Uncommon Common Sense

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Uncommon Common Sense

Uncommon Common Sense

There are plenty of things we do with our dogs that make perfect sense to us, but don’t quite work for our dogs.  What do you do when common sense doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, dogs don’t quite think the way we do which can lead to plenty of frustrating behaviors or misbehaviors.  Some of these have even been propagated by vets and inexperienced trainers who don’t stop to think about what the dog is actually learning from these experiences.

One harmless example is the way many people try to teach their puppies to give paw, shake or high five (teach the puppy to put their paw on your hand when asked).  This seems like a simple enough behavior, but as with many trained skills, there are a few key details to keep in mind. First of all, if you reward your puppy for pawing your hand or body but don’t specifically only reward cued paws, you have actually taught your puppy to paw at you and other people at will.  This is a very easy behavior to teach, but it must be put on cue early and discrimination must be taught right away. If you don’t, you will have a dog that lifts their paw every time they sit, every time they want attention, and any time they think they should, whether or not your guests are interested in mud and fur on their clothes.

The second important part is to remember what the final picture of this behavior should be throughout the entire process.  Ideally the end behavior is a person cues the hand shake, the dog lifts their paw and places it in the hand. That’s it. At no point in the final behavior is someone grabbing the paw or pulling the paw away from the dog’s natural seated position. So why do so many people say the cue then immediately grab a front foot?  Because it makes sense for the way people learn. You tell a child to give you their hand and then take them by the hand to cross a street.  Dogs don’t quite learn that way. While this will work for some dogs, it is not proactive learning on the dogs part and often is not generalized well because the dog learns that the cue means a human will reach down and take their paw as opposed to trying to proactively lift it and put it in the offered hand.  The better way to teach this behavior is to teach the pup to actively think, then offer a paw for a reward. The easiest way is to hold a treat under your thumb right above their nose.  Puppies will naturally use their paw to push your hand down to their mouth at which point you praise and reward.  The cue is now when a hand is offered with the verbal cue to put your paw up. Now you can start to discriminate only offering the behavior to an open offered hand.  This may sounds like a nuance, but it is actually an important concept when teaching a dog to work for a reward by being proactive as opposed to waiting for a physical prompt like a paw grab.

Another example that might help clarify where common sense goes wrong, is a simple mistake many owners make during the initial house training process.  The goal of house training is to teach a dog to eliminate outside, ideally on cue or in a specific location. The goal is not to teach a dog to eliminate as often as possible outdoors.  However, many people offer their puppy a treat each time they eliminate outside. What are you really teaching in this case?  Well, to most dogs this turns into the more I go while outside, the more they reward me. See the disconnect in common sense here? We use treats in training because eating something delicious is pleasurable and we want to associate that good feeling with good behavior.  Luckily for us, eliminating already feels pretty good to a full bladder so we do not need to add food to inspire good feelings.  The best way is actually to get your puppy or new dog on an appropriate schedule for all ins and outs (food, water, and elimination) and praise profusely as soon as they are finished to link your happy voice to the natural relief the puppy feels.  This is one major folly caused by human common sense knocking right into dog sense.

There are many other examples of common sense mistakes that are made in the training process- pushing down a jumping dog, yelling at a barking dog, pulling back on a dog on lead, long good byes, reassurances, etc. At every stage of the training process, it is important to keep in mind what you actually want your dog to learn and how you are conveying that to the dog in a way they will understand. Sometimes it’s important to step away from what seems like common sense.

Happy Training!


Tamar Paltin

Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch

BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator