You may lay down the law with your dog, but what can you do if your family bends the boundaries?
Tom Ward is all too familiar with the pleading look his family dog, Poncho, gives whenever he wants sofa time – especially as the King Charles Spaniel knows Tom is a bit of a soft touch. It’s something that drives his partner Debbie crazy. ‘I’ve put so much effort into training Poncho to stay off the sofa,’ she says. ‘He knows that Tom will let him get away with it, though, and he makes the most of it.’
Similarly, as soon as Red Setter Lenny leaps up to greet his owner Judy Green, she gives him a loving stroke. ‘It really annoys me, because I always stick to our training rules,’ says her partner, Phil. ‘Lenny knows he should have four paws on the ground, but now he tries to push his luck with me, too.’
While these scenarios might sound like the harmless household conflicts encountered by almost every dog owner, they can have serious consequences. ‘This kind of inconsistency between owners is very common,’ says Inga MacKellar, an APBC-accredited animal behaviourist, ‘but it’s one of the biggest causes of stress in dogs.’
When dogs are given mixed messages by their owners – such as one ‘bad cop’ strictly enforcing rules, while the other ‘good cop’ lets them get away with a different set – it can cause confusion.
‘Your dog can become anxious if he’s caught in the middle,’ Inga says. ‘Ultimately, it may mean that he has no idea how to behave, because his goalposts change all the time. As a result, he might act out to try to gauge what each person wants from him.’
‘Your dog just wants to please you – he shouldn’t feel conflicted about what makes you (but not someone else) happy.’
In it together
Preventing the ‘good cop, bad cop’ pattern begins with your dog’s training. Few couples or families have the time to attend dog-training classes together, so a good approach is for one person to take on the responsibility and to clearly share that information. This should include the best behaviours for your dog to follow, as well as how and why certain exercises work.
However, if you’re past the initial training stage, the road to resolving any issues will need a little extra communication and effort. In the first place, it might be worth thinking about why one person makes the rules while another breaks them. Is it simply that they’re a soft touch and they find it harder to say no, or is there an element of power play being acted out that has more to do with your relationship than it does with your dog’s behaviour?
‘Take the time to discuss this honestly with each other, and figure out why the disconnect is there in the first place,’ says Ross McCarthy, a canine behaviour consultant. ‘After all, you’re in it together for your dog, and it’s only fair that he knows where he stands. He wants to please you, so it’s your job to ensure he doesn’t feel conflicted about what makes you – but not someone else – happy.’
Three tips for team dog: how to get everyone your dog interacts with on board, too.
- Ensure that anyone who helps to care for your dog clearly understands your rules and boundaries. Don’t feel shy about emphasising the importance of sticking to them.
- Keep a ‘dog diary’ so sitters or wakers know the trouble spots, and how you deal with them. Highlight what works best for your dog.
- If you know friends or visitors encourage certain behaviours (such as begging for food), avoid the situation entirely by putting your dog in another room before they arrive.
Know your boundaries
While it may take a bit of compromise, the first step in avoiding this kind of conflict is for everyone involved in your dog’s care to agree on acceptable behaviours. Then break down the approach each person should take in your dog’s behaviour, and create firm rules for him (and the family) to follow.
‘Setting clear boundaries is essential to training and socialising your dog, and underpins your relationship with him,’ says Inga. ‘But to be effective, those boundaries need to be in black and white. Your dog simply can’t understand and confusing grey areas, and can only learn what is wanted from him if you remain consistent.’
This means that there’s no such thing as ‘just this once’. One sneaky treat from the table, or a single snooze on the bed, can undermine months of otherwise consistent training. But there is hope: ‘Although your dog may be confused and stressed by these new, firm rules, with time and persistence he’ll gradually start to learn new behaviours,’ Inga says.
Putting it into practice
So how can you translate this into everyday life? Our experts agree that the best way is for you and your household to spend plenty of time together with your dog. This will help you all get a better understanding of his habits, and is also a great way to prompt one another to stick to the boundaries.
‘To help reinforce those rules, I recommend keeping a training diary,’ Ross says. ‘That way, everyone who looks after your dog can record the different behavioural situations they encounter. They should also note how they dealt with his behaviour – with positive reinforcement, a distraction or a firm “no” – and which tactic was most effective. It’ll help you to see what’s working and to implement a consistent approach. Write down the kind of rewards you use, too. You’ll soon start to recognise which methods your dog best responds to.’
You’ll also find that some habits can be changed with simple, practical tactics. For example, if mealtimes (and the fact that one person feeds your dog food off the table) are a stress point, agree to put your dog in another room while you’re eating. Similarly, if you don’t want your dog going upstairs, a dog gate could easily correct the problem without the conflict of telling him off or arguing with someone who lets him up.
The key, of course, is for everyone in your household to work together. ‘Get that right and the results can be astounding,’ Inga says. ‘If you function as a team to achieve the same goals, your dog will be happy, well behaved and a pleasure to be with for everyone involved.’
Positively good moves:
An essential way to train your dog is through positive reinforcement (in which you ‘reinforce’ an action with a reward). But is it the only method?
‘I’m a firm believer in its benefits,’ says Inga. ‘Your dog will learn that a certain behaviour brings a treat, praise or a game – and this makes it more likely he’ll repeat it. On the other hand, he’s unlikely to connect a punishment with whatever he’s done wrong, and it could cause him stress.’
However, Ross believes that positive reinforcement should only be one part of your training toolbox. ‘I think saying no is important, too. But as with all commands the meaning of “no” needs to be taught. Dogs don’t have an understanding of the word, so you’ll need to say no firmly within two seconds of the behaviour you want to discourage. When your dog then stops the action, you should give him praise for his compliance.’
Source File: Petplan UK Pet People Magazine, written by Kim Sullivan