There was an anti-drug ad on TV that portrayed a sleazy dealer talking to a group of teenagers while the narrator intoned, “If you don’t talk to your kids about drugs, someone else will.”
I was reminded of this ad after hearing about training advice someone had received to help them with their dog who was prone to barking and biting. Granted the advice was given in regard to other issues, which were-demanding attention and enthusiastic greetings-but the real quality of life challenges were the dog’s insecurity, lack of skills and inappropriate reactions to people and other dogs. What was the advice? Simple and often heard-ignore the dog, do not respond to any attempt by the dog to solicit attention. Attention was to be granted at the behest of the owner, never the dog.
Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, sometimes ignoring a dog makes sense. Effusive greetings for dogs with separation anxiety can be problematic. Shy dogs prefer to be ignored and doing so with submissive pee-ers might save you some paper toweling. After I’ve told my border collie that I will not throw the frisbee again I will ignore any continued attempts to engage me in the game. What troubled me about the advice given in this instance, was that by not acknowledging a dog that is seeking attention or information, in effect, not rewarding that behavior, we should begin to see less of it. Not a problem if you don’t want a soggy tennis ball dropped in your lap repeatedly, but for a dog whose first impulse is often inappropriate, wouldn’t it be better if they did look at us so we could share information and perhaps circumvent bad behavior?
Dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for and get better at behaviors they repeat. If anyone is expected to perform a behavior under pressure, whether it’s playing a piano piece on stage, drawing a firearm, rushing into a burning building, or pulling off a triple lutz, their chances of success improve the more they have practiced those behaviors. The same is true for dogs. If we want our dogs to respond to us when they are under pressure they are more likely to be able to if they have opportunities to practice giving us their attention and being rewarded for it.
A dog that wants to engage with their owner is easier to work with than a dog that could care less about the human in control of their life. We can’t teach a dog anything if we can’t get and keep their attention. Sometimes it makes sense to ignore the slimy tennis ball but it may also be a teachable moment that we’d be better off taking advantage of. The behavior we’re trying to fix may not be broken. My dogs should know they can come to me with any questions they have about their triggers, or temptations. I’ll make better choices for them than the pusher in their head.