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John Sorosky

CoffeeShop Dogs: When ‘Obedience’ Falls Apart

Practicing disciplined routines will encourage consistently good behavior

Even people who don’t own a dog often count themselves among “dog lovers.” Mostly, we love dogs that are well-behaved — but that particular breed of dog is frequently hard to find.

John Sorosky
John Sorosky

We love our canine pals, but often not what they do. They can be well-behaved in the comfort of home, and have it all fall apart when they’re at the beach or the park, or when passing another dog on the daily walk. They don’t behave when they’re out in public because we don’t challenge them at home.

It’s helpful to understand that canine behavior falls along a spectrum and all of it is perfectly normal dog behavior, but might not be good pet behavior. Dogs are either doing what they’re naturally and genetically inclined to do, or they’re demonstrating proficiency with what they’ve learned. The further away we get from genetically based behavior, the more training plays an important role.

Dogs do what works to get what they want. Genetically speaking, this means “grab it and run,” regardless of breed. That’s why your burger disappears when you turn your back at the picnic. Trying to chase after and punish a dog that’s chowing down on a stolen burger is pointless; he already experienced success. His “grab it and run” strategy worked, and no amount of upset is going to change that fact.

What does it take to have a dog choose something other than his natural impulsive genetic design? Week after week, we hear from owners who are clear that punishment doesn’t work. We don’t like to punish; it’s distasteful. We prefer to be nice to our canine friends, so we toss out punishment and inadvertently toss out discipline as well. But discipline is the practice that makes training fun and effective. Discipline is what we do before our dog messes up; punishment is what we do after.

Mostly, people think and talk about dog behavior in terms of “obedience.” Obedience is a black or white thing. In the realm of “obedience,” dogs are either obeying or they’re not. Owners we talk to complain that sometimes their dog comes when called and other times “he’s on his own agenda” and just won’t obey.

What if something else entirely is going on? We define those “good” behaviors — come, down, stay and heel — as skills. They’re skills your dog can learn. Perhaps he’s reliable to “come” when he’s within 10 feet of you, but once he’s out a bit farther or he’s distracted, his skill falls apart. It’s sort of like being a diver able to do a back flip off a spring board but unable to do it off a 20-meter platform. If you practiced every day you could learn, you just can’t do it today. The same thing is true for your dog.

Discipline is the practice that supports learning. It’s doing the push-ups instead of just wishing for the result. Any time your dog wants something, you can ask for a “good behavior” in advance. Let him discover that he gets to come in the house only if he lies down and waits patiently first. Let him discover that the open door doesn’t mean “come in.” Ask him to control his natural impulsive behavior before you give him anything he wants, and give him lots of praise when he delivers. Catching our dogs doing the “good behaviors” we like is what will create a new pattern of behavior.

Then, over time, ask for a little bit more and a little bit more. If your dog won’t listen to you when you say “leave it” regarding your burger, what’s going to have him listen when you tell him at the beach to leave the baby seal alone? At home, what’s at stake is a burger. At the beach, what’s at stake is the safety of the seal — and possible charges if violating the California Wildlife Protection Act.

Mostly, we get lazy. We’re happy to take the benefits when our dog is being “good,” but we’re not disciplined ourselves. We don’t create routines that keep those behaviors in place, and we don’t expand them to include broader, more challenging situations. The nice thing about separating discipline from punishment is that it makes training easier — and more fun.

Discipline exists where there’s a willingness to be accountable. It’s been reported that the folks in charge of British Petroleum were allowed to step over practices and routines that could have minimized the chances of a blowout at the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Now we’re hearing calls for punishment where discipline could have ruled the day.

Dogs have been a huge contribution to the human experience for thousands of years. One of their gifts is the opportunity to practice and be disciplined. By practicing disciplined routines with our dogs, we can learn the benefits of discipline for ourselves. People who are self-disciplined are a whole breed apart.

— John Sorosky is an animal behaviorist and trainer at Camp Canine. He has been teaching dogs, kids and other animals for more than 30 years and is well known in Santa Barbara as the expert for solving dog-behavior problems. He knows how hard it is to change bad habits and troublesome behavior, and that’s why he’s dedicated to helping people get started off on the right paw with CoffeeShop Dog™ Training. John and his wife, Mary, own Camp Canine, 803 E. Montecito St. in Santa Barbara. Camp Canine is celebrating 25 years of service to dog lovers everywhere.

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