The Danger of Negative-Only Training

The art of communication is the language of leadership.

- James Humes

wordsMy 12-year old son flipped me off the other day.

And I did nothing about it.

Probably not how you expected this blog post to start. Definitely not how you may have expected me to react, either. Let me set the scenario for you, though.

Eric is the most well-behaved child I have ever met.  He’s always been that way.  Does what he’s told.  Takes responsibility for his actions.  He’s currently maintaining a 3.8 GPA.  I totally don’t deserve this kid, and I know it.

My daughter, well…I should have named her Karma, because I earned her.  I know that, too.

The other day, the kids were home on a snow day, and I was trying to use my one day off to clean the house.  They were helping me, as they always do.  But Eric just kept messing up.

Spilling the entire bucket of water on the floor.  Eric go clean that up now!

Tripping over the vacuum  cord and unplugging it.  Eric, you’re not helping; go plug it back in!

Using oil soap to clean the stainless steel appliances.  Nice…now you have to go clean it twice as hard.  

It was this scenario all day.  The final straw was when I turned a corner the same moment he did and we crashed into each other, causing him to drop the garbage bag he was holding, spilling its contents everywhere.  I rolled my eyes and told him in an exasperated voice to clean it up now.

My immediate reaction was extreme frustration.

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

I swear by the danishes on my head….!

As he was walking by me, I saw him with his middle finger pressed up against his chest, as if I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t believe he would flip off his own mother!  Especially Eric.  It would be like hearing Shirley Temple drop an “F” bomb.

 

 

Yeah, I was furious.  But I had sense enough to never engage with anything when I’m furious.  As usual, I recited my Darwin Dogs’ mantra:

Step one - Control yourself; 

Step two - Control the situation; 

Step three - Engage.

Damn.  I wasn’t even within shouting distance of step one at that point.  I retired to my room to collect myself and left the kids downstairs to finish cleaning, and busied myself with writing blog posts instead.

I came back downstairs about an hour later.  They had finished cleaning the house.  Alone.  Without my constant nagging.  It was at that moment I realized that I had been making the situation wretched.  I had two kids who had a day off of school cleaning my house without complaint.  I had accidentally asked them to be adults, and then neglected to treat them with respect.  Was it my fault? Yes and no.  A certain number of things need to be done.  But how I went about them?  Completely wrong.

Yes, Eric needed to be Piloted, and have his questions answered, be they asked in a verbal or non-verbal fashion.  But how had I reacted all day?  With constant negatives.  Nit-picking, if you will.  His body language should have told me how he was starting to feel, but I didn’t pay attention.  I didn’t notice he looked dejected.  He had no respite, and I had essentially backed him into a corner to the point where he flipped me off (albeit, incognito).  He felt he had no voice. That’s not normally how I do things.

My kids are a constant source of learning for me.  You’ll see them splashed all over the Darwin Dogs’ blog as well as on the Facebook page.  They have made me a better dog trainer, and my dogs have made me a better parent.  That’s why I didn’t react when Eric flipped me off: I’ve been working with dogs in a flight or flight state for many years.  I recognize the reaction when I see it.  When you feel as if you can’t take any more stimuli and you’re stressed beyond all belief.

And I was the one who put Eric into that state.

Technically, you can say he should have spoken up.  Problem is, he’s only 12.  Second problem is, he never advocates for himself.  He takes orders and requests to heart, completing them no matter how crazy they sound.  He’s like a tiny little soldier.  I had just pushed him to far.

What would I do differently next time?  Still correct him, but realize that when I engage while frustrated, I’m merely chucking my emotions onto him, which is unfair.  Nothing is of such extreme importance that it can’t wait for me to regain my composure.

Nothing.

So yes, I’m allowed to get angry, frustrated, and upset, but it’s my job to set the example, starting with Step 1: Control yourself.  Also, even if he did need all of those negatives, why didn’t I throw a positive in there?  Stop and reboot. A simple deep breath followed by a , “Hey kids, let’s take a break and have some wine cookies”, would have prevented the entire instance.

I talked with Eric, and told him that while flipping me off was not the appropriate response, that I realized why he did it.  He felt he had no voice.  He was trapped, so he became aggressive (for Eric, anyway).  I apologized for my inability to control neither myself, nor the situation.  But part of my raising Eric includes helping him learn to advocate for himself.  Let me know when you need help, even if it’s help from me. Because another part of raising kids is letting them know it’s okay to not be perfect.  Just do better.

The last several weeks I have had many opportunities to use the lesson Eric taught me that day. Dogs can’t speak, though, so it’s up to us to know and read their language (hint: body language).  In my head, I call it “a little bird told me”. 

- Working with a Buddy, a rottie who is dog reactive, and owner who was giving the correct (non-emotional) negatives, but failed to give their dog any positives when they calmed down just a little bit. I had visions of my son flipping me off.

“A little bird told me a bit of positive will help reduce his stress level in this situation…yours as well. The moment his energy drops, even a little, sneak in a gentle scratch behind his ears.”  Dramatic decrease in negative energy from both dog and owner.

- Hanging out with Wesson, a ridiculously adorable terrier mix who was experiencing separation anxiety.  His owners underestimated the power of positive in the situation. That little bird had more information to give.

“A little bird told me once it’s best to wait until he’s quiet(er) and walk up to the crate and pass him a treat. Next time he’s quiet(er) give him a gentle scratch through the crate.  Final time, let him come out.f  Let him know he’s on the right path: calm.”  Slow, but steady progress was made. 

- Or my all-time favorite: a woman named Ann who owned a Cane Corso named Coco, who would go bananas at anything and everything: door, other dogs, people.  Coco was an unholy and snarling mess of anxiety.   Ann was terrified to go out the door with Coco because she had behaved so violently in the past, dragging Ann down the street.  Ann was visibly shaken at the thought of going for a walk with Coco.  Up until I met her, she had been only allowing Coco to potty in the back yard, and then returning her to the house, yelling at Coco if she even looked at anything

So what did I do?

I realized that Ann was the one who needed a positive. Ann was the one who was terrified.  Yes, Coco was, too, and was only trying to protect Ann from Everything In The Whole Wide World, but Ann was doing the best she could, and she just couldn’t anymore. Ann needed a pep talk, and a very small walk, just to get her feet wet (literally out the front door  with Coco and then right back in).  Now I had my opportunity to dole out the positives for both of them.  Ann felt as if she had accomplished something.  And sometimes it’s not about accomplishing it all. Ann is creating a small series of “somethings” and positives. Life is a series of small somethings bundled up together.  It’s up to you if you want the bundle to contain mostly negatives, or mostly positives.

A little bird told me that.

 

The Difference Between Dogs and Kids

Raising children is a creative endeavor, an art rather than a science.
- Bruno Bettelheim

I had a parent a few weeks ago ask me if I knew how to train kids.  I find the question funny both because I hear that a lot, and because there really isn’t much difference between raising kids and raising dogs.  Neither are (fully) domesticated, both emit strange odors, and each are a joy to come home to, regardless of what kind of mischief they’ve gotten into in the past few hours.  To answer the parent’s question, I sent her this article from a few years back.  Eric and River are currently 12 & 10, but still amazing, wonderful kids.

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I dragged my kids (Eric, 9 and River, 7) yesterday to Jo-Ann’s.  That’s right up there on the “fun-o-meter” as getting vaccinations for them.  I spent about 20 minutes trying to find what it was that I needed.  They stuck right by me.  As they passed in front of someone standing in an aisle, they politely said, “Excuse me”.  As we left, the cashier wished me a happy holiday.  I wished her the same thing.  My children chimed in with “Have a great day!”.  They followed me out to the car, with Eric automatically taking River’s hand to help her across the parking lot.  I put on their favorite song in the car, to which the both said, “Thank you” as soon as the first few notes became recognizable.

Magic?  DNA jackpot?  Nope.  Repetition, repetition, repetition.  My children know what good manners are and are able to execute them because of a couple of factors.

  • I set them up for success.  River has problems behaving if she hasn’t had enough protein.  Eric can become overwhelmed in crowds.  Both are very hyper and need outlets for their energy.  If I take River to the store right before lunch after she’s been on the computer all morning, well, then, it’s my fault if she “misbehaves”, isn’t it?  I know the parameters within which she’s capable of behaving.  If I drag her outside that area, how is she supposed to behave?  It’s like taking a car off the road and into a lake, and then wondering why it isn’t working properly.
  • I give a negative when necessary.  I don’t like people being treated in a dismissive fashion, be it a waitress, cashier or any other individual, for that matter.  I want my children to have the same mind-set.  That person behind the counter isn’t a robot, they are a human, and worthy of good manners.  Sometimes when I’d be completing a transaction, my children’s minds would float off.  The clerk would wish me a good day, and I’d thank them and wish them a pleasant day as well.  My children would sometimes forget to reply in kind.  ”Excuse me?”, I would say to them, giving them an opportunity to fix their omission. They usually give the appropriate response at that point. Sometimes a bit more negative is necessary.  The other day, both kids were being little wretches in the car.  They had been set up for success, as I described above, but they started bickering in the car.  I reminded them twice that this behavior was unacceptable.  They started again.  They each lost use of their computers for two days as a result.  No, I don’t like doing that to them, but my job as a parent isn’t to always like what I do: my job is to parent. Just as I don’t enjoy taking my kids to the doctor for vaccinations and causing them (temporary) discomfort, it’s for the greater good, so I yuck it up and do it anyway.
  • I praise/reward behavior that I want.  How much does a word of praise cost you?  Nothing.  When my children passed in front of the person in the aisle at Jo-Ann’s and used good manners, I complimented them on their manners.  When we got to the car, I put on their favorite song as a tiny reward for their behavior in purgatory Jo-Ann’s.  I do expect good manners from them, but manners can become linked with a positive.  In their minds, being well-behaved can get them anything from a word of praise (often) to a trip for ice-cream (less often, but still feasible).  Manners are good because when used, something good usually happens.
River and Eric at their favorite ice-cream shop.

River and Eric at their favorite ice-cream shop.

Pretty soon my kids were on auto-pilot.  They can fly through most situations without prompts from me, navigating the complexities of manners quite nicely.  Until the day I die, I will still compliment them on their manners whenever presented the opportunity to do so.  Again, what does a kind word cost you?  Nothing.

So you’re probably wondering, When does this article start to talk about dogs?  Isn’t that why I’m here?  Who’s to say I haven’t been talking about our canine companions the whole time?  Raising dogs and kids, to some degree, isn’t much different.

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  • I set them up for success.  Cody is a 9-month old Labradoodle.Labradoodle (n.) – Latin for perpetual motion.  See also: Hyperactivity.  Frivolity.

    Cody is an exceptionally sweet, kind, and loving animal. But at this young age, he has a very distinct set of circumstances that need to be adhered to to attain good behavior. For example, right now Cody is contentedly sleeping on the floor by my feet as I work on my computer.  This didn’t just happen.  I knew I needed to get some work done today, so Cody got an extra does of the PAW Method.  I gave him his Activity when we went for an extra long walk while wearing his backpack.  We then handled his Work needs by working on some new tricks with him and then feeding him through his enrichment feeder.  He is set up for success now.

  • I give a negative when necessary.  I’m ready to work, but Cody starts asking me a lot of questions:

    Can I play with the cat?  No.  Can I throw my ball around? No.  Can I play with the cat?  No.

I will continue to answer his questions as he asks them.  The first time he asks me about the cat, I use gentle negative body language from my seated position.  The next time he asks, I get up and “claim” the cat with my body, using much stronger body language.  Cody’s response?  Okay! Got it…so that’s a “no” on the cat then, right?

  • I praise/reward behavior that I want. Cody grabs a chew toy and plops down by my feet.  That’s a couple different positives I need to address there: he’s calmed himself down, and he’s redirected himself in an appropriate manner (the chew toy).  I give him a few seconds to “settle in” to this behavior, and then I gently start scratching his head.  He doubles down on the chew toy, so I up my ante and start to give him some very gentle very softly-spoken praise (I want him calm, so riling him up would be my bad).  He continues along the righteous path.  I stop petting him so I can start working, but every few minutes give him a word of gentle praise.  Pretty soon he drops his chew toy and puts his head down.  He’s ready to sleep.  I whip out the big guns:  a single Cheerio.  Cody is in the process of learning what’s acceptable behavior.  He needs to have his positive behaviors marked with a pretty strong positive.  That’s how he learns what we want from him.  Catching the moment.  I try to catch as many of his moments as I can, which means a lot of Touch, Talk, Treat.  He’d get sick on so many larger treats, so I use Cheerios.  Eventually, I’ll start to wean off the treats and focus on touch and talk.  But for now, he’s still learning.

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It’s a process.  I expect mistakes (mostly from me).  It’s difficult, but oh so rewarding.  I don’t expect perfection; that’s only at the end of the rainbow.  What you’re working for is much more precious than perfection:  you’re working towards being a family.  That’s even better than perfection.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio