“After the Fact” Is Way Too Late!
By Daniel Collinsworth
You know the scenario. You come home and your dog has made a mess on the rug, or chewed the corner off the coffee table, or eaten the lasagna you had sitting on top of the stove to cool. You immediately give your dog the eye and, not surprisingly, he gets that guilt-striken look on his face and starts slinking away.
“A-ha!” you exclaim, “You know what you did! You just couldn’t help yourself, and now you feel guilty!”
Going with the moment, you punish your dog with a swat to the head with a newspaper, or a stern “No! Bad dog! Baaaaaad dog! You don’t eat food off the counter!” Or maybe you even banish him to another room with the door shut, to really show him who’s boss. “He knew what he did,” you think afterwards, feeling confident that you taught him a lesson he won’t soon forget.
…Or did you?
The Unmistakable Face of Guilt
We’ve all seen that guilt-striken face, haven’t we? The one that says, “I did it, I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have.” There’s just one problem… dogs don’t feel guilt! Guilt is an exclusively human emotion, so while it’s not surprising that we ascribe our emotions onto our dogs, we are mistaken in doing so. Dogs don’t have morals, and they certainly don’t have moral dilemmas. They act on instincts, impulses, and conditioning. If a dog gets into the lasagna that was sitting on top of the stove, you can be sure that he enjoyed every moment of it and walked away from the scene of the crime feeling nothing but a full, satisfied belly. And perhaps a feeling of incredible luck.
That “look of guilt” is nothing but your dog’s reaction to your upset/angry/annoyed demeanor and body language. A dog’s first language is body language â€“ that is how dogs communicate with eachother. Therefore, your body language is very important to your dog and he reads it constantly to understand you. When you see that mess on the floor and your face tightens up, and your eyes glare, and your shoulders drop, your dog is getting a very clear message from you: “I’m feeling aggressive and you’re standing right in my way!”
No wonder your dog gets that look on his face and starts to slink away. This is his way of saying, “I see you’re not happy, and now I’m showing you that I’m no threat to you. You’re the boss, I’m just gonna back away slowly now and get out of your way.”
It has nothing to do with feeling guilty about what he did. This is very important to keep in mind â€“ you’ll discover why in the following section.
Timing is Everything
Dogs live their whole lives in the present moment. In a dog’s eyes, punishment and reward must be immediate. In the litter, if a puppy mouths the mother too hard, he gets a quick nip from her right then and there. Dogs connect punishment and reward with whatever they are doing in that very moment. Here are a few examples of ineffective punishment and reward:
* You are housetraining your dog, and you stand just inside the door as he goes out and does his business. He relieves himself, sniffs around a bit, then trots back into the house. You lavish him with praise and possibly a cookie. He’ll love the attention and the treat but he won’t associate it with eliminating outside. An effective reward would have been given outside, the very moment he finished.
* You come home from work and find that your dog has urinated on the living room rug. You bring him close to the urine spot, point at it and say, “No! Bad dog!” before cleaning it up. This is just confusing to him… he won’t understand why the urine is making you angry, and might resort to urinating in a more hidden area so you won’t find it in the future. If you find a mess, just clean it up and work on out taking him out more regularly (and praise him when he gets it right) so that he learns outside is the proper place to relieve himself.
* You discover one of your most expensive pairs of shoes has been completely demolished by your dog. You shove the mangled shoe in his face and tell him what a bad dog he is, and that he should never eat your shoes again. Your dog doesn’t know the value of your shoe, nor does he understand the concept of a shoe that is unwearable because it has been chewed up. Make sure he has plenty of toys to chew on, and keep your shoes behind closed closet doors.
Remember: Dogs don’t associate “right now” with 2 minutes / 30 minutes / 2 hours ago! They only associate “right now” with “right now”!
Daniel Collinsworth More dog training articles can be found here: Dog Training Basics
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