Recently a number of Good Dog clients have started my program after having gotten only so far with obedience classes with us or other schools, and there seems to be a trend in why their training is not working for them. Micromanagement is how we describe what is happening when people tell the dog about every single thing that they are supposed to do. They often have a spectacular leave it, but only when they tell the dog. The dog will wait nicely at the door, but bolt on through if you haven’t specified that this is one of the times that the dog must wait. The dog is more than willing to get off or stay off furniture if he is told, but in the absence of information, he is right up there and on the couch.
Humans are a species that gather information verbally. We listen to details like “don’t get on the couch” and store that information for later use. If we are told “don’t get on the couch” every time we go to get on the couch, most of us store that information and don’t do that behaviour. Dogs are a little different. Although dogs readily learn “if I get on the couch in the presence of the human I will be told to get off” they don’t seem to generalize that information to “never get on the couch”. I suspect that this is a reflection of a few things, including how we train them.
The first thing that this reflects is that dogs don’t have language in the same way we do. Yes, they have communication, where they are able to send units of information to another individual who can receive and interpret them accurately. Think about the last time you saw two dogs interacting; if one dog wanted to play, how can he convey that information to the other dog? Dogs have a whole lot of gestural communication including (but not limited to!) play bows, play faces, head tilts, paw lifts and tail wags. The receiving dog will either accept the invitation, and a play session will start (full of rich gestures that convey all sorts of information between the players) or turn it down and we can tell which choice the recipient made based on the behaviours we see. None of this information conveys anything like “later on, when you go home, please don’t touch my toys that I left behind the couch”. Canine communication is immediate. It happens in the moment and it pertains to the moment. Even wolf communication involved in hunting runs more along the lines of “let’s go hunting”, “okay”, “I hear caribou over this way”, “I will flank the herd”. The last guess may in fact be more than they actually convey in their gestures, but it makes for a better story to illustrate the point!
Next we should consider that when we train our dogs we teach them to attend to what happens next. Sit when I am making you dinner? Then I put your dinner within your reach to eat. Jump up on me? Then you can have a quick trip to your crate. Harass the other dog while he is trying to rest? Then you can have a turn out in the yard on your own. Lie down nicely in front of the cookie cupboard? Then you can have a cookie. On and on, both formally and informally we teach our dogs to pay attention to immediate outcomes. Practically this is the most efficient way to teach dogs what they should and should not do.
Dogs do learn what your habits are of course, but most often those habits come with predictable immediate outcomes. Dogs learn for instance that every day at 3pm the school bus passes by and the kids arrive home and when the kids arrive home, you almost always get to play ball. Some dogs will anticipate this sort of activity by bringing the ball to the children as they come in the door. This most likely evolves when the ball is handy and the kids are available and the dog puts two and two together, not because the dogs are preplanning the equipment needed to make the activity work better. Over time and with repetition, dogs can develop sophisticated routines that look like preplanning but there is little concrete evidence that dogs are preplanning in the way that we do.
So what does this have to do with the Queen? Or my brother in law? Or my students who are struggling with micromanagement? Simply this. If you were invited to the UK to visit the Queen, you would have a meeting with a very nice person who would explain what was going to happen, what you were supposed to do and what you were not permitted to do. When you arrived at the Queen’s “house” (castle, palace or what have you), there would most likely be a nice person to point you in the right direction and prompt your every step. Stand here. Turn that way when I signal you that her Majesty is coming. When you first see Her Majesty do this. When you are greeted say that. When she turns away from you, do this. If she hands you something take it like this. Don’t touch her. Don’t initiate conversation. Answer in this way. Every little detail is preplanned and organized so that you know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it. And if you goof, then it is most likely that someone will help you out and make a suggestion about what you should do instead.
This is how many of my clients treat their dogs. The client behaves like the Queen’s protocol officer! They walk up to a door and say “sit”. Dutifully, the dog sits. They open the door and the dog, not getting another immediate prompt drags them through the door and into the training hall. There is a dropped treat in front of the dog, and the client says “leave it” so the dog quite politely does, but when there is a treat the person doesn’t notice, the dog snarfs it up before the client even has a chance to do anything! How often I have been greeted by an otherwise normal human being chanting “be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice” as though saying these two words fast enough and for long enough will ensure that the dog will “be nice”. Invariably the human effort at being the protocol officer fails and the dog greets me by launching himself at me like a canine cannonball.
I would argue that if you were taking your dog to somewhere truly different and out of the ordinary, you might want to be the protocol officer. So if you have to take your dog to say a ballet recital, you might possibly want to play protocol officer. But UNLESS you are asking your dog to do something truly difficult, such as meeting a world leader, your dog needs to be able to just fit in. This is where visiting my brother-in-law comes in.
My brother-in-law is a nice guy. He likes to sit out on his front porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper on a Sunday morning. He likes to go cycling. He is pretty approachable, and will invite you in for a beer if you walk by on a Saturday afternoon while he is puttering in the garage. He doesn’t own a crown, or a thrown, and he doesn’t care if you turn your back on him when you are in his presence. He goes to work Monday to Friday, he enjoys his family, he is the master of the bar-b-que. In short, he is a pretty laid back typical Canadian guy. And if you visit him, there is no protocol officer to tell you where to stand, what to do or not do, how to dress and what to say. No one will micromanage your behaviour when you visit my brother-in-law.
This doesn’t mean that there are not expectations for your behaviour while in my brother-in-law’s home. He would prefer you didn’t break his stuff, and please don’t eat all his food all at once. Please don’t take his things away when you leave, and please do take off your shoes when you come in the house. The thing is that his expectations for your behaviour are common enough that you don’t need someone to explain what to do at every step.
|Commonly Micromanaged Behaviours and Their Alternatives|
|Behaviour||Common Micromanagement Strategy||Alternate Strategy|
|Dog snatches any edible item within reach||Teach the dog to leave things on cue and tell the dog to leave it||Teach the dog that he must automatically leave any edible items he finds UNLESS you tell him to take it|
|Dog jumps on guests||Teach the dog to cease jumping up on cue and tell the dog to stop jumping||Teach the dog that a guest approaching means that he should sit or lie down|
|Dog bolts out the door||Teach the dog to sit on cue and tell the dog to sit when you see the door opening||Teach the dog that an opening door means that he should sit|
|Dog is more engaged with other dogs or people when he sees them than he is with the handler||Teach the dog to make eye contact on cue and ask for eye contact||Teach the dog to make eye contact with you and then look at the dog or person he wants to greet and then re engage with you|
|Dog barks at passersby||Teach the dog to “hush” on cue and then tell the dog to “hush” when he is barking||Teach the dog that passersby do not need to be barked at|
|Dog chases the cat in the house||Teach the dog a solid leave it on cue and then tell the dog to leave it when he is chasing the cat||Teach the dog that chasing the cat is not permitted at all, ever|
|Dog grabs the toy before you can throw it||Teach the dog to leave it on cue and then tell the dog not to touch the toy until you have thrown it||Teach the dog that you will throw the toy when he is calm and not touching you, or even when he is sitting and making eye contact|
The problem I see with many of the dogs who come through my door at the training hall is that the human partner in the team seems to think that day to day interactions need to be handled like a visit to the Queen. I see people telling their dogs to sit at the door all the time. And to leave the treats that are within reach. And not to jump on people as they approach. The problem with this strategy is that if you aren’t there to micromanage the dog, the dog will do just as he pleases. If you don’t tell him to sit at the door, he might barge right on through. And if you don’t tell him to leave the treats on the floor, he will just dart out to take them. If you don’t prevent him from jumping on guests, then he will greet impolitely and possibly with disastrous consequences! None of this is what the human wants, but the only solution they have tried is to remind, remind, remind, remind and then remind again.
What if instead of reminding we took what we know about how dogs use information and taught them an expected behaviour. What if we taught the dog that the door itself was the prompt to sit and wait? Or if instead of teaching your dog to leave a treat when told, we just taught him to keep his nose out of treats that you haven’t told him belong to him? What if we taught him that a person reaching out to say hi means that he should sit or lie down? What if we looked at training as if we were preparing someone from a different country to visit my brother-in-law?
Turning the training paradigm around so that we are no longer teaching the dog to do as he is told, but instead to know what the conventions are is a very easy way to resolve a lot of problems. To do this, you must spend some time thinking about how to accomplish making the trigger to the behaviour the cue to the alternate behaviour, and some of the time it means providing a consequence such as going to your crate or losing a turn at play to stop the undesired behaviour. It usually takes a little longer, but in the end, you have an adult dog who knows what to do, when to do it and doesn’t need a protocol officer to micromanage all of his behaviours!