Dogs don’t have a “How to Live with Humans” manual

Twice this last week, I was saddened to read similar posts on a dog forum in which I participate regularly.

[My new puppy] is 10 weeks old and a total doll! Training has been going really well, I think, but I do have one concern….she has not had an accident in the house yet and it has been 4 days! I know, I know, not really a “problem” per se, but i’m afraid that she will not really be potty trained if she does not go in the house at least once where I can tell her “no”…

I was taken aback to hear from someone whose concern is that their dog hasn’t had any accidents.  I encouraged them to keep up the supervision and potty schedule that is working for their dog and not to rush her, and hope they listen.  Today this snippet came from another poster:

Just wondering, if we never punish [our 9 week old puppy] for going inside, how will she learn she can ONLY go outside, and not just anywhere she wants?

Sometimes people act so confusing for dogs that I'm sure they would be better off if there WERE a manual...

Not a thought about making sure that the only place the dog WANTS to go potty is outside.  This way of thinking is really difficult to grasp for some folks.  I don’t know why we tend to expect so much of our dogs but turn around and underestimate their capacity for learning.

I don’t believe either of these dog owners would mean to do harm to their puppies, but I believe that they are thinking in a detrimental way.  When potty training our children, do we punish them for not going to the toilet, or expect them to know how to use a toilet from the moment they can walk?  No, we manage their behavior with diapers and paying attention to their needs while we teach them where they should go.  Why, then, should we expect an animal species without the ability to communicate verbally to know the rules and understand the appropriate place to relieve itself around our unnatural human homes?

Scolding, physical corrections, scaring your puppy by yelling or making noise, etc, are meant as a penalty for a “wrongful” act. The problem with the idea of a dog or cat doing right or wrong is that would require a moral code and animals just don’t need one.  They follow their instincts or act based on training and experience.  A puppy or new dog peeing on the carpet  is not doing anything “wrong,” it has simply yet to be taught what you expect of it.  I think that’s where people struggle.

Imagine you are a school student.  You have not yet been taught PEMDAS (order of operations) and someone has asked you to complete a lengthy math equation.  Do you expect to be scolded, shouted at or worse, hit, for solving it incorrectly?   You would not look forward to math class or have a good relationship with your math teacher if this was the way these situations were handled.  Luckily for humans, it’s unlikely that you will be punished for this anyway because it just doesn’t make sense.  It’s unrealistic to expect a party to understand something that hasn’t been taught.

With positive reinforcement based training, true operant-style R+ that is, sweeping the globe and recruiting converts from the compulsion camp, it is my hope that things like this will someday be common knowledge and the idea of punishing an animal for our own mistakes or shortcomings will be long gone.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dogs don’t have a “How to Live with Humans” manual

  1. I can’t imagine complaining when the dog is going correctly outside because you have them on schedule that is working. If the dog establishes habits, life is good.

    • Exactly. I think the problem lies in the way we are taught, traditionally, that animals learn from us. Even the fact that it is so often called house “breaking” reflects the belief that the way to teach is to fight the nature of the dog. People struggle to have any other perspective when these archaic methods have served for so long.

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