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The Trouble With Should

Lately, I’ve been noticing the word should appear in conversations and literature on dog training:

“Fido should now how to do this right now.”

“Fido should know better.”

“Fido should feel safe in this environment.”

It’s easy for humans to dictate how a dog should behave or feel, but the problem with this type of thinking and verbiage is that it sets up dogs and their humans for frustration and failure. Every dog is an individual. For training to be truly force-free, every dog needs the autonomy to decide what makes him feel safe, what he finds reinforcing, and what he needs to thrive. I believe there’s a reluctance in society to give dogs this autonomy, partly because of the dominance fallacy that’s still pervasive in training circles, and partly because it means giving up some of the control we invariably exert over our dogs.

By placing behavior in terms of “the dog should do or feel xyz,” it relieves humans of the burden of understanding behavior in terms of antecedents and consequences, as well as understanding how classical conditioning affects a dog’s feeling of safety in the environment. This isn’t fair to the dog. After all, the only thing a dog should do is what all living species do every day: Behave and communicate according to the laws of behavior.

Dogs don’t choose their families, where they live, or their daily environment. We choose that for our dogs. This doesn’t mean dogs can’t thrive. But it does mean we have an overwhelming responsibility to listen to our dogs’ communication, understand their behavior, and adjust the environment to help them feel as safe and healthy as possible.

One of my go-to phrases when helping clients dissect behavior problems with their dogs is: “Focus on what you want your dog to do, not on what you don’t want your dog to do.” It helps clients focus on what to reinforce instead of what to punish, and helps them set their dogs up for success. But while you may find x, y, or z reinforcing, does your dog feel the same way?

For example, suppose a client wants her dog to sit-stay while houseguests come up to say hello. For some dogs, this is an excellent training goal. But what if the dog in question is uncomfortable greeting lots of new people? While the client may want her dog to sit for pets and hellos, the dog may be more comfortable choosing to sit-stay on a target at a distance away from new people entering the room. What if the dog gets so excited when new people come in the house that remaining in a stay position becomes stressful and frustrating? This dog may be less stressed by enjoying a high-value chew or puzzle toy behind a barrier until the houseguests settle.

Because each dog is an individual, it’s important to consider each dog’s behavioral and emotional needs. Otherwise, we may think we’re practicing force-free training, but we might be placing undue stress on a dog, or be placing a dog in a fear-inducing situation. This perspective isn’t always the most popular, nor is it the easiest. Recognizing a dog’s individual needs requires vigilance and flexibility. After all, many people, trainers included, enter the dog training field with the perspective of what they want from dogs—and what they think dogs should do.

If we believe in positive reinforcement and force-free training, we must assess what behaviors will be most reinforcing for the dog and stop imposing the word should, and all its implications, on their daily lives.

Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A, is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at MuttAboutTownSF@gmail.com.

This column is written by a different trainer each month. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.

Main article photo by: Photo courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie-Creative Commons