Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.
– Thomas Merton
We all want to do what’s right for the ones we love. We show them how much we care about them through many various actions. It just feels good to give them what they want. But unfortunately, what they want isn’t always what they need. Children require negatives sometimes. No, you can’t have ice-cream for dinner. No, you don’t need to be afraid of a thunderstorm. The same goes for our dogs.
As previously mentioned, dogs ask a lot of questions themselves: Can I eat this? Is the mailman going to kill us? Can I sleep on the couch? Some of the answers are an obvious “no” and require a negative answer.
People confuse negative reinforcement with pain, wrath and punishment. Do you live in a purple house? You probably (hopefully) answered “no”. That’s a negative answer. Were you angry or wrathful when the answer was given? Nope. It was just a statement of fact. You respected me enough to answer a question I asked. Now let’s have enough respect for our dogs to answer their questions as well. And believe me, dogs have a lot of questions.
For example, I just fed my cat, Echo, his wet food. Orion and Echo seem to have this merry little war between them (that apparently only Orion knows about). One of Orion’s questions this morning was: Can I eat Echo’s food? There is no way to put a positive spin on this answer. The answer is “no”, an I will most definitely give it him. Once he’s accepted the answer to his question, I’m done. No punishment. No fury. No anger. It was a completely legitimate question that needed an answer, so I gave it to him. The more questions I answer for Orion in a calm manner, the more money I get in my Piloting Piggy Bank, and remember, whomever has the most money is the Pilot. Every time you answer a question, you are taking money out of your dog’s account and putting it into your piggy bank. He gets used to the fact that no does indeed mean no, but he also gets used to the fact that “no” isn’t accompanied by threats, violence, yelling or frustration. It’s just the opposite of “yes”.
Answering your dog’s questions are what makes you Pilot, especially when the answer is “no”. Think about the times you need to tell your dog “no”. Can I jump on you? Is the person at the front door going to hurt us? Should I be afraid at the vet? All of those are “no” answers, but more importantly, they are integral ”no” answers. No amount of positives is going to soothe a dogs when they are afraid at the vet’s office. Their question was: ”Is this guy in the white coat going to kill me?”, not “Can I have a biscuit?”. Yes, you can indeed get your dog distracted for a little bit at the vet’s office with a treat, but how long does that last? Not very. The answer they are looking for is “No, the vet isn’t going to hurt you.” Please give it to them. Don’t circumvent the answer by what feels good to you: avoiding the question entirely.
The thing about negatives is that when you are answering your dog’s questions, they make your dog feel safer. They make your dog feel as if you have control of their chaotic world. A dog who’s questions aren’t answered make me think of how much I hate driving in the dark during heavy rain. Especially if there aren’t any street lights. All you want to see is the road markers; where you shouldn’t go, and where you should be. It’s the same with your dog: they want to see where they should be instead of floundering all over the place asking questions that never get an answer.
So, how do you tell a dog “no”? Simple: calmly. You can read more here about the actual techniques I use, but it all starts with calm.
I’ve seen a lot of people go pretty far out of their way to avoid giving a simple “no” answer, as if the very word were evil. I had a woman recently whose dog would bite at your fingers while you tried to give the dog a treat. Another trainers response? Drop the food on the floor so you don’t get bit! Why not just answer the dog’s question (“Can I be rude?”) with the appropriate answer, which is “no”?! Needless to say, through no fault of her own, the dog had become a biting mess, fully expecting everything thing it wished. Again, 100% positive answers do not work with children, and does not work with dogs.
Now, here’s the thing about positive reinforcement: the more you answer your dog’s negative questions, the more often you are able to give positives to them. For example, as I’m writing this blog post, Echo’s food is still on the floor, and Orion is hyper about it. So Orion and I had a “conversation”:
Hey, mom! Can I eat Echo’s food? He doesn’t look like he wants it!
No, you may not, Orion.
How about now?
No, you may not Orion.
Ok. Hey mom, can I be hyper about not getting Echo’s food?
No you may not Orion.
Orion accepted the answer about Echo’s food, but I could tell it was difficult for him. Calm is what he needed, so I put him into a stay on his mat. He’s been there about 20 minutes now. After about the first 5 minutes, he stopped asking me if he could get up now (of course the answer was “no”). When he dropped his head on his paws and completely relaxed, I was able to start giving him positives.
Hey, mom, am I supposed to be chilled out over here?
Yes, Orion. Good dog.
Good dog, Orion.
Every few moments I’m looking over at him and giving him a gentle word of praise, as in, yes, you are on the right path, Orion. This is indeed what you should be doing. That feels good to me, because I like giving him positives. And now that this blog post is done, Orion and I are going to do some agility, and it sounds like this:
Hey Mom? Am I supposed to go over?
Yes! Great job!!!!!
Hey Mom? Am I supposed to go under?
Hey Mom? Am I supposed to go through?
No. Try again
Ooops! I got it now. I’m supposed to go back under?
Yes, Orion!!!!!! You’re such a good little boy!!!!!
Thanks for answering my question, Mom!
All photographs generously provided by Brittany Graham Photography.