Control – Carrot or Stick?

GSD lying down

Murphy

After a run of German Shepherds who are very reactive to anyone coming into their home, it was great to go to a Shepherd who welcomed me immediately.  Murphy and Mastiff-type Bailey are well socialised, well-trained and gentle with their children.

But it’s a tricky case of finding a compromise between two approaches – what the gentleman himself calls ‘carrot and stick’. He is the stick and the lady the carrot – not really an accurate description in that although he uses a certain amount of force and mild punishment in getting the dogs to do what he wants, I’m sure he would never hit them. He is extremely conscientious and loves them dearly. The carrot implies something dangled in front of the dog to entice him to comply, where the lady feels most comfortable using encouragement and reward.

Rottweiler cross

Bailey

People’s way of interacting with their dogs usually reflects their own personalities. The gentleman, by nature organised and routine-driven, feels he needs control over things around him. The lady is more relaxed, but she is unable to exert the control over the dogs that he can using his ways. So she needs the tools – different tools!

The couple well illustrates the divide between the methods of the past where the owner must be Alpha and ‘in control’, and modern science-based methods that enable dogs to develop ‘self-control’ by giving them encouragement, reinforcement and choices. One teaches the dog to avoid doing something ‘wrong’, and the other focusses on showing the dog how to do ‘right’.

Teaching self-control with reward and encouragement means that physical strength simply isn’t required in order to walk your dogs and manage encounters with other dogs. The young lady no longer dares to walk them on lead now, despite using head halters, after a final incident when she was pulled over as Murphy and Bailey charged excitedly towards a frightened puppy whose owner was not pleased.

The gentleman as a person needs routine, the upside of which has contributed to creating such beautifully mannered and friendly dogs. Where things are coming unstuck is that the lady is unable to match this. We are working on replacing some old routines with some different ones – based a little more on the psychology of dogs than on dominance. We want the dogs to use their brains and not rely on commands. I tried asking Murphy, gently, to sit and then lie down. Nothing. I had to ‘command’ him.

In my own life I have done a complete U-turn from the methods of control and force I, and nearly everyone else involved in training dogs, used many years ago. I can therefore well understand how it can take someone ‘old-school’ quite a lot to be convinced that reward-based, force-free methods work a lot better in the long run (and no thanks here to Cesar Millan). It needs a lot more patience and takes a bit longer as force can seem to produce ‘quick-fixes’, but the results are more permanent in the long run and our relationship with our dogs a whole lot more balanced.

So, now the lady will use different equipment for her walks – no more head halters but a front-fastening Perfect Fit harnesses – and she will take the dogs out one at a time for now. The deal is that if the gentleman doesn’t feel he can go through the necessary steps of letting the dogs walk freely on a longer looser lead, then he can stick with the old equipment. To the dogs, the harnesses should be associated only with a different kind of walking – and not ‘contaminated’. The lady will no longer need to be strong. The dogs will learn that walking on lead beside or near to her, focussing on her when necessary, can be fun and not a matter of ‘being under control’.

I hope that her results will speak for themselves and inspire the gentleman.

A note from the lady about five weeks later: ‘The very fact that I am enjoying my dog walks again is massive. Feeling very positive.’

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Murphy and Bailey, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good – as this case demonstrates. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

 

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