November 3, 2018

When Control Becomes a Dirty Word

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As a dog and human coach (aka trainer and behaviour consultant) clients often ask, ‘how do I control my dog’s jumping up?’ ‘how do I get my dog under control?’  I understand what my clients are asking for, it is not unreasonable to want to change undesirable behaviour in our companion animals. We also want to ensure that our dogs can live in our communities safely and somewhat harmoniously.

Control is defined as the following:
to maintain influence or authority over.
“you shouldn’t have dogs if you can’t control them”

When I think about animals, wild or domesticated, I understand that so many things influence behaviour ranging from genetics, to experiences and environment.  I realize that antecedents (what happens before the behaviour occurs) and what happens after (consequences) either maintain or strengthen behaviour. I understand how to modify behaviour, absolutely.  But when the average person wants to “control” a behaviour it often means STOP a behaviour or FIX. This is a double-edged sword.

People who lack control in their own lives often find it empowering to control others, including the dogs that they live with. It can be reinforcing to do so for many.  This is why what I call “robot dogs”, the ones who are trained with e-collars/shock and prong, pain and punishment, fear and intimidation are often times done so for life; their owners are reinforced with the results of the behaviour they wanted to stop… stopping immediately.  This is gratifying. When something you want to change is done so quickly and immediately you will continue along that path because it works. At the expense of the dog.

The double-edged sword of that type of control is the psychological side-effects (and many times physical) on the organism on the receiving end.  Lack of control in ones’ life quickly leads to depression, apathy, learned helplessness.

“The power to control ones’ own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behaviour reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.”
~ Dr. Susan Friedman

Giving your dog more choices does not mean that they will go nuts and start raiding your fridge and steal the keys to your car… all hell will not break loose, I promise.

If we teach our dogs what we would like them to do and reinforce that with something motivating for them to continue vs punishing for what we don’t and giving them NO direction, the result is an animal that is empowered. This also results in a behaviourally sound dog/cat/rabbit/bird that trusts their teacher and partner, you!  The reduction in negative behaviours and an increase in motivation to learn and respond to you is the amazing side effect.  Replace control with choice.  How do we guide our dogs to make better choices? Because that is what feeds and fosters lasting behaviour change.

Partnerships vs power struggles.


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