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The power and glory of "default" behaviors

In thinking about effective training, we're often seduced by the allure of the command or cue. Almost every description of a "well-behaved" dog will include the requirement that he does what he's asked to do when he's asked to do it. I don't want to argue with that criterion (or not right now), but I do want to move beyond it. The real test of "good" behavior for people as well as dogs comes when no one is asking or telling us what we should do. Do we make choices that are productive and peaceable? Not always, unless we're born angels.

Contrary to their angelic reputation, dogs get bedeviled all the time by wayward and inconvenient desires. We can either mourn this fact or accept it and work with it. It really shouldn't continue to surprise us that their desire to please us (real in some cases, a total mirage in others) gets trumped all the time by other desires: to eat fish guts, to dig to China by way of the tulip bed, to put a scare into the monsters with slick yellow skin who appear whenever it rains.

As long as my focus remains on being my dog's boss, I'll have the (rather exhausting) work of telling him what to do all the time: "Heel! Sit! Wait! Off!" I'd rather train with the aim of making him a reliable boss of himself, by reinforcing the good decisions he makes without my direction. I use the word "good" here to mean pleasing to me, but if I choose my rewards well and deliver them consistently, what pleases me will soon please my dog, too.

Changing our dogs' default settings almost inevitably involves changing our own. In this approach, training becomes less about directing and more about observing, less about firm guidance and more about encouragement. We can use various kinds of management (many of them spatial, like leashes and gates) to narrow our pups' options and artificially boost the odds that the choices they make will be good ones, but it's important that we give them enough slack to fail sometimes, or they'll never own their successes. The difference between a dog who's afraid to do wrong and one who glories in doing right is immeasurable (in both senses) and unmistakable when you see it.

I like the advice of Paul Owens ("the original Dog Whisperer") that we take regular "training vacations." By this he doesn't actually mean that we give up training, only that we give up telling our dogs directly what to do - for a day, a week, or more - and simply note and reward anything and everything they do on their own that we happen to like. Kathy Sdao's SMART x 50 approach (See, Mark, and Reward Training) is very similar in spirit and effect. Try it out!

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