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.


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 Importantance of Your Dog’s Questions

Set your course by the stars, not by the light of every passing ship.  - Anon.

All that sass...

All that sass…

My daughter, River (aged almost-10), and I got into a battle of wills the other day.  I realize it’s part of growing up: expressing a difference of opinions, not readily agreeing with with everyone says, and generally breaking away a bit.  Just because it’s a normal phase (and let’s face it, necessary), doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Or even fight those battles.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I am not my daughter’s “alpha” any more than I am my dog’s “alpha”.  That term actually disgusts me.  What I’m here to do is answer questions for my daughter as long as she needs me to do so.  As she gets older, the questions get less frequent, but more intense and definitely more serious.  When she was 4, she wanted to know if she could have candy for dinner (um…no).  Now that she’s a tween, she wants to know if she can spend hours on her computer and neglect her homework.  It’s obviously not a question that is vocalized, but rather asked through her actions (or lack thereof).  Again, the answer is “no”.  Eventually, she will be at a point where she doesn’t need me to answer her questions anymore (though she still may want to seek my advice). I will hopefully have done my job as a parent, and showed her how to think for herself; how to take information and act upon it.

It’s a difficult break when the time comes, but as a human, that’s my goal:  a child who will always be my little girl. To the rest of the world however, she will be a strong, courageous woman capable of both standing up for what is right, but also apologizing when she’s wrong.

River in full bloom.

River in full bloom.

I raise my kids in a very similar way that I raise my dogs.  No, really.  I’m here to answer my kids’ and my dogs’ questions.  As far as my dogs go, Sparta’s big questions usually involve other dogs, and if they are a threat or not.  For Orion, it’s usually about a fear of being separated from me.  I’m not their “alpha”.  I’m the person who has answered all of their questions in a way that they understand, and doesn’t scare them. I don’t lose my temper…at least not in front of them.  (Hint: It’s okay to walk away.)  The difference between dogs and kids, though, is that you aren’t raising dogs to be independent.  Dogs will always require a Pilot to help them navigate our human world.  The important thing to remember, is that it is still their right to question our answers.

Let me repeat that: a dog is allowed to ask questions, and to challenge the answers you have given them. 


The key is that you have the right to stand firm in your answer.  For instance, Sparta’s main question, as I’ve stated in an many posts, has to do with other dogs.  She perceives them as a threat.  Her question is usually, “Should I kill it before it kills me?”.

Of course my answer is “no”.  But it is her right not to immediately accept my answer.  I call it the Are You Sure.   The object of the game isn’t to bully her into accepting that my answer is valid and correct.  It’s to help her understand that I will stand firm in this answer, and that I will keep answering her questions until she accepts my answer.

Look at it from a human perspective.  I recently bought a new house, and did a 100% gut and remodel of the interior.  During the process, I was convinced that I wanted hardwood floors.  I love the look, the feel and just the vibe of hardwood.  My husband, on the other hand, suggested tile floors.

No way.

So he set about answering my concerns about it:

It will look cheap. No, there’s tiles that look exactly like hardwood floors.

We can’t refinish it like hardwood. We won’t need to refinish it; it’s so much more durable than hardwood.  

It’s cold.  We can put radiant heating under it.  

So eventually, I took the leap of faith (after many, many more rounds of Q & A). I accepted his answers to my questions.  We put in the tile.  

And I love it!

But bear in mind that my husband did not “alpha” his way into getting me to accept his answer.  He gave his answers in a calm manner.  He didn’t ignore my questions, nor did he try to distract me from my questions about the tile.  He definitely didn’t use an electric shock collar on me to get me to accept his answer (I mean, wtf?!).  He answered questions for me until I felt that his answers made more sense than mine did.   Now, I’m not going to say I can always be this cool and rational about a difference of opinion.  After all, I’m human, and so is he.  We sometimes throw emotions into it.  The really nifty thing is that dogs don’t.  They are logical, sensical beings who, once you have a higher amount of money in your Piloting Piggy Bank than they have, will acquiesce. And the more money you have in your bank, the more they trust your answers.

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

I will never bully my way into being Pilot.  I want them to ask questions of me. To feel safe asking questions that I will always answer for them (to the best of my ability).  One cannot use the pain of a shock collar to establish your role as Pilot.  That role is earned, not inherited just because I have opposable thumbs and they don’t.  I answer their questions.  And most importantly, I choose my battles.  Yes, I usually answer their questions (“Can I bark at the mailman?”  ”May I please have a treat?” “Can I pull on the leash?”) but only if I feel mentally capable of doing so at time.  I need to be calm and rational when answering questions.  Not harried and frustrated.  Let’s be frank, the more I answer their questions, the more money I get in my Piloting Piggy Bank.  But sometimes, I just don’t have it in me, and that’s fine.  As I told my husband the other day, I win 100% of the battles I choose to fight with our dogs (and our kids!).

So that battle with River I had? It really wasn’t a battle of wills.  It was a battle of my being tired after working all day, along with her being a tween and trying to move her boundaries forward.  But I’m the adult.  I’m her Pilot.  I knew I wasn’t in a position to Pilot her correctly when I was tired, so I didn’t.  I told her issue was valid for discussion, and that we would address it in the morning when we were both more rational.  I stood hard and firm in that conviction, and gently, but firmly negated her attempts to discuss at that moment.  After a few “Are You Sure’s” from her, she accepted that answer, and we did end up discussing it in the morning.

And you know what?  I answered her original question (Can I have a later bedtime) with a positive.  She presented her answers why she should be allowed, and I agreed.  She was right.  Piloting isn’t always about standing firm in your convictions; it’s about being able to change your views when presented with more information.  That’s what Piloting is about: giving the correct answer, not the easiest nor the most convenient. And that’s how to win a battle correctly.

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Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio