I am reading an article in Outside magazine titled “The Metric System” about exercise gadgets and studies as to why most people abandoned the gadget altogether. One of the reasons why this happens according to John Bartholomew, professor of Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in exercise psychology, is because what is needed in order to change behavior is: action, measurement, learning, and modifying. In other words, there must be some sort of feedback loop.
As I am reading the article I am smiling because I can very well relate this to how dogs learn. Their feedback must come in a form of a consequence delivered immediately after the behavior. If there is one aspect that most dog owners fail to realize as they struggle to teach their dog anything is this. If instead of agonizing over the possible reasons why their dog is not following through (dog is stubborn, not smart, lazy, dominant, etc.) and instead they give their dog concrete feedback (a consequence) they would begin to get the results that they want.
Consequences are a part of life: Dog comes when called and he gets a treat or an opportunity for another ball toss. Fails to come and the fun ends when the leash appears. Dog waits politely for its meal; the food bowl is lowered, etc. Consequences must follow a few rules in order to be effective:
1. Must be delivered timely – not minutes after or worse hours after the behavior has taken place. This is meaningless to the dog when it comes to linking desired behavior to consequence and in some cases plain cruel. Think of the dog that for whatever reason eliminates inside and hours later he is admonished for this. In the eyes of the dog, the owner is turning nasty over him coming to say hello, etc. Nope, they are not feeling guilty, that guilty look is an appeasement gesture since the dog is feeling threatened and wants to diffuse the situation.
2. We must deliver them consistently in order for the dog to continue to act in the manner we want him to and not deliver the consequence when it is convenient, etc.
3. They must not harm the dog, scare the dog, or intimidate him. The best way to ensure that we can still exercise a consequence in order to teach the dog what we want him to do without resorting to pain or fear is to remove something that the dog wants such as the ball that I toss for him to retrieve, opportunity for moving forward when pulling on the leash, the door closes when I see the dog trying to dash out, etc.
This morning I am playing with my dogs and I asked Rio to stop playing with the ball by herself – which she loves to do, and instead bring it back so that we can all play, but she refused. I walked towards her and in spite of her cute expression, I gave my game over cue. I picked up the ball and walked away. Learning to give the dog feedback is at the crux of communicating appropriately with them. It is like a conversation we have with a good pal. We don’t abandon the dog to try and figure out what the heck we want. No, they don’t read our minds. Instead, we are well-advised to exercise a little courtesy to the dogs in our lives as we addressed their behavior and our expectations with clarity. Exercising consequences for behavior offered does just that.