People commonly complain that their pet either “knows” what they’re being asked to do, or that they “know” when they’re misbehaving. This accompanies feelings of frustration and betrayal, because if the pet knows what is being asked then they must be willfully ignoring their owner. Perhaps they are being described as stubborn, strong-willed, cheeky, or perhaps he’s “giving you the paw”.
I want to challenge this idea that our pets “know” but are choosing to act otherwise. I want to suggest to all pet owners that your pet is doing exactly what you have, or haven’t, trained it to do. The truth is in the behaviour!
If we keep in mind that pets repeat behaviours that lead to good things happening, we can generally find out why our pet is behaving a certain way. Is Fido ignoring you when you call? Perhaps he’s having fun where he is, sniffing something great, playing with mates at the park, or he’s otherwise engaged in something he considers fun. Pair that with the common history we create where we punish our dogs when they do come back to us, albeit slowly (scolding them for running away or ignoring us for so long), and you have a pretty darn good reason for your dog staying away. Perhaps he won’t sit when you ask him to hop on the scales at the vet? Have you ever taught him how to step onto a strange surface and sit in a room that smells of dogs, cats, and stressed animals? Doing a behaviour at home is not the same as performing out in the real world, we have to help our pets learn to respond in all places.
And of course stress and fear interfere with our pets ability to respond to our cues. Even mild stressors can strongly influence our pets behaviours, causing them to either stop responding or start reacting – both of which are frustrating and sometimes difficult to manage when we’re caught unprepared. Take a look at the environment you are asking your pet to perform in: have you trained here before? Are you providing enough motivation? Is something worrying your pet?
We need to stop assuming that our pets are out to ruin our day, they’re not. All animals behave to gain access to the things they like. As owners we need to make sure we are a source of all things good to our pets, and that we help our pets to learn and understand the language we use to communicate with them. Stop getting frustrated with your “bad” pet and start getting proactive with your smart training.