When no means yes

Cruiser is doing what he does best, cruising around. He’s an adorable 12-week-old puppy, just learning the ropes of the house. His breeder told his owner that Cruiser, like all puppies, would try to push the boundaries of what’s allowable, so to come up with some rules to enforce from the very beginning. She suggested “no dog on the couch unless invited” as a possible rule.

Cruiser’s owner loves his dog. Watching a baby puppy figure out his world is endlessly fascinating, and it sure helps that Cruiser is little and fluffy and just deliciously cute. He wants to be a good owner and he doesn’t want to end up as a featured guest on Dog Whisperer, so he determines to follow the rules and keep cutie Cruiser off the couch.

Here’s how it plays out–how many times have you seen this or done this?

Cruiser comes running over to the couch. He sits, eyes it, jumps up against it, jumps again, hops even more, works just soooo hard to get up there. On his fifth jump he scrambles up and hooray! He’s on. His owner, who can’t help but smile at his attempts, says “Off the couch, Cruiser,” and gently shoves him off. Cruiser lands with a little grunt, turns, and immediately starts hopping against the couch again. Again, on the fourth try he makes it. “Off the couch,” says the laughing owner, and down Cruiser goes again.

Sounds like the owner is enforcing the rules, right? WRONG!

What has Cruiser learned through this? He’s learned that the couch is a wonderful place (he realized that immediately, as soon as he saw it, smelled it, and saw that his owner liked to be there). He’s learned that he can get up there if he tries five or ten times. And, most critically, he’s learned that his owner does bizarre crazy hurtful things for no reason.

But–but–he’s not supposed to come up without being invited!

Yes! Here’s the difference:

When Cruiser came into the room and looked at the couch and decided to jump up on it, every movement from then on was a reinforcement of that decision. If you can think of it like a decision tree, with yes/no possibilities, the series went Couch? Yes. Look at couch? Yes. Move toward couch? Yes. Approach couch? Yes. Jump up against couch? Yes. Jump up again? Yes. Repeat until success? Yes. Lie down? Yes.

When Cruiser’s owner shoved Cruiser off the couch when he attempted to lie down, the owner was forcing a “no” decision only to the VERY END of that behavior. And it was a “no” that was accompanied by a certain amount of pain and conflict. Cruiser has absolutely no clue that the correction was associated with the couch, because the entire series of decisions up to “lie down” had been reinforced by success, and had been satisfying and pleasurable. Cruiser had made a decision to initiate couch-jumping over a minute ago, and virtually the entire behavior had been completed.

This kind of correction, which is incredibly common (I used to do it too, trust me), is almost totally ineffective, which is why dogs corrected in this way tend to continue to attempt the couch (or get their heads into the food bag, or go after the cat, or whatever other behavior the owner finds undesirable).

So what do you do? You have to force a “no” decision at the FIRST branch of the decision tree. This has the huge added benefit that at this point the dog is only lightly committed to the action and you can usually provide only a very minor negative signal. If you wait until the dog has completed most of the steps, you’re going to have to provide a negative that overwhelms the substantial self-reward that the dog has built up, which often means a physical touch or interference.

Get used to watching your dog. Watch other people’s dogs too. Learn what signals your dog gives you that he is making a decision that will end, in ten or fifteen or sixty seconds, in an undesirable behavior. In Cruiser’s case, it was looking toward the couch. Cruiser’s owner should cut off the behavior RIGHT THEN. A moderate “shht!” or “eh!” or “off”; even, as you get more fluent in “dog,” a hard stare or a movement of a finger, tells Cruiser that his decision should be “no,” and the entire behavior will short-circuit. Now Cruiser is getting the message that his breeder and his owner intended him to get–that the owner is a leader who makes behavioral decisions for the pack.

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