Our dogs can be our sanctuary in life. They can be our best buds, our workout partners, our hunting partners, our security alarms or all of the above, offering a feeling of balance and overall calm to life. However, if your “sanctuary” includes a dog that jumps, nips at your ankles, barks at every living thing, is restless and whose energy switch is always “on,” well then nary a sanctuary does that make.
So often in training, we focus on training a dog to do something… Sit, Down, Shake, Rollover. Is it possible that we train our dogs to be so active that sometimes they never learn how to do anything? After all, isn’t a lot of what we want from our dog in life really a whole lot of nothing? “Don’t bark.” “Don’t dig in the yard.” “Don’t mouth my hands.” “Don’t eat the sandwich on the counter.” “Don’t jump on Aunt Betty,” and on and on.
To simplify matters, couldn’t all of these issues really be solved by teaching the dog to do nothing? Instead of teaching the dog not to do a bazillion different abstract activities, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to teach the dog one correct thing to do instead when life gets too exciting?
And that one thing very often equates to, you guessed it… a whole lot of nothing. If Aunt Betty is coming over for dinner, you can pretty much bet that Fido will bark when the door bell rings, molest her with his front paws with friendly and very bouncy greeting, and then jump on the kitchen counter to scour the dinner goodies.
If you can anticipate what negative behavior your dog would rather do in a given situation, then it becomes easy to identify the best time to reward the dog for the absence of that behavior. This training can go extremely quickly when you use a clicker to mark the exact moment that your dog did the opposite of what you know he wants to do. Follow up the “click” with a delicious (but small) treat. Click here for more information on clicker training.
So instead of reprimanding for barking at the door, click and treat for any absence of barking. When Aunt Betty comes in the door, click and treat your dog at any moment of excitement where he has all four feet on the floor (or sitting down is even better). And when the food comes out on the counter, click and treat your dog for any moment that he came near the counter, but didn’t jump up on it.
In a nutshell, the best time to reward your dog is when they willingly choose to exhibit the correct behavior even though they had the option to demonstrate much more undesirable behavior. This is called showing self-restraint, or impulse control.
Believe it or not, rewarding the absence of behavior can take some skill and practice. After all, isn’t it the dogs unruliness that catches our attention in the first place? And isn’t our initial reaction to yell, scream and throw stuff? It’s quite a reactive, stressful and unproductive process.
If we could take a more proactive approach by purposefully recognizing and rewarding the absence of unwanted behavior, then life could be a lot calmer. And with the use of the clicker, it’s not even necessary to use our vocal chords to communicate with our dogs, which almost immediately makes for a much quieter environment. Many times, it’s the overuse of words that actually confuses our dogs and impairs their learning.
As with learning any skill, it does take repetition, good timing and practice to perfect. Most likely, you will begin to see your dog’s unwanted behaviors begin to fade over a period of between 1 to 6 weeks, depending on how long your dog has been practicing and perfecting the unwanted behavior. Progress will also depend on how consistent training has been in the household. If only one family member is training the dog, then very likely that dog might only behave around that one person. Training should involve the whole family.
Lastly, please know that your dog isn’t acting out because they are being dominant or are trying to take over the household. Dogs are a little like teenagers. They are self-serving and will ruin all your stuff unless they have something better to do. (Only kidding!) Whatever their bad habits, dogs don’t know that they are doing wrong, they just think that they are having fun. It’s up to us to teach them that "good" behavior can be more fun.
Fortunately, not unlike teenagers, dogs also like to eat and frequently. So what better way to teach them good habits than through the daily use of treats as a reinforcer? For this training to be effective, turn your perspective upside down and begin recognizing when your dog chooses to do absolutely nothing in situations where he could have chosen much less wisely. So go ahead and try “clicking and treating” for the absence of unwanted behavior and see how quickly your dog begins to enjoy the concept of doing nothing.