Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: 'Persistence pays off' is often not a good lesson for dogs to learn
When I first adopted my dog Kochi, I got a small, inexpensive wire crate for him. I recommend crating a puppy or new dog, if possible, until the dog is house-trained and you know it is safe to give the dog freedom — that way he won't do something dangerous for him or costly for you. I didn't know how Kochi would behave in the house, and because he was used to being kenneled, I thought this wire crate would be fine. I was wrong. He easily broke out of it, bending the wires and breaking the door. Kochi was fine, but the crate was toast.
The next crate I got was sturdier, with features that prevent a dog from getting his mouth around the wires to bend them. If a dog breaks out of a crate more than once, he will be convinced he can escape if he simply keeps trying. This persistence can be dangerous. I've known of dogs that have injured themselves, breaking teeth and cutting their feet by trying to escape, convinced that if they simply persist, they'll be free. After all, their previous efforts have worked. If the second crate I bought was just slightly stronger, and Kochi had tried again and ultimately had gotten out, the lesson he would have learned is “try harder.” Just as the little girl in the cartoon kept bugging her mother until ultimately she gave in, a dog that has had to work harder and is successful, learns this same lesson: persistence!
Such extreme as a dog hurting himself demonstrate how very persistent dogs can be once their efforts have been reinforced. Owners often unintentionally reward and reinforce dogs' persistence in many ways.
For instance, let's say a dog nudges your arm to be petted and you try to ignore him, or tell him “enough” or “no more,” terms that mean “I'm not going to pet you now.” Not knowing what “enough” means, he nudges your arm again, and you unconsciously start stroking him. He just learned persistence. When a dog begs at the table and you ignore him, but he looks so cute and sad so you give him something “just this once,” you have set the stage for stronger, more annoying behavior — rewarding his persistence.
A few days ago on our walk, as Kochi and I were returning home, we passed a house where a small dog was tied to a tree on a harness. The dog barked at us and immediately looked toward the front door. Looking back at us, he barked again, then looked at the front door again. It was clear he was used to having someone come out to get him when he barked. We were well past this house and the dog was still barking/looking, fully expecting to be rescued at any moment. And I'm sure he was — probably after his barking had persisted for a while.
If your dog engages in annoying, persistent behavior, and you want to eliminate it, try ignoring it. When your dog stops the annoying behavior, praise your dog for the good behavior you like. If the behavior doesn't improve, talk to a positive trainer about ways to eliminate it. Whatever you do, please don't resort to physical punishment. There are many non-punitive approaches that work quickly and beautifully. Just as important, punishment rarely works.
Free film screening
All Dogs Gym will be showing the movie “Tough Love: A Meditation on Dominance and Dogs” from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21. Directly after the movie, Chad Montrie, the director and cinematographer, will be available for questions.
This event is free, but space is limited. To reserve a seat, please call All Dogs Gym at 669-4644 or email email@example.com and specify how many people will be coming.
Gail Fisher, author of “The Thinking Dog,” runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a column topic, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.
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