It’s wrong to call the behavior “unacceptable” so long as it’s not wrong from a dog’s point of view.
Turid Rugaas, one of my personal dog heroes, said that. I've been going back and reading all her articles recently, and then letting them sit on my tongue and sink in, past the sweet buds and into the salty and bitter. Trying to use them as more of a checklist for myself than as advice for others.
Isn't this line a bit of a kick in the shorts? How many times have you used the word "unacceptable" when it comes to your dog? How many times have you decided that two feet away is acceptable but three feet away was UN?
The other way Turid put the same concept was to ask if another dog would care about the behavior. Would another dog be offended? If not, why are we thinking the sky is falling?
This, my friends, is very hard to do.
Think about all the reasons you discipline a dog – sniffing the counters, pulling on the leash, nose in the crotch, feet on the furniture. We use that same word – unacceptable – about all of them. But all of them are completely normal and would never be a cause for concern in a dog family. What THEY label as wrong are coming at them straight on. Hugging. Taking something out of their mouths. Touching their beds or bones.
All these things we ask them to accept, and in fact get very angry when they don't, but we rarely ask anything of ourselves. We don't even ask ourselves to admit that they may be very troubled by how we ask them to live and behave and grow up.
Turid is the best I know at insisting – gently, quietly – that people look at things from the dog's point of view. WHY is this behavior bothering us so much? WHY must it end? What are the consequences if it doesn't end? Will the world stop spinning? How can we take upon ourselves, as owners, the responsibility for "behaving" when the action from the dog's point of view is normal and right?
Tonight, after reading that, in my continual quest to Become A Fan Of Bramble, I took him outside with me off-leash.
We've been doing this for months now, because I NEED my dogs to have a reliable off-leash recall. So much of what we do with them is outside; we'll routinely drive an hour or more to get to an off-leash walking or hiking area or a beach. A dog who is stuck on a four-foot leash really misses out on a lot of fun and ends up being left behind most of the time because I can't carry a baby, shepherd Tabitha, and hold a leash at the same time. So, for weeks and weeks, I've been trying to get him more reliable off-leash. And yes, we've done all the "right" things, starting with a long line or a recall inside a fence and so on. He's perfect as long as he knows he has a line on or can't get away. The moment he knows he has freedom, GONE.
All lessons take place at 3 AM or so, because there are no cars on the road (or, for that matter, within about a mile) so I don't have wheeled homicide to think about.
Anyway, with Bramble, here's how this always goes:
1) I take him out, feeding him bits of treats or kibble and verbally rewarding him for responding to my "close! close!" command. (I know; weird – it's a command I made up for "stick close to me but not in wrapped heel position.")
2) Fourteen seconds later, he bolts down the lawn.
3) I begin to call him.
4) He runs full-tilt across the road.
5) I get more and more wheedly, higher-pitched, worried.
6) I shake his food bowl or treat bag. Whistle. Call him more. Say bad words in my head.
7) I walk across the road and follow him into the woods, calling and whistling. More bad words in my head, trying to keep my voice light and calm as I call him.
8) I eventually find him, usually several hundred feet into the woods. When he sees me approach, he flattens submissively to the ground and shows his belly. his eyes flat and scared. I pick him up or put a leash on him, and then we walk back, me continually rewarding him for a nice "close" the whole way home. We get inside and I collapse on the chair and think about what horrible things would happen to him if he just kept on running.
Last night, as I wrote about yesterday, he came back on his own for the first time. No tracking him down. I did, however, call him constantly, go across the road and shake the treat bag, whistle, walk along the edge of the woods, etc.
Tonight, I said "Nothing is unacceptable. Nothing is unacceptable. Breathe. Nothing is unacceptable." And I opened the door.
He, as usual, walked out with me and looked for his treats, which I gave to him as we walked. As usual, he booted it across the lawn as soon as we were a few steps away from the house.
And I sat down in the grass under our garage light.
But I shut up.
I heard him run across the road and throw himself into the woods. I didn't move. I looked at baby grass. I poked an ant.
I picked up the treat bag. Put it down. Picked it up again. Put it down harder to "accidentally" make a shaking noise.
Put the treat bag out of reach to avoid temptation.
Thought about whether the pumpkins were growing. That took about three-quarters of a second and then I was back to straining to hear any noise from the woods.
I heard a stick break. It sounds like it's in the next zip code. He's GONE! He's TOTALLY GONE. I stood up.
I sat down.
I put my forehead on my knees.
Bramble jumped on my neck.
I looked up, tried to say something, said "Can you down?" and he flung himself on his back, wiggling his paws at me. Downs and sits and downs again, offers me a high-five, rolls over. Many treats.
And then all on his own he ran to the door and jumped against it to be let in.
Tonight was the first time, the FIRST, in all these months that I have felt that little spiderweb of joining with him. The first I have not gotten that fear/sorrow/regressing/shutting in message from him. The first I felt him make a decision to approach and open up and connect, and knew that he was getting a kick out of my pleasure. It was such a tiny little step but so very worth it.
And it's because I let him run across the road. Of that I am sure. It's the one thing he always wants to do, the one thing I always try to shut down, the point at which I start to yell, the trigger for all the times it's been an arm-wrestling match between him and me.
I shut up and let him do it, and the difference was enormous.
Now please – I don't want anybody thinking that you should just let your dogs run across roads all the time. I'm certainly not going to start letting him run across – or even approach – the road during the day; I'm not going to start teaching baby puppies to go in the road. What I mean is that when I let go of that UNACCEPTABLE, I made a connection that will, if I am careful and savvy and open to him talking to me, allow me to eventually call him off the road, or away from things that are dangerous, because he feels like I'm on his side and not against him. The fact that it was the road really means nothing; it could have been any issue.
If I am trying to see things from my dog's point of view, ending the use of that word "unacceptable," I will do less punishing and begin to expect more of myself. A dog who jumps up on the counters reminds me that my first job is to put the food up high, and THEN we train no noses on counters. My first job is giving the dog confidence that I am good at screening guests, THEN we work on no crotch-sniffing. My first job is providing enough exercise, THEN we work on not chewing the couch. I behave; now we have a conversation about what living in my pack means. I'm predictable; now we talk about you trusting me enough not to fear-bark all the time. I'm stable; now we figure out how to travel together.
If I have not behaved first, if I am still seeing That Dog as an obstacle that must be overcome, then all I will do is punish and punish and punish while the gulf between us widens.
I have the frontal cortex; I need to use it to imagine what it is like to be a dog before I can expect the dog to behave like a (polite) human.
And Bramble? Got a bowl of ice cream inside. And we'll try it again tomorrow.
If this was helpful to you and you'd like to help us rescue and foster dogs, here are Amazon links to the books and tools mentioned in the article – and thank you so much!
What I am talking about is what we do when we move beyond the single commands – or perhaps even ignore the single commands – of sit, down, off, lie, etc. and move to commands or requests that are ABOUT that command but are themselves not commands.
So "go out" is a command. "Go out further than you've ever gone out before" is a metacommunication. "Move out" or "go right" or "come here" is a command. "Go go go go go!" is metacommunication that means "whatever I just told you to do, do it faster and faster and faster."
"Good" or a click from a clicker is a communication. "Keep going; you've almost got it" is metacommunication that means "Whatever you are doing, keep doing it and don't get discouraged."
How much are you communicating with your dog beyond the single words? How much are you trusting her to understand? How consistent are your cues not only to begin or end a behavior, but to shape an attitude about that behavior or to keep a line of communication open about how well or ill she is doing?
Here's my challenge for you: Give your dog a task that is not defined by a command you already have in your vocabulary, and don't shape the behavior by asking for it in tiny stages. An example could be "go up the stairs" or "find your bone" or "go way out ahead of me" or "come up on the bed and lie down." Now communicate with your dog at every second during the task, using words that don't indicate that the behavior is done. Don't stop talking. Don't be quiet and ask her to solve the problem. Keep giving her feedback about her attempts – use words that's she doesn't think are ending words, like "yes yes yes yes" and "not quite" and "go further" and "almost there" and "that's perfect!"
You will feel like an idiot. I promise. It's the most un-cool process in the world. But it works.
What I want you to define as success is not whether the dog actually does the thing. I want you to get the magic moment when your dog decides that what you're saying means something, when you snap into a true cycle of feedback. All of a sudden the dog is going to start glancing at you every half a second, or flicking an ear at you, or is going to tell you "no" in a way that means something to you, and you're going to respond in a way that means something to them, neither of you shutting up. Three seconds of this is a huge triumph, and I guarantee you that it will be so addictive that you'll never want it to end.
The reason I think it is so crucial to be able to reach this state with your dog – far more crucial than if the dog actually does the finished thing – is that this is the way dogs live with each other. You know that internal dialogue you have with yourself all day long, the one where you're saying "Hmmm, am I hungry? I guess I am; is there ice cream in the freezer?I could go there but it would mean stopping my work, which is supposed to be more important, but I'm pretty hungry" or the one that goes "She walks through the room and all eyes turn to her; she is looking faaaantastic" (and then you straighten up and adjust your belt and saunter in)? Well, dogs live that way too, only theirs isn't with themselves; it's with other dogs. They are like bats using sonar, constantly sending and receiving signals from their community.
As humans interacting with dogs, we must seem like big bricks to them most of the time. They flick communications at us and we do nothing back. When we do communicate, we dump a massive load of emotion and body language and tension or laughter and strength or weakness or confusion or frustration on them, and because we say the word "Sit" at the same time we think they should actually be listening to that instead of the seventy thousand other statements we just threw at them.
What I want is for owners to begin to act in ways where dogs feel like they are getting even one percent of the feedback they expect, because even with that one percent dogs will find a way to strengthen that thread. And they'll be THRILLED to have that big brick they live with and love begin giving them the signals they haven't been getting.
If you keep going with this, you will begin to realize when you are shutting your dog down accidentally, when your dog becomes confused, when your dog begins to get excited, and what you are doing to complete those feedback loops. You'll begin to trust your dog, because his communications will begin to become intelligible to you, and he'll begin to trust you.
This, for me, is what is the deep reality of dog ownership is about. I am a pretty sucky trainer when it comes to commands; I am not captured by a great front or a heel. And that's not a brag; I really do pretty much reek at training. But I love, LOVE communicating with my dogs; I get a charge out of it. And the one place where I do have success is that I can laugh when my dogs are laughing and I can play games that they understand (dogs loooove the "go go go go go!" game, because it's what they play together) and the hugest reward of all is when a really scared dog gives me that thunk of his head on my ankle because he has abandoned the tension that kept him from relaxing his muscles and making big movements. That thunk is worth a week of work for me.
So, this week, feel foolish with me and then come back and tell me what happened. I want to feel the moment that he actually LOOKED at you and the light went on. And I want to jump around and clap with you. Hooray!