I love love love answering questions. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve been to many events where I’ve put out a donations box with an “Ask the Trainer” sign and reveled in the challenge of coming up with a helpful answer to every question. 

When I am with a client or in a class/seminar, I will answer the same question over and over again without hesitation, knowing it can take many repetitions to get the message across and the answer to stick. 

The questions serve many purposes: They not only allow me to share the most up-to-date information available, but also they give me important insights into what comprises the POGs’ database of information, how motivated they are to work, what is lacking, what is causing the problem. 

Among these many questions are productive, insightful ones which make me glow with happiness. But there is one question that I am almost guaranteed to hear at the beginning of any POG contact; unfortunately, is also the one I have determined is the most destructive, the most counterproductive, and the biggest obstacle to fixing any problem I’ve been summoned to handle.

It is this: What do I do when Sparky does [bad thing]?

The “bad thing” can be anything from doesn’t come to pulls on walks to jumps to growls to bites. It really doesn’t matter what the Thing Dog Does You Don’t Want Dog to Do is. The problem is the question itself. The problem is that the POG is asking it at all.

Asking that question tells me that the POG is:

 – being reactive instead of proactive, meaning s/he is not preventing the “bad” behavior from happening so it can be forgotten and replaced.

 – allowing the “bad” behavior to continue, meaning the dog is practicing and reinforcing that behavior over and over.

 – focused on the wrong thing: correcting the “bad” behavior instead of creating the “good” behavior.

 – sees the unacceptable behavior as something “bad” that needs to be “corrected” instead of a habit that needs to be replaced. (Dogs don’t have a right/wrong value system, so it is an exercise in futility to try to teach them right from wrong.)

When I hear that question, I know that the technique and timing of the loving, caring POG’s actions are so far off that the result is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what s/he is trying to accomplish. To wit: The POG is making the situation worse instead of better. 

How can that be? Here’s a typical scenario:

The question: What should I do when Sparky jumps?

 – Usual scenario: Once dog has jumped, POG reacts in one of many ways — from saying No/Off/Down/Sit, pushing the dog down, holding the dog down or some less-kind ways I won’t go into here. The dog is talked to, touched, petted, etc. all of which are ways of reinforcing behavior. 

All these great things happen AFTER the jump has occurred. Dog is satisfied with the result of the jump and learns that every time he wants attention like that, a jump is exactly the way to get it. 

Meanwhile, POG thinks that the problem has been successfully handled because the jumping has stopped. 

The truth is the following pattern has been taught: Jump => Get Attention. POG has not corrected anything, the jumping will recur. POG reaction will get more intense, further reinforcing the behavior. 

Here’s another typical scenario:

The question: What should I do when Sparky pulls on the leash?

 – Usual scenario: Once dog is pulling, POG reacts in one many ways — from saying No, jerking the dog back, telling dog to sit, winding the leash up until the dog is beside POG in a tight-leash death grip, speeding up to let dog get some energy out/do her business/enjoy her walk and hoping for a slowdown later. The dog is talked to, touched, petted, treated, etc. and also gets to keep walking, all of which are ways of reinforcing behavior.

All these things happen AFTER the dog has pulled. Dog is satisfied with the results of pulling and learns that whenever he wants to get to something and/or get attention, all he has to do is pull.

Meanwhile, POG thinks s/he has successfully communicated with the dog because eventually, from tiredness, satiation or pure luck, the dog walks on a loose leash for awhile.

The truth is the following pattern has been taught: Pull => Get Where I Want to Go. POG has not corrected anything, the pulling will recur. POG reaction will get more intense, further reinforcing the behavior. 

See a pattern? Good! Want to create a different one that will actually address the problem behavior? 

The better question

There is a similar but much much better question to ask that puts POGs in proactive/teaching mode instead of reactive/corrective mode. 

It is: What’s the best way to deal with a dog that does X?

Now we’re talking! And here’s the simple answer: 

  1. Prevent the behavior you don’t like.
  2. Teach a new behavior you do like using fun and motivating rewards like food.
  3. Ask for and reward the new behavior in the situation the old behavior usually happens in.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat!!

And if the old behavior does happen (which it will because no one is perfect)? Then interrupt quietly (that means no talking), slowly, with as little energy as possible. Wait for a calm down/different choice from your dog. Pile on the rewards for that. Over time, your dog will make the practical choice to doing the new rewarding behavior instead of the old behavior that no longer delivers for him.

And you will never have to ask the Worst Question Ever again!

Need more? See my books Reverse Dog Training: A Fresh Perspective for Solving Common Problems and I’ve Never Had a Dog like This! How Modern Society Has Impacted Our Best Friend and What We Can Do About It.