THE ART OF SELF-CONTROL
October 19, 2015
by Cricket Mara
While I often hear people wishing their dog would “chill out”, mastering self-control is a two way street. Dogs are opportunistic by nature. Without training most will “throw themselves” at stuff they want. This can lead to door barging, jumping on people, counter-surfing, etc. However, humans are often guilty of poor self-control around dogs as well. Commonly there are the “dog lovers” who are so focused on what they want from the dog (affection, attention) that they engage in excessive greeting (talking and petting) without regard to the dog’s behavior. Another camp gets easily frustrated by the dog’s boisterousness or failure to respond promptly to a cue. This frustration comes though in their voice and body language. Both types of human behavior tend to whip dogs into more of a frenzy. How can both dogs and humans learn to “get a grip”?
Just because we love dogs doesn’t mean we get to to interact with them at will without regard to how they feel about the interaction. Like any relationship, there are two sides to it. We need to take a moment to (at least mentally) ask the dog “how is this for you?” Remember that dogs do what “works” for them. So if jumping, grabbing, bolting, stealing, etc. gets you up and moving and interacting with them, in some way the dog is rewarded for these behaviors and will continue doing them. You may love dogs, but the attention you give may be working at cross purposes to your desires for good behavior. Take a moment to consider what you want your dog TO DO. What behaviors are you “paying for” with your attention? Are those behaviors you like? If so, great. Keep up the good work! However, if you aren’t thrilled about the behaviors you have been rewarding, stop paying the dog for them. I’ve mastered the “can’t see you, can’t hear you” approach to poor dog behavior. Stand up, fold your arms, lift your chin and wait for the dog to collect himself. In some cases, you may have to leave the room and enter more calmly only when the dog has calmed. As long as the dog remains calm you may look, touch, and talk, but do so in a way that promotes calmness - slow movements, soft voice, calm demeanor. The instant the dog “loses it”, remove your attention only to return it when the dog has calmed. Be patient if the dog is working out the problem of how to get your attention.
They usually love us as much as we love them, but all that excitement, coupled with a human that attends to it, can really whip a dog up. Remember, their behavior is often a reflection of what YOU do. Practice specific self-control exercises with your dog. “Wait” is one of my favorite. It’s just a moment, but I ask for “wait” to exit the kennel, leave the house or car, and to eat meals. You can also incorporate “wait” into the games you play and things like “getting dressed” in a harness and leash. I use “wait” to mean “don’t move forward”. The dog doesn’t have to “sit” first, but many find it easier to wait when sitting. Gradually expand the difficulty of your “wait” exercises as your dog learns that showing self-restraint is the fastest way to get stuff he wants. Other self-control exercises include the eye contact game and “leave it” games like Doggie Zen and It's Your Choice. You can ask for a small amount of restraint before giving the dog anything of value (access to a dog friend, walk, car ride, ball game, etc.) The more consistent you are with your “works”/”doesn’t work” feedback to the dog, the faster he will learn self-control. As part of self-control exercises it is important that your dog has a release word - a cue that tells him when he is free to “go for it” and “be a dog”. Many people say “okay”, but I prefer "ding" or "break" as they are less common in our normal usage. Choose what works for you.
When you mindfully reward behavior you like and refrain from inadvertently rewarding undesirable behaviors, both you and your dog will be happier and calmer. This leads to more harmony, gentleness, and clear communication.