I wrote a book called “Beyond the Basics.”
The purpose of this book is not to give you specific steps to solve a problem as much as to offer a framework for how to think about problems – which is likely to lead to rather obvious solutions.
I’ve been discussing the ‘Un-Problems” on my blog on and off for a few months, under different names, so I’ve decided to share that chapter of the book in it’s entirety here. This book ties in very well to my thoughts about raising puppies and children with a similar approach.
If you’d like to purchase the book and read the rest of it, you can buy it directly off of my website (in the United States) for the next week for $14 – a good deal! Use the following link and the $5 discount will be applied automatically at checkout.
Outside the US, Amazon is generally your best bet.
CH 10: The Un-Problems
A behavior is a problem because a human says it is. That way of thinking leaves us with a distinctly one-sided view of dog behavior, which this book has attempted to address on various levels. When you consider all the ways dogs annoy us, it’s a wonder that anyone even wants to have a dog! It’s also a wonder that dogs manage to live with us at all, since at times it appears that we are bound and determined to take the dog out of the dog.
Let’s take a moment to consider a completely different point of view. Not only the dog’s point of view, but the bigger picture too! Before we define something as a problem, we might be wise to take another look. Let’s turn our attention to the “Un-Problems.”
Un-problems are those things which are not appropriate targets for change, at least not at a given moment in time. After all, we are dealing with sentient beings who have rights of their own. For example, by virtue of living with you in your house, your dog will increase the overall quantity of dirt, smell, drool, and general mess in your house. While those living in your home might find this an irritation, most rational people would also recognize that it’s not the dog’s responsibility to change. It’s simply a reality of his existence. This doesn’t change the fact that it might be a problem for others living in the house, but it is not a problem that is suitable for change.
Most people understand that the dog can’t simply choose not to shed or smell! How can that possibly be called a problem? Yet, those same people might hold a much harder line when the issue at hand is one of behavior, even when that behavior is tightly linked to the reality of being a dog.
Training needs to be realistic. That’s why this chapter looks at the un-problems, those things our dogs do which annoy humans, and yet shouldn’t be a target of change.
You’ve just acquired a new puppy! Left to their own devices, what do puppies like to do?
They like to bark, play, run through the house (sometimes with muddy feet), jump on people, put things in their mouths and chew on them, eat tasty foods, explore, sniff things, dig holes in mud and sand and dirt, and a host of other things. They do these things because they are baby dogs. Fortunately we can train our dogs to show more appropriate behaviors, which has been the point of this book, but it takes time, attention, and the natural changes that result from maturity.
Puppies learn best in short bursts, when they are wide awake and a little bit bored! The same is true with children. We work with our children on becoming adults in tiny bits; we mold them over time, and work on specific skills like reading, writing, and doing chores as they show a readiness to learn.
Most of us recognize the reality of developmental appropriateness with small children, but not necessarily with dogs. We know that trying to potty train a six-month-old infant is not likely to go well, so we manage their behavior by using diapers. And a puppy ? The human needs to take responsibility for the puppy’s potty training habits. A puppy cannot hold it for a long stretch of time, so be ready to get up in the middle of the night to take him out to eliminate and to supervise him closely during the day as well.
When we take our human children to school we’re not too surprised if they don’t want to sit down and learn for long stretches at a time. We try to work at their pace and give them plenty of play breaks. We need to do the same for our puppies. Puppies do not focus well because they are young, not because they are bad! We need to respect each puppy’s learning process, even when it’s slower than another puppy’s. The puppy next to you in class might have amazing focus, but that’s not your puppy. Your puppy needs to grow up a bit before the lessons will stick, not because there is something wrong but because he is a unique individual and learns at a different rate than the one next to you. He’s just a puppy, not a problem!
You can’t simply get rid of normal puppy behavior – even if it annoys you – without risking a very shut down dog. It’s really no different than parents with unrealistic expectations who force their children into behaviors that they are not ready for. Is it possible? Yes. Is it kind? No. And there are also long-term ramifications for your relationship. Specifically, you may end up with a dog (or child) who doesn’t like you very much.
The vast majority of parents simply accept the fact that they’ll have to hold their children’s hands when they walk on busy streets, that their meals won’t be too peaceful for awhile, and that their children will need to use the bathroom at inconvenient times. And while parents often experience frustration and look forward to the coming stages when life is a little easier, they recognize that it’s just the nature of small children.
When you bring home a puppy, get used to the fact that you’ll have to keep him on leash to keep him safe for awhile. He’ll need to use the bathroom at inconvenient times, and he’ll get sick and disrupt your life. But there is no problem. There’s simply a puppy who still has to grow into an adult dog. These behaviors will not resolve in days or weeks; it takes many months before you’ll see glimmers of the adult dog your puppy will mature into.
Your decisions early on will influence how much time your puppy chooses to voluntarily spend with you. How much time he engages with you for interaction. How much he looks to you when he isn’t sure what to do. In short, how much he likes you – if at all. If you choose to observe what your dog enjoys doing, and if you find ways to inject yourself into his interests, you will find that your relationship will flourish, and that, in turn, will make all of your training much easier and simpler.
Lack of Training
Your dog likes to pull on a leash! He likes to jump up on you to get closer to your face! He chews on things that belong to you! Are these problems? Well, it depends. Have you taught your dog what you want him to do? If you simply yell at your dog or yank the leash whenever his pulling irritates you, then there is a problem, but it’s not with your dog. It’s with you. You haven’t taught your dog how to behave on a leash so he will do what dogs do innately – he will pull! That’s because he wants to go where his eyes and nose lead him, likely at a much faster pace than you want to go. If you want to change his behavior, don’t focus on what you want to stop (the pulling), focus on what you want to start (walking nicely on a leash).
Unlike issues of immaturity, lack of training does not improve with age. As a matter of fact, time tends to make matters worse because your dog will get larger, stronger, and more set in unpleasant habits. Your dog is simply expressing his doggy nature because you have not trained the acceptable alternatives.
If you haven’t made an effort to communicate to your dog what you want under a wide variety of circumstances, then you do not have a problem; you simply have an untrained dog. Make a list of behaviors that you’d like to address, and set about helping your dog understand what you would like to see!
Be patient when you’re doing this. Remember that dogs learn at different rates and it’s quite hard to say what is normal because it can vary so dramatically from dog to dog. It is true that some dogs can learn a new behavior in a single session, but that is not the norm. Some dogs take a good deal of time and repetition to learn. This might be frustrating, but it’s also reality. Expressing your frustration towards the animal might make you feel a little better in the moment, but it won’t help your relationship with your dog.
While a good training plan should begin to show some results very quickly, often within a matter of days, true mastery and understanding will take much much longer. Your dog’s constant improvement should give you hope; if you’re not seeing any improvement at all, check your training plan one more time! Make sure you frequently look at your dog’s behavior today compared to several weeks back so that you can admire what you have accomplished!
Issues of Breed or Temperament
People often buy a dog because they like how it looks without any consideration of how that dog acts. If you thought the cutest thing about a specific puppy was watching it careen around the house at top speed, but you prefer to sit on the couch, you’re going to have a problem. You might love your dog to bits, but you picked the wrong dog for your situation. How much and where are you willing to compromise?
Your Beagle howls. You hate howling. Who has the problem? You, or the Beagle who was bred for a hundred generations to howl? You want to do agility competitions, but you purchased a 150 pound Mastiff who shows relatively little interest in getting off the bed, let alone running and jumping at top speed. Who has the problem? The large dog who is wisely conserving his energy or you?
In the same way that a Newfoundland tends to drool, your Beagle may love to howl and your Mastiff may love to sleep. It’s useful to keep in mind that you selected a breed with those tendencies. You can be irritated at your howling Beagle or disgusted at your drool-flinging Newfoundland, or you can accept that some breeds will come with qualities that you don’t like very much.
Yelling at your dog for things he can’t control makes as much sense as yelling at the sidewalk when you stub your toe. Yes, you’re angry that your cup of coffee just hit the floor because your dog’s wagging tail knocked it down, but your dog no more turned around and intentionally swiped it with his tail than the sidewalk leaped up and smacked your toe.
You picked your dog; your dog did not pick you. There are probably some things he doesn’t like much about you either, but he deals with them. It’s just like with people. Try to focus on what you love about your dog, and tolerate what is likely not changeable with amused benevolence. And the next time you get a dog, think your options through a bit more carefully.
The Challenging Dogs
Dogs with aggression and fear issues are more challenging to train than “normal” dogs. Unfortunately, as often as not, no one saw it coming. Just like when a person chooses to have human children, there’s a roll of the dice. You assume your child will be physically and emotionally healthy, but sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way.
If your dog ends up with challenges, be aware that changing a dog’s emotional states takes much longer than teaching a dog to perform a specific behavior. If you’re working with a very excitable, anxious, or angry dog, settle in. It will take time to address, and your overall quality of training needs to be better than average to see results.
It also helps to find others who have similar challenges so you don’t feel so alone! The internet is filled with support groups for owners of challenging dogs. Learn to embrace what goes right, to take joy is small achievements, and to accept that disappointment and frustration are normal emotions when you don’t get what you expected in your dog.
The Rare Errors
Your mature, well-trained dog will make mistakes. Maybe he’ll chew up an object that doesn’t belong to him, or fail to come when called, or pee in your house for the first time in a year. What do you do?
Nothing. If you think it might happen again, keep a closer eye on your dog for a few days, but stuff happens. This is especially true if it was an odd incident, like if a random deer managed to end up in your suburban neighborhood and your dog chased it. The odds of another random deer showing up is not good, so don’t worry about it. Now, if deer start making a point of walking down your sidewalk, you might have to institute a training plan, but you can safely dismiss rare errors.
Labeling a behavior as a problem mostly tell us that the handler is not getting her way, but it tells us relatively little about the best plan of action moving forwards. To solve the problem, we have to know WHY the handler is not getting her way and if her expectations are realistic! Is the dog mature enough to cooperate? Has the handler given the training enough time? Are there additional challenges as a result of the dog’s breed, temperament, or underlying emotional state? Is the dog physically and mentally capable of what is being asked?
The reality of living with another species means a constant flow of give and take. What is the essence of a dog and what is the essence of a human? How can we work towards having our mutual goals met so that we can live in relative harmony the vast majority of the time?
Really think about it for a moment, what an amazing thing it is to have a dog – another species! – for a friend. A companion who will be there with you, day after day, asking for little more than something to eat and a safe place to live. Another species who will remain by your side, simply because it’s your habit to cooperate with each other.
Watch your dog. Note his ability to live in the moment, to appreciate what is in front of his nose, to be curious and free. I can take a walk alone, but with a dog it’s shared exploration. I have all of the benefits of solitude, time to think and breathe, but none of the disadvantages of being alone. Because I am not alone.
You’ll have to put some time into your friendship with your dog, but if you think about it the right way, it’s not work. As with all relationships, part of the pleasure is finding ways to have everyone’s needs met. Enjoy your dog’s youthful silliness even as you gently mold that into your dog’s maturity. Marvel at the connection you will build with little more than the natural capacity of our species to fall in love with each other.
You can pet your dog’s soft fur, share a snack, or take a walk. You can work at your computer and your dog is likely to be found nearby. And when you go to bed for the night, your dog will be there. Waiting for you. In exchange for a few meals, the occasional walk, and a bit of attention, you’ll have a friend. Your dog will choose you.