Disciplining a Dog

You had an especially long day at work and you were not sure if you would ever be allowed to go home. However, the nightmare was waiting for you at home. As usual, your four-legged friend greeted you at the door with all excitement and wags, making the homecoming that extra bit special that every dog owner enjoys. That was until you looked in the living room.

You thought your dog had outgrown the destructive phase but obviously, he had not, since he spent his day turning your new leather sofa into his own giant chew toy. But before you can consciously react or say anything, your trusty pooch scoots down into a submissive, apologetic position and grovels on the floor. His posture tells you he knows better and that he is sorry for the damage he caused. You tell him he is a ‘bad dog’, put him in his crate for a ‘time out’, and go pour yourself a big glass of wine, hoping that it was all a bad dream and that when you look in the living room again, the sofa will be back to normal.

Unfortunately, the damage is not restricted to just the sofa; your dog has no idea why he is in his crate or why he is a bad dog. He was only responding to your body language, not to the damage he inflicted upon the poor defenseless sofa.

It is human nature to want to discipline a dog the same you would discipline a misbehaving child. The problem is the ‘human’ part of human nature does not apply to the canine world. Dogs do not learn like humans and their nature is uniquely their own.

Dogs read body language far easier then vocal commands so, in the example above, before you even thought of saying anything, your body language was screaming at your poor dog. His reaction to your change in posture was to cower, grovel and beg your forgiveness. He really does not care what you are angry about; his only concern is to show you that he is sorry for upsetting you.

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How do we know this? How many times have you been angry at something other then your dog – say you get a crank phone call – your body language instantly stiffens and suddenly your dog is at your feet in that same apologetic demeanor.  Or, say you are upset because the opposing team scored on your favorites and in the midst of your excitement, your dog scurries out of the room so as not to have that temper turn on them? This is all normal pack behavior and your dog ‘speaks’ body language far better then he speaks English.

The best time to stop an inappropriate behavior and train your dog is when they are still thinking about whatever it is they want to do. This means derailing the thought process before it becomes an action. Most dogs have a ‘tell’ when they are thinking about doing something, much like poker players who have a subconscious action or behavior that gives away their hand to everyone at the table. Learning to read your dog’s tell is the simplest training method available to an owner. Always watch the tail and the ears; they are the windows into your dog’s thoughts.

Picture this peaceful scene: you are lazily walking your dog down the street on a loose lead. It is a hot day and you are both content not to walk too fast, pull too hard or do anything that may require expending additional energy. That is until your neighbor’s pesky cat steps onto the sidewalk ahead of you and flicks his tail at your pooch, knowing full well that he is safe as long as you hold onto the end of that leash. For a split second, your dog pauses to think and you brace yourself for the jerk that is guaranteed to come when he hits the end of his leash in one giant lunge.

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Instead, derail the thought process. Drag your attention away from the cat, look at your dog and tell him ‘no!’ firmly. Add a mild correction to his leash to physically remind him that you are the boss and add a scowl to complete the reprimand. He will look up at you with a look of utter surprise because, in his eyes, you have just read his mind.

Now, what if the ‘no’ does not stop him and he is still thinking of chasing that cat? Move in front of him and walk into him until he must back up (watching you do not step on his feet). In doggy terms, this is the ultimate ‘no’ and what obedience trainers call a ‘body block’. Clearly and effectively, you are telling him exactly what you want him to do and then by blocking his ability to see or approach the cat, there is no room to question your meaning. If he tries to look around your legs, back him up some more. Eventually he will look up at you with a look of understanding and surprised bewilderment because, again, you have read his mind, putting a stop to an action before it could amount to anything.

Adding a scowl to commands again uses body language to better explain what it is you want your dog to do. Try sounding serious or tough while smiling – it is hard to do. Our facial expressions change how we say something which is why your mother always told you to smile when you answered the phone because the people on the other end of the line can ‘hear your smile’. Your dog can hear your smile and he can hear your scowl when you want him to behave. You will be surprised at how well he responds to you when you add body language to your corrections.

Disciplining a dog does not mean hitting, spanking, kicking or any other form of physical reprimand. That is better known as abuse and there are laws against that in most civilized countries. Discipline does mean verbal correction, a correction using his leash and/or collar and deterrents such as using a spray bottle containing water if the verbal correction does not work. Some trainers advocate the use of a tin can with pennies in it as an attention-getting device but this can have the negative effect of making the dog sound sensitive or ‘spook’ easily. Electric or ‘shock’ collars are effective but should only be used by a trained professional and only in serious to life threatening situations (teaching a dog not to chase cars for example or not to approach a poisonous snake).

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So what is the appropriate response to the dog that chews up the sofa while you are at work? What about leaving him in his crate when you cannot monitor his behavior? If he is crate trained, spending the day in his crate is not a punishment – it is only a matter of protecting your stuff from a bored dog. Getting angry, hitting him, giving him a ‘time out’ in his crate when you discovered his misbehavior or any other type of punishment serves only to make you feel better and does not teach him the error in his ways. The best way to discipline a dog is to make sure that he cannot get into any mischief in the first place either by being able to stop by blocking him or by verbal command or by controlling his behavior when you are not available to supervise him.

Far too often the mischief our dogs get into is completely avoidable with a bit of forethought. Disciplining a dog is not about punishment; it is about teaching them what an appropriate behavior is and removing their ability to make a bad decision. Control versus punishment. Discipline versus reprimand.

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