NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

Originally posted May 2013

Controlling unwanted behaviours is something that drives a good number of my clients to see me and more and more I am seeing clients engaging in a tactic to try and control behaviours that they don’t like. The tactic is to turn your back on a dog who is misbehaving. I even had one client tell me that this is the tactic they use with children who are being naughty. The idea is that when the learner cannot see your face, he is upset that he is not getting attention while he is misbehaving. Nice in theory, but there are some problems with this idea.

The very first problem is the premise that dogs or children will do something they ought not do because it gets them attention and negative attention is better than no attention at all. This points to a whole raft of problems in how we apply behaviour modification, to dogs, to children and even to adults we interact with. If behaving in a desired way gets you nothing, why bother modulating your behaviour at all? Why shouldn’t the learner just behave the way that makes them happy? If there is no benefit to changing your behaviour, then why would you? The fact is that if you are not attending to the behaviours that you want, then behaviours that you don’t want will creep in.

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Actually…you don’t have eyes on the back of your head.  All too often I see students in class turning their back on their dog when the dog does something he ought not do.  You cannot train a dog you cannot see!  Photo copyright Sue Alexander 2016

When the learner is clear about the consequences for undesired behaviours, and unclear about the consequences for desired behaviours, then believe it or not, the learner may sometimes decide that the known outcome is a safer and better bet than the unknown outcome. Certainty is much easier for some learners than uncertainty. This means that if you set out a consequence for an undesired behaviour, and the learner doesn’t find that consequence unpleasant, then there is no reason for the learner to not do the behaviour you don’t want. Let me get a bit more concrete here for a moment. If the dog likes jumping up on you and doesn’t mind your back being turned then turning your back isn’t going to stop the jumping. The dog jumps, you turn away and then the dog jumps again. Not a big deal from the dog’s perspective, so he can go on jumping up without any concerns. At least not for him.

Some dogs jump up because they want attention and when jumping up doesn’t work the first time because you have turned away, they can then grab clothing at will. Now we have a situation that is outright dangerous, and often people will attempt to counter cue at this point. So the dog jumps up, the person turns away, the dog grabs and the person says “off” or “leave it”. If the dog jumps off as eventually he must, then the owner may attend to the dog and create a string of behaviours that are reinforced. Now the dog is left thinking that the way we want him to interact is to go through this sequence of jumping up, turning away, cuing and then attending to the dog. Sometimes though, instead of this sequence what happens is that the dog jumps up, you turn, he grabs clothing and he gets a great game of tug going. Tug, tug, tug, rip! And now the owner is really upset, but the dog doesn’t know why.

Turning away from a naughty dog or child just makes it impossible to train because you cannot mark the behaviours you like. You cannot mark them because you cannot see them and if you cannot see them, then your marker is never going to come at the right time. And what is a marker? It is a signal to the dog of a consequence that is coming. If for instance my dog jumps up, I mark that behaviour with “that’s enough”, before his feet touch me. If he gets right off without touching me with his feet, then I will mark that by saying “thank you” and attend to him with attention, toys or treats. If he doesn’t, I give a second marker and say “too bad” and gently remove him to his crate.

In many families when mom turns her back, the children know that they can misbehave and then scape goat one of the weaker children in the group. Dogs do similar things; they take advantage of the turned back to get into things they know they ought not get into. Turning your back is at least going to provide your dog with the chance to make the wrong choice and at most put him in a position of learning that you cannot mark his behaviour and tell him what the outcome is going to be.

This past year, I met a dog who showed an extreme version of what happens when you turn your back on a dog who is jumping up. He had been thrown out of his doggy day care because he was running behind the staff, and jumping up and tearing off their shirts and then running around the day care playing tug with the employees clothing. With multiple dogs on site chaos predictably ensued. This behaviour became so dangerous that in the home the dog knocked over a child and ripped several items of clothing.  I have actually met several dogs who do this, and they have all had handlers turning their back when they jumped up.  Understanding how this developed, we were able to start interrupting the behaviours creatively and non confrontationally. The sad thing is that the dog now has a bite record and isn’t allowed to come back to day care.

When we are trying to resolve a behaviour problem there are a number of steps we need to take. First, we have to identify the problem behaviour. Let’s take jumping up as an example. We need to decide when the behaviour is a problem and when it stops and starts. The dog isn’t jumping up in his sleep, so it isn’t a problem then. You might be able to define the behaviour by saying that the dog approaches the person, and when he is just within arm’s reach, he raises his front feet off the floor and puts them on the person. Notice that there is a sequence to the behaviour; it isn’t a problem until he is close to the person he is going to jump on. This means that there is a window of opportunity to teach the dog to keep his paws to himself. The trainer has the chance to mark the approach either by saying thank your or yes or maybe by clicking and then by dropping a treat on the ground. Dropping treats is my best tactic for dogs who bounce up in your face because they cannot jump up and drop their head at the same time.

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Turning your back is not always intentional. Any time we disengage from the dog, we can get side tracked and the dog can do as he wishes. This dog has been taught what to do when his person is busy, so that she can disengage and depend on him to mind his manners. One of the mistakes I often see beginners make is disengaging from their puppy before they have taught the puppy what to do. Many dogs learn that they can bark or jump up when you are on the computer or the phone because you cannot do anything to change the behaviour! Copyright: redav / 123RF Stock Photo

Maybe though, you are faced with a really quick dog who charges in and you cannot get that marker or treat out fast enough. Maybe the dog is all the way up before you are ready. Then you can use a marker that says there will be a different outcome. I say “too bad” and either I go into a bathroom, or I gently take the dog and put him in a different place where I am not. In both situations, I have to be able to see the dog in order to be able to mark when the behaviour is happening and when it is over.

If you are not able to tell when behaviours are happening, then you are not training. When the consequence of the behaviour is that the dog loses your presence altogether, either by you leaving or by him being confined, then there is a discrete predictable outcome. When you turn your back, the outcome is ambiguous and potentially dangerous. Don’t turn your back on a learner who is doing things that are dangerous. It isn’t safe for you and it often helps to develop much more dangerous behaviours in your dog.

NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

2 thoughts on “NEVER TURN YOUR BACK!

  1. Was a good sensation read about one of my problems. I have a Rhodesian Ridgeback that jumps, tear and hit for emotion. Also I have little children and the turn back is not a good solution. How can I start to change that if I know the problem but I can´t find the proper technique?
    What about if is more reinforcing jump than focus on me (and delicious treats)?
    Thank you for this post, I don´t know your name but I appreciate your advices.

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