Adjusting our expectations.
If your toddler tried to stick a screw driver into an electrical socket, you would remove the screw driver and cover the electrical socket until the child is educated enough to behave safely in the environment. How come management and education are our first choices with children but not with dogs? All too often, I see owners put unrealistic expectations onto their dogs, leading to poor choices and failure. When the dog fails, the owners react with punishment rather than changing the antecedents (environment) and educating the dog. Without management and education, the toddler will still try to stick the screw driver into the socket. We know this with children, so why do we expect so much from our dogs?
“Let the child get shocked and they will not try the behaviour again!”, some may say. This approach is unsafe and does not resolve the root of the problem. The child still has no idea what happened because you have not taught it the dangers of metal and electricity. Someone may have slammed a door at the same moment that the shock occurred. The child could easily associate the shock with the loud noise, not the electrical socket and screw driver. Or, the child could develop a fear of screw drivers, but still attempt to stick fingers and other items into the electrical socket. As you can see, a myriad of behaviours and negative implications could stem from this approach.
Unfortunately, dogs are not human and do not understand the language that we speak. We cannot give them a book to read about the dangers of electricity or explain it to them over dinner. We need to teach them by systematically managing the environment to ensure they do not practice the wrong behaviours, while focusing on reinforcing the good choices they make so that they can learn what to do. As they demonstrate a good understanding of what behaviours to choose in each environment, we can start to give back freedom by removing the management that we had in place.
A good example of this is seen in construction. You can’t build a building without shoring (temporary structural supports) or else it will fall down. The same goes with dog training. Managing the environment while we educate is key to success! Once the behaviour is learned (or the building is built), you can safely remove the management (shoring) and the behaviour (building) will remain standing.