa but….”, “he knows he’s not supposed to beg for food but…”.
The thing is, if they knew, and they cared, you wouldn’t still be telling them not to do it.
But do our dogs really understand the difference between right and wrong? Are dogs capable of such morality?
The science of canine behaviour is very simple.
Dogs do more of what makes them feel good and less of what makes them feel bad.
The sofa makes them feel good. It’s a comfy place to rest and it smells of their humans.
Jumping at the kitchen worktop makes them feel really good, especially when their humans have been kind enough to leave an extra special treat for them to snack on.
So, even if our dogs were capable of making behaviour choices based on morality…will “knowing it’s wrong” ever stop these behaviours from happening?
It’s highly unlikely.
They are doing that behaviour because it makes them feel good so your shouting, finger waggling and taps on the nose might make them feel a bit uncomfortable while you are around, but it won’t stop them doing it when you are not there to intervene.
But if the science tells us behaviour that gets reinforced (i.e. makes them feel good) happens more frequently, and behaviour that gets punished (i.e. makes them feel bad) happens less frequently…why isn’t saying “No!” or “correcting” the behaviour working for you?
Well, here’s the thing…for punishment to be effective, how BAD the correction makes the dog feel needs to far outweigh how GOOD the behaviour makes them feel.
Still with me?
Ok so let me ask you…
If you were to teach a dog to not jump up at the kitchen counter using punishment… how harsh would your punishment need to be to outweigh even the CHANCE of being able to enjoy a freshly roasted chicken?
Well folks, I have a Labrador, and I can tell you with great certainty that the only way the bad feeling would outweigh the good feeling in this scenario, is if my punishment was salient enough to leave her too terrified to even enter the kitchen, never mind consider approaching the counter.
Thankfully, not many of us want to cause our dogs distress for the sake of stopping unwanted behaviour. But the “corrections” that most owners use will not stop a dog from doing a behaviour that makes them feel good.
I truly believe that the vast majority of owners choose to use “corrections” in an attempt to change behaviour because they don’t know of a better way. There is so much outdated and detrimental information readily available at the click of a button, it can be very difficult to know what to do for the best.
Punishment works. There is no doubt about that. But it only works if your dog feels sufficiently bad about doing that behaviour.
So, if we are not “correcting” unwanted behaviour, how do we get these behaviours to stop?
By rewarding what you want and preventing or redirecting what you don’t want.
It’s that simple.
Of course, it’s not always easy. It takes thinking ahead, being observant, and often making changes to your own behaviour and routines. But it IS that simple.
Reward what you want. Prevent or redirect what you don’t want.
“Corrections” don’t teach your dog what they are allowed to do.
So, lets look at an example…
There is a big juicy chicken on the counter and your dog is in the kitchen. He’s a dog. A scavenger by nature. An opportunist. His natural behaviour choice in this situation will be to jump up and get the chicken. Very rude to us humans who don’t want our dinner covered in slobber, but to a dog – a completely different species – it’s just what they do.
So, if you tell him off, what’s going to happen? Well, he’ll probably learn he doesn’t like to jump up and take food when you are there because it made him feel uncomfortable and a little bit worried, but have you taught him to not jump up and take food? No. As soon as you move away and the opportunity is available to him, he’ll jump up and take the food. Is he being naughty and doing something even though he knows it’s “wrong”? No. He is being a dog. He is taking the food because that’s what dog’s do and because he hasn’t been taught another way of getting what he wants in that context.
Are you hanging in there?
Ok, good, nearly there.
So, let’s have a look, from your dog’s point of view, how you can teach him not to jump up at the kitchen counter…
Why is your dog jumping up? Because he wants the food.
Is it reasonable to expect him to choose not to take the food that is within his reach just because he loves you and he knows it’s wrong? No. He’s a dog. Dogs like food.
What do you want your dog to do when there is food on the kitchen counter? You probably want him to either keep his paws on the floor or to stay on a mat so he’s not under your feet.
So how can you both get what you want and live happily ever after?
Your dog wants food. You want paws on the floor. Feed your dog for having their paws on the floor.
Everyone’s a winner and you have taught him what behaviour will be rewarded in that context. Jumping up at the counter will never be rewarded because you will use the door, baby gate, or crate to prevent access to the counter when you are not there to reward him, therefore he will stop trying. Very quickly you will see your dog CHOOSING to keep his paws on the floor, not because he knows what’s right and wrong, but because you have shown him an alternative behaviour that makes him feel even better!
If you can always keep this sentence with you, life with your dog will be everything you ever wanted:
Reward what you want. Prevent or redirect what you don’t.
Teaching our dogs how to behave in our human world is OUR responsibility. It is our choice to bring these animals into our homes and live by our human rules that often go entirely against their nature. We owe them our time and patience to teach them with kindness and if we don’t know how to do that, we owe it to them to find out.
Becoming a dog owner comes with the automatic responsibility of becoming a dog trainer.
Punishment-based trainers ask “how can we stop the dog doing….?”
Reward-based trainers ask “what can we teach the dog to do instead?”
Which kind of trainer would you like to be?