Self control can be taught: To dogs and to kids, both

September 3, 2009 at 8:50 pm Leave a comment

Pet Info

When I’m answering the phone for Kindred Spirits Dog Training, one of the common complaints I hear is, “My dog is hyper!” or “My dog is all over the place: Up and down the hallway, around the dining room table, and bouncing off the back of the sofa!”

When I teach classes for puppies or adolescents, one of the discussions I have with students is that dogs beginning training can be compared to pre-schoolers. Although parents often don’t like the comparison (”My child is NOT a dog!”) the comparison is valid.

Pre-schoolers (or kindergartners who haven’t gone to pre-school) have to learn that they can sit in a chair at the desk or table for a prescribed amount of time. They have to learn not to react to every stimuli, not to throw things, and not to kick, or bite, or scream. In other words, they have to learn self-control.

In the Sept 2nd USA TODAY, there is an article by Laura Vanderkam, “The Secret to School Success” (page 9A) that discusses the concept of self-control in regards to preschoolers and kindergartners. The article says that those kids who learned and mastered this concept (self-regulation or self-control) early had far more success later in school; to the point of scoring 200 points higher on the SATs.

Now there are no SATs for dogs, but our shelters and rescue organizations are over flowing with homeless dogs. I know many have lost their homes because of the economy, but over the years I’ve been training, I know many, many dogs are given up because of behavior problems. Some of those behavior problems could easily have been avoided if the dog had had some training and during that training, had learned self-control.

Self-control to my dogs means remembering what behaviors I like: ignoring the cat, sitting for petting, waiting to eat until given permission, ignoring food on the table, and so forth. I also want them to remember what behaviors I do not like: chasing the cat, eating the cat’s food, raiding the trash can, as well as dashing out open doors or gates. Obviously, I reward the behaviors I like and the dogs know that.

When my dogs do not know the rules, and when they’re young, I practice prevention: I make sure the behaviors cannot happen. I teach the dogs what I expect of them — I show them what to do  — what rules I want them to know and I reward them. I do not punish after the fact of course. but I will interrupt behaviors I do not want to continue.

When the dogs know the rules and are mentally mature, I do not practice prevention. I may leave food on the table, and I expect the dogs to ignore it. And they do. I will leave the gate open as I drag the trash cans to the curb and the dogs do not dash out. That’s self-control.

One day my husband and I went on a motorcycle ride, leaving the dogs outside in the back yard. When we got back from the ride, as I was pulling up in front of our house on my motorcycle, I saw the front gate open and all three dogs standing in the gate. Some of the neighbor kids were out front so before I panicked, I asked, “Did anyone go in our yard? Did the dogs come out?”

Nope, apparently the gate had been left open when we left and all three dogs stayed in the yard, even with the kids playing ball in the street in front of our house. That’s training, of course, but it’s also self control.

All three dogs got major hugs, praise, and treats that day!…

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