Negative-Only Training: Why It's Detrimental
Updated: Sep 17
The art of communication is the language of leadership.
- James Humes
My 14-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, and will be graduating from high school at 17 with an associates degree. He's extremely goal oriented, and I think he was a Border Collie in a past life. Overachiever is an understatement.
The other day, the kids were were helping me around the house, as they always do. But Eric just kept messing up, and ended by spilling an 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.
My immediate reaction was extreme frustration over the situation.
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;
Now your ready to engage with what you have in front of you.
Damn. I wasn’t even within shouting distance of step one at that point, and I knew it would take a bit for me to control myself. 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 incident.
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.
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 even just a little bit. I had visions of my son flipping me off.
Me: 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 or even a small treat.
Dramatic decrease in negative energy from both dog and owner.
- Hanging out with 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.
Me: 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. Let him know he’s on the right path: calmness.
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.
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio