We are often left to ponder why our dogs behave badly without taking a look at ourselves and how we’re communicating with our pups. Superior and effective communication is the key to all good relationships. Communication between you and your dog is even more important because we speak completely different languages. In the human world, it seems that most behavior is somewhere between good and bad…in the grey area, if you will. In a dog’s world, however, there really is no grey area; it’s either good or bad.
Our pups have trouble understanding shades of grey when it comes to situations and our expectations. In order to achieve clarity when you communicate with your dog, you must eliminate grey areas in your training.
Humans typically approach things situationally, e.g., my dog can jump on me when I come home as long as I am not in my nice work clothes, or my dog can come up with me in the bed as soon as my partner leaves, but never while he or she is home. Our reactions are dependent on the situation.
Dogs, on the other hand, are unable to use reasoning skills. They are unable to understand the slight nuances that we as humans take for granted. Conflict arises when a dog doesn’t understand how its behavior elicits such different responses. Conflict can often create negative, unwanted, and sometimes even aggressive behavior. It can even create some neurotic behaviors like spinning in circles or tail-chasing. This is because the animal is confused and doesn’t understand that their behavior will elicit reward or punishment, so they are desperately trying to find a coping skill to help them feel better.
We must achieve maximum clarity and effective communication with our dogs. We must convey the meaning and our intentions exactly and our dogs must be able to accurately predict which behaviors we want and which we don’t want. So, how do we do this?
Mark Both Good and Bad Behaviors
We must mark the behavior we want the moment that it happens with a verbal cue. A well timed “Good!” or “Yes!” or the clicker followed up with a treat says to your dog “THAT’S WHAT I WANT!” You must be consistent and mark and reward the behavior immediately when the dog shows it. This will ensure continuation of the behavior and, in time, understanding.
It is also helpful if we mark the behaviors we don’t want with a verbal cue, something like “Ah ah!” or simply “No”, to communicate to our dog where they went wrong. Overly physical correction is not warranted; in fact, your hands never need to touch the dog. Simply withhold the reward. Your dog will realize when they hear the negative verbal cue that the specific behavior is wrong and they do not need to show it again if they want to be rewarded.
You must be consistent! Teach your pup that there is only one path to a reward. This allows your dog to have a clear mind and not waste their energy trying to cope with the unknown. We must teach them through consistency and clear communication how to learn. This clarity allows them to be successful and will lead not only to better obedience, but also a much stronger bond with us—and that’s really what dog ownership is all about!