What Influences Behavior
The most important fact anyone with a dog must understand is that dogs respond first and foremost to ENERGY. So, if you are angry, frustrated, nervous, anxious or fearful, your dog knows it. They can tell if you’re happy, confident, assertive, and calm, too. And your dog will always respond to your energy before they respond to your commands.
Your dog experiences the negative emotions of anger, anxiety, frustration and fear as weakness on your part. Dogs are pack animals and true pack leaders cannot lead while in these weak states of energy. Of course, not consciously taking control of your dog or pack will elicit the same response from your dog because you are not being assertive. If you approach your dog in an emotional state of calmness and confidence, provide your dog with consistent structure and make your desires clear, then your dog experiences you as a powerful leader.
Almost all dogs will rise to the highest level of pack leadership they are allowed and if you are not the absolute leader, your dog will take over. Most dogs are not really temperamentally cut out for pack leadership and dogs forced into it develop emotional problems.
First the dog becomes unbalanced. They struggle to find their place and begin to show signs of anxiety. Often this manifests as separation anxiety or they revert to relieving in the house, chewing your possessions, or taking and defending objects.
Of course the dog does not obey you unless it suits the dog’s needs. They’ll sit for a treat but not come when called. They’ll act cuddly or play games on their terms, but will often refuse to be touched or bring back a retrieved toy.
Many begin to show fear aggression. The pack leader’s roll is to defend the pack at all costs, so the unbalanced leader attacks when they feel threatened. At first it may be the postal worker, then friends who visit, then your partner. To an unbalanced leader everyone but the “chosen” one feels like a threat. And even the chosen one may become a target if the dog is defending what it perceives as its belongings.
First, let’s look at the dog owner who is constantly screaming at his dog to stop barking. The more the owner yells, the louder and more frantically the dog barks. The yelling is a form of anger and frustration that the dog experiences as weak energy and the dog will feel the need to defend the weak owner from outside intrusion. That’s why the dog barks even more when yelled at. Approaching the barking dog calmly, putting a leash on it and bringing it to a spot of your choosing and confidently requiring it lie down and be quiet without saying a single word is a far better way to stop frantic barking. Doing this behavior EVERY time the dog barks uncontrollably will eventually teach the dog that you are the leader and that this is what you expect of it.
I had a client who raised beautiful show dogs. Her treasured and favored male became suddenly aggressive toward people outside of her family and she became afraid to bring it to dog events. When I arrived at her home to evaluate the dog, the first question I asked was “What’s been happening in your life?”. In a six month time period, her son had been killed and her father had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Can you even imagine the energy this poor woman was living with? She was consumed by grief, fear and anxiety ~ as anyone would have been.
But because she was so intimately involved with dogs, when I pointed out to her that her dog had taken over the leadership role and was defending her from outside invaders, she understood immediately. We talked about how she would regain leadership by not letting him lean against her (an act of ownership), acting more confident and the appropriate corrections for unwanted behavior. I called her two weeks later and she was amazed at the turn-around her dog had made. She was, once again, able to take him to events without him showing any aggression.
Dogs live in the moment so, even if your dog has taken over as the pack leader and is exhibiting unwanted behavior, consistent changes in your energy and behavior can alter your dog in a very short period of time. Don’t hesitate to get the help of a dog behaviorist who can provide instruction on your body language, tone of voice, leash handling, appropriate corrections, and praise timing. You’ll soon be a happy pack leader with a very relaxed, happy dog.
Your Pup’s Paycheck: Praise and Praise Timing
Too often, I hear and see a dog handler correcting her dog, verbally and/or physically, and then, when the dog responds and behaves as the handler wishes, there is no indication that the new behavior is the right one.
For you, it would be like learning to paddle a canoe and having the teacher yell “NO” every time you did something wrong. The challenge would be for you to decide what it was you were doing wrong and then what you did to make the instructor stop yelling. Did you adjust your posture? Did you tilt the paddle differently? Did you paddle harder?
It would become infinitely easier if the instructor indicated what you were doing correctly that caused her to stop yelling “NO.” “GOOD. Keep your top arm straight.” Ah ha, now you understand!
People and dogs are associative learners, which is a type of learning principle based on the assumption that ideas and experiences reinforce one another and can be linked to enhance the learning process. So what the handler wants to link in a dog’s learning process is that “NO” means stop that behavior. But more importantly, come up with a positive reinforcement for when the dog does what is right and expected. This positive will accelerate the learning process because it links the right behavior with a reward.
Now dogs don’t have language, but there are some things we know about them that helps us get the point across to them.
- Dogs desire to please the animal above them in the pack hierarchy, the leader.
- Mammals — and dogs are mammals — respond positively to high-pitched, happy sounds and are likely to be warned by calm but low-pitched, crisp sounds.
- Dogs, usually, can be positively influenced by tasty treats.
I prefer, for the most part, to use the first two things on the list. That way, I don’t have to carry around food and, because I am an assertive, benevolent leader, my students are perfectly happy to receive high praise for appropriate behavior. And, over the course of any day, I always make sure that I am praising far more than I am correcting.
So, let’s say we are teaching a dog to sit. Every time I say “sit” and dog doesn’t respond, I say in a low-pitched, crisp voice, “NO.” At first, I help the dog achieve the “sit” by molding him into position and praise when his bottom hits the ground with, “GOOD, sit,” in a happy, high-pitched voice. The timing has to be impeccable so the link is made…no more than two seconds. In a short time, the dog will begin to associate the act of sitting with the word-sound you are making and sit on his own because he wants the reward…your praise.
All my dogs work for praise. That is their only paycheck. So I ALWAYS, within two seconds, give them a high-pitched “GOOD!” when they do as I ask. I even reward them when they do as I expect without my asking. EVERY time they relieve outdoors, every time they obey any command, every time they sit for a treat, every time they don’t jump on me or guests who come into the house, every time I correct them with a “no” and they respond with the correct behavior. They get praise every time, immediately. I don’t ever forget. How would you feel if your employer forgot to give you a paycheck on the expected day? Or forgot entirely?
The only two caveats I would add to this is that the pitch of praise must always be higher than the pitch of the correction (low) OR the command (normal voice) – remember, dogs don’t understand our language, but they do understand our tone and inflections. The second caveat is praise for stationary commands like sit, stay and down should have less energy in them than moving commands like come, forward or heel. Low energy praise keeps the dog from bouncing up after stationary commands because you de-energized them with your voice. Or makes them keep moving on active commands because you energized them with your voice.
Follow these simple rules about praise and praise timing and you’ll have a happy, well-behaved best friend who wants to please you and that you can be proud of.