Who's Training Who?
In other words, before you can teach a dog "new tricks", you have to un-teach them all their old tricks.
Sometimes, I hear "My dog never got any training, that's the problem." Well, yes and no. Your dog certainly "got" training...they just got BAD training. Or rather, mal-training. They acquired their learned behaviors through trial and error, sometimes exacerbated by outmoded or inappropriate training techniques.
Consider this little incident involving Planet Claire, my chihuahua.
Claire is without a doubt 100% unadulterated grade A chihuahua, fearless and loyal and mouthy and as fierce as a lion (that is, if you can imagine a six-inch-tall lion that barks and craves belly rubs). Ankles the world over tremble when she enters a room.
Claire's fearlessness has interesting consequences. One day, not long back, as I was taking my pack for a walk, Claire made an interesting discovery, one which changed her whole outlook on life.
I live pretty far out in the country. When we walk, it's down a gravel driveway which serves as the back entrance to a thousand-acre-plus plantation. In other words, almost no traffic. Even the road we have to cross to get to it--the gravel road that runs in front of my house--is pretty sparsely traveled. Maybe two or three cars every hour, depending on the time of day. I don't worry much about my dogs getting hit by a car. They're more likely to be attacked by a rabid armadillo than run over by a Prius. But still, I don't let them dawdle in the street.
Claire, however, has an unusual theory about roads. She considers them a great place to defecate, the Official Chihuahua Bathroom. Without fail, whenever we walk, she runs out the door and across a swath of perfectly good grass, out into the road and--before getting to the other side (which contains another swath of perfectly good grass)--stops to deposit her daily supply of chihuahua turds for all the world to marvel over.
As I said, I barely worry about traffic, but one day while we were all crossing the road and Claire was presenting her daily offering, I caught a glimpse of an oncoming pickup truck. "Claire, c'mon," I said, but she was, after all, busy. Claire continued going about her business while the truck approached slowly. "CLAIRE," I said, louder, trying to get her attention. "Let's. Walk." She seemed to notice me this time, and was just finishing up, when i saw her glance at the oncoming truck. I figured that would spook her and motivate her to hurry up, but I was wrong. Claire straightened up, walked a few steps toward the truck, struck a domineering pose...and commenced barking.
The truck stopped.
The driver stuck his head out the window and said "Hey there little doggie!" Claire barked a few times more for good measure, then realized the rest of the pack was already across the street. and hustled over.
Now, let's analyze what just happened, using the ABC's of Classical Conditioning:
A - Activator: truck approaches chihuahua.
B - Behavior: chihuahua barks at truck.
C - Consequence: truck stops.
So, on that fateful day, in the middle of taking a poop, Claire learned that Barking Stops Trucks.
As you can gather, this can be a disconcerting behavior, and for a city-dweller it would be downright dangerous. But not to Claire's view of the world. She was just trying to stop the advancing truck, and in her view, her experiment in barking worked perfectly. We all lived, right? We all safely proceeded to walk, didn't we? Case closed.
Dogs train themselves. So do people. The key is to teach them the correct behaviors, so they don't teach themselves the incorrect ones.
Check this out:
With the summer heat, Darwin sometimes likes to sleep on the cool tiles in the bathroom. Every once in awhile, he gets trapped in there and scratches at the door to ask for help to get out. Feeling bad for the little guy, I usually gave him a cuddle and a treat, until one day, when he got trapped a few times right after getting freed. So I grabbed my camera and this happened...
Hey, who can blame the guy?
But let's think about this a moment. Darwin's motivation for treats and sympathy is so strong that he's willing to implement elaborate (for a dog) behaviors to make it happen. He doesn't know he's taught himself an incorrect behavior, he thinks he's got his parent well trained. He might be right!
So remember, if you want your pet to behave a certain way, the key is to appeal to their motivation. What do they like? Treats? Petting? Brushing? Belly rubs? Probably all of the above. Find out what motivates your pet, and then require them to engage in proper behaviors before rewarding them. Teach your pet that YOU CAN BE TRAINED. Wow, every time I pee outside, this human gives me a treat! What a scam!!
They'll never suspect. My lips are sealed.
Peace, Love, and Chewy Toys,