In my dog training business, I’m often asked about how to handle “stubborn” dogs. To such questions, I always reply that the dogs are not likely to be stubborn, but rather, insufficiently motivated. While we are more likely to insist that our children do things that they don’t want to do, I believe that the manner of convincing them can be similar in many situations.
Playing with our turtle, Oogway, a few weeks ago, I was very surprised to see how quickly he was able to move to catch a live cricket that I was feeding to him. In spite of his slow and deliberate movements most of the time, I realized that he was able to move fairly quickly when sufficiently motivated.
I remember years ago, at my niece’s birthday party at around 6 years of age, someone gave her a gift with a lot of that Styrofoam popcorn in it. Like a typical 6-year-old, she purposely emptied it all over the living room floor. From then on, every bit of paper and wrapper and packing material was strewn on the floor. It was quite a mess, and I was thinking that my poor sister would have to clean it up when she called everyone’s attention. Handing out two large bags, she challenged the boys versus the girls to see who could pick up the most trash off the floor. Within about one minute, the floor was completely cleaned, and the winning team enjoyed their special toys shortly thereafter. This was not about force, but about motivation!
In traditional (old school) training, “correction collars” were used to convince the dog that doing the wrong thing is bad, therefore they should do the right thing. But, we have since learned, that this is going about it wrong! (Pun intended.) What do you suppose would have happened if my sister had threatened the kids with a punishment (i.e. no cake) if they had not picked up the wrappings? I suspect that they would still have picked it up, but I’m also quite certain that they would not have done so in record time.
Training is about motivation; motivation can be in the form of punishment or rewards, and both can be effective. However, as demonstrated above, motivation by potential rewards often produces much more enthusiastic results, with learners who are more inclined to do what you ask the next time because it was so much fun the last time. And this doesn’t just apply to children, but to dogs (and other species) as well.
A common misconception among trainers who do not understand modern methods is that positive equals permissive, but this need not be the case! Rewarding good behavior does not mean that we cannot punish bad behavior. However, rewarding good behavior should reduce the incidents of bad behavior, and thus allow us to punish less. Furthermore, punishment does not need to be physical or painful in order to work, as evidenced by the power of time outs, or removal of rewards, for both children and dogs.
Whether you are working with children, dogs, chickens, cats, turtles… consider your tactic the next time you meet any resistance. I’m not saying to become permissive, but remember to reward the positive, and, whenever possible, encourage rather than coerce. Then you’ll be well on your way to getting enthusiastic responses to your requests from the two legged as well as the four legged members of your family.