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Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Last Tuesday's TIP proved to be too big a topic for one post.  Herein lies "part 2" of FIRM, FAIR and CONSISTENT DISCIPLINE.


One of the first things I think about when approaching a dog with "firmness" is what Cesar Millan describes as "calm-assertive energy."  (Check his website for more information.)  Here are just a few practical pointers:

Dogs are pack animals that instinctually seek a strong leader.  When we humans treat our pet dogs like little people instead of dogs, they sense weakness and strive to take over the leadership position themselves.  For an interesting explanation of this, check out the article, "The Human Dog" on the "Dog Breed Info" website.

  • A "command" should be a COMMAND, not a request.
Use a firm voice with a command.  This doesn't imply a threatening or loud voice.  The voice I mean sounds a lot like my mother when she told me to clean up my room when I was a kid:  "I'm not asking you, I'm telling you!"  She did not coo:  "Please clean up your room, okay?"

  • NEVER give a command that you cannot enforce immediately (and only give the command ONCE)!
Ignoring a command is your dog testing your leadership.  Getting away with ignoring a command is your dog learning that you are NOT a leader!  Repeating a command teaches your dog that he or she doesn't have to do what you want until maybe the third (or fourth or fifth) repetition of the command.


Being fair relates to awareness of dog behavior and the learning process.  When we "anthropomorphize" our dogs (treat them like human beings), we cause behavior problems through misunderstanding.  When we are not patient with a dog that is learning, we are not creating an opportunity for him or her to succeed; rather, we set him or her up to fail, and set ourselves up to be frustrated!

Dogs need daily exercise and mental stimulation.  (And leadership!)  Remember my adage:  "A tired puppy is a good puppy."  Running around the fenced-in backyard is not exercise; walk your dog--this is an excellent time to practice heeling on a loose leash.  Take 5 or 10 minutes during your normal daily activities to "work" on name recognition exercises to keep your dog's focus on YOU.

 Can you "read" Gypsy's and FLD Mike's body language?  This picture was taken about two weeks after we brought Mike home.  Gypsy is making sure he understands who is "alpha dog" after all the humans in the house.
 Look at the difference in their posture in this picture taken one month later.  FLD Mike has figured out who is boss!  They are both alert and focusing on the photographer (me).

There are many excellent resources on dog behavior both in print and on-line.  Learn to "read" your dog so you can begin to recognize canine behavioral characteristics and respond appropriately.  For example, signs of stress are frequent licking of the lips, panting, or excessive dandruff.  If your dog starts to do any of these during a training session, he or she is most likely getting overwhelmed and confused.  At this point it is best to return to something your dog knows  well, and end the session on a positive.  He or she will do better next time.  (Remember to give at least a one hour break between sessions.)

Show, encourage, redirect.  For example, physically show your dog what "sit" means when first teaching your dog to SIT.  As your dog starts to get the idea, give the SIT command and mentally count :  "One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand."  Watch your dog--if he or she makes a slight movement as if considering what to do, encourage with "That's it!"  Try not to touch the dog; let your voice help him or her into the proper position.  Eventually, you must judge when to "push" your dog by adding a "NO" when he or she remains standing; repeat the SIT command as you guide him or her again into the sit position.  Repeating the command in this manner during the learning process (the only time it is appropriate to repeat a command) and guiding the dog into a sit, redirects the dog from what you DON'T want him or her to do (stand), into what you DO want him or her to do (sit).

Praise.  Reserve praise until the dog actually does what you want him or her to do on his own.  Modulate your praise with your voice and touch:
  • Amount of praise--a nervous or shy dog might need more praise than a "happy-go-lucky" dog.  Too much praise for an excitable dog might cause the dog to break the position, in effect forfeiting the learning opportunity and you will need to backtrack.
  • Type of praise--physical praise is usually the highest form.  Again, this type of praise might be too much for an excitable dog, but necessary to build confidence in a timid dog.


In behavioral psychology, operant conditioning refers to a behavioral method of learning; one learns to repeat (or not repeat) a response because of subsequent reinforcement, either positive or negative.  This method can be used to increase or decrease a behavior, but the reinforcement must occur every time (consistent).  If the reinforcement is intermittent (not consistent) when the desired effect is to decrease the behavior, the behavior is instead increased!  "Variable reinforcement" builds robust behaviors. (If you are confused by all this, you are not alone!)

This concept of consistency became clear to me during a puppy-class at Leader Dogs for the Blind when our instructor explained "variable reinforcement" using a slot-machine metaphor.  As my husband Andy interpreted, "If you've EVER won a quarter on a slot-machine, even once, you will ALWAYS think you can win again!"  There is no consistency in the rate of "hitting the jackpot;"" gambling casinos understand this addictive power of "variable reinforcement" and count on their customers trying "just one more time."  So too do our dogs.  If they are allowed, even just once, to pull on the leash to reach what they want, they keep testing, because they never forget that one time they achieved what they strained after.  "This time I might just hit the jackpot," they think--and so they pull everytime they are on the leash!  See how unintentionally we reinforce our dogs' unwanted behavior?

As Nance, my puppy-counselor, once said to her puppy-raisers, "If you don't want your puppy to do something, NEVER let your puppy do it, not even ONCE!"  A behavior that is "cute" in an 8 pound puppy is not so "cute" in an 80 pound dog!


  1. Great points, though I have to disagree with the part about the dog ignoring the command "testing" your leadership. More like whatever they were doing first was more rewarding then listening to you.
    Dogs do whats most rewarding at that moment in time.
    I am the team leader and I have to make sure the team is in a place, a time, a space, has had enough training to perform the cue/command, in a manner I have taught him/her.

    ...Did that make any sense to anyone besides me?? :D :D

  2. Erin--that makes sense, and you are correct. When a dog ignores the command it IS because something else is more rewarding.

    Perhaps "testing" is too deliberate a word.

    If a dog is distracted and doesn't focus on the owner when given a command that it knows, this is an indicator that the dog doesn't "respect" the owner, especially if this occurs frequently. I base this opinion on my experience working with pet owners, many of whom had no idea of how to be their dog's leader. For example, the dog might know a specific command that I taught him, and would respond to me (as his "trainer"), but frequently would not respond to his owner the same way.

    This respect is important in off-leash situations--for instance, a trained dog who respects the owner typically won't blast out an open door and take off. A focused and respectful dog, who recognizes the owner as his leader, will "check-in" with his owner and will tend to stay close.

    Of course, the "leader" does have the responsibility to train the dog--effectively, fairly, and consistently. If this is accomplished, then the dog will respect the "leader."

    Thanks so much for initiating the conversation! I wonder if we are actually talking about similar positions, just from different directions.