As a trainer, this is a question that potential clients often pose to me. Pet owners often look at their furry friends and think, “Why can’t he do this?” or “Why doesn’t he want to listen?” “What’s Wrong With My Dog?”
The fact is, we more often ask ourselves why our dogs are doing something that is unsatisfactory, rather than focusing on all of the things they can do. Why do we do this? I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, but we do know that even from an early age, we are taught to examine “which one of these is not like the other?” There are times when it is important to see what is missing. But too often when around dogs, we focus on the negative. That doesn’t help us help them.
If we focus on what the dog is doing, rather than on what he is not doing, then we can help him. Think of it this way: a scientist would not look at a dog and think, “Why doesn’t that animal vocalize like a cat?” The scientist would think, “How and why does that animal vocalize the way it does?” Looking for what is there leads to answers. Looking for what is not there leads to confusion and frustration.
So why do dogs do the things they do? As with all animals, it is usually something that is reinforcing. If you ask yourself “Why won’t my dog go outside to pee?” you will find your answer is “I don’t know.” If you ask yourself, “Why does he pee inside?” then you can start to think of answers like, “Maybe he is attracted to the smell on the carpet,” or “Maybe he doesn’t understand that it is better if he goes outside.” The act of peeing, in itself, is reinforcing. The dog is not being lazy or trying to dominate your home. It feels good to go. That’s it. Your dog might understand that you get angry when he pees inside, but that doesn’t tell him where to go. It does tell him to pee where you won’t see him.
Make peeing outside more reinforcing than peeing inside (a treat or a quick game of tug after the deed is done), and the dog is likely to want to pee outside the next time. Concentrate on the behavior you want, not on the one you don’t. Once you’ve set your dog up for successfully peeing outside, he will repeat that behavior and wonder what took you so long to enjoy his peeing as much as he does!
More ways to turn a negative question into one with an answer:
- Why can’t my dog stay off the counters? Think: Why does my dog want up on the counter? How can I make staying on the floor more enticing?
- Why can’t my dog stop digging in the garden? Think: Why does the dog want to dig? What if I give him a spot to dig in that is his own?
- Why does my dog have to bark at everything? Think: Does he really bark at everything? Are there times I can reinforce him for not barking?
- Why won’t my dog stop chewing my shoes? Think: Why is he chewing? Is there something better I can give him to chew on?
Many things that bother us like jumping, barking, chewing, and digging are natural behaviors. We should not try to stop them, but rather make it more reinforcing to do those behaviors at appropriate times and in appropriate places.
When you ask “What’s wrong with my dog?” follow that with “What is right with my dog?” Does he sometimes sit when asked? Work on reinforcing that so that he mostly, and then always, sits when asked. Can he come sometimes when called? Reinforce that so that he knows that coming to you when you call is the best thing he could ever do. Remember to reinforce the behaviors you want.
Sometimes there are legitimately things that could be off in your dog, either medically, physiologically, or psychologically. In those cases, it is best to visit your vet or a vet behaviorist to help you. If you are working with a positive-reinforcement trainer, he or she will recommend you talk to a vet or vet behaviorist if your dog looks likes he might have a serious medical or behavioral issue.
So, what’s wrong with your dog? I’ll tell you what’s not wrong! He is not lazy, sly, stubborn, mean, selfish, or dominant. Your pup just needs to understand you. He just needs to understand your definition of “right.” He just needs patience, consistency, and oh yeah…..reinforcement.
Lynn Webb, M.A., KPA CTP, CTMT