Knowing When to Break the Rules

Bodhi middle hill croppedIn photography, there’s something called the Rule of Thirds. It has to do with composition. If you digitally overlay a tic-tac-toe grid on your photo, ideally, your subject should be positioned where lines intersect, or at least in the top, bottom, left, or right thirds. Placing a subject smack dab in the middle generally looks more like a snapshot than a work of art. The great thing, though, is that once you’re experienced with a rule, you can decide when to break it.

So what’s this got to do with dogs or training? Everything. Trainers learn early on about learning theory and how to teach basic obedience skills. As they progress, they get a feel for what to do when a dog doesn’t respond in typical fashion during a training exercise or when applying a behavior protocol. This is the when the hard science and skill begin to turn into an art form. A truly great trainer can fluidly move from one technique to another based on moment-by-moment observation of a dog’s body language and behavior, essentially customizing the interaction for that particular dog. A great trainer—or owner—also knows when to throw out the rules completely.

There are plenty of canine-related directives out there. Some of the older ones don’t have much logic in this day and age. For example, the one about the dog always walking on the person’s left harkens back to the military, where the soldier’s gun was carried on the right and the dog was on the left. As I’ve stated before, if you’re carrying a gun down the street, you’ve got bigger problems than which side your dog is walking on. Besides, I want to be able to ask my dog to walk on either side, depending on the environment and what suits me at the time.

A well-established rule is that once you give a dog an instructional cue, he absolutely must comply. Now, there’s a lot to be said for that, and in general, I agree. But the other morning on a walk with Bodhi, I wanted to take a photo of him against a backdrop of wildflowers. I pointed to a spot and asked him to sit, which, being the fabulous model that he is, he did. I then asked him to lie down. He just sat there looking at me. Trust me, the boy knows his down cue–but, as evidenced by his clear desire to remain sitting, he did not want to do it. Of course, I could have easily forced him. But instead, I looked around at the ground and saw that there were some of those horrible little stickers and bushy things that can attach themselves to dogs. Bodhi is quite aware of those things, as he’s gotten them stuck in his paw pads before. Clearly, he was apprehensive about lying down in them, and rightly so. In this case, it was good that I “broke the rule” and realized that I should have been more observant of the environment.

Certain rules persist, whether they make logical sense or not. Shouldn’t you always eat before your dog? That is the rule, after all. But in real life, isn’t it better to eat either before or after your dog, depending on what’s convenient for you? And believe me, if your relationship is well balanced, your dog is not going to infer from those times he doe eat first that he’s just been crowned Leader of the Pack. You have the opposable thumbs and make the decisions, after all, so you’re in charge. Hey, don’t get me wrong; rules are great, and they’re necessary. It’s best to establish them, but it’s also wise to take a step back and consider breaking them when the situation calls for it.
To check out my books, DVDs, and seminar schedule, visit http://www.nicolewilde. com. The next stop for seminars will be in England in June.

14 Responses to Knowing When to Break the Rules

  1. Marni says:

    Great article, as usual. I always hated that “If you ask him to do it, he HAS to do.” The whole “How dare he disobey you. He KNOWS what you are asking, he’s just being stubborn” blah blah blah. I always like to give the dog the benefit of doubt. Either the dog is not as trained as I thought he was (which is usually the case) or the dog has a very good reason for not complying (which has nothing to do about being disrespectful, dominant or any other egocentric BS people come up with).

    The best example I saw was at an agility run thru. The dogs participating were competing at high levels so they *knew* how to do agility. All morning, dogs were flying thru the collapsed tunnel, not a problem. Sometime in the early afternoon, some dogs started refusing the tunnel. They’d run up to it and stop dead in their tracks like they saw a snake! The owners would get mad at the dog, drag them over to the tunnel, stuff them in it. Some of the dogs would go thru, slowly and relunctantly, others would turn around and run out. I started hearing stuff like stubborn, disrespectful, dominant. What made it more confusing were some of the dogs didn’t have a problem going thru, so it *must* have been an attitude problem with the other dogs, right?

    Turns out at some point, some dog had pooped in the fabric part of the tunnel and that’s why the dogs were refusing it. Once it was removed and cleaned up, the dogs happily ran thru it with no issues. Luckily for these owners, their dogs had a long positive history of going thru the tunnel so this one incident would not leave a lasting impression. If they had been novice dogs, they may have easily ruined their dogs on collapsed tunnels forever.

    So in this case it was the dogs were not as trained as their owners had thought (I don’t think anyone ever proofs for poop in the chute!) AND the dog had a really good reason for not going in there – it didn’t want to run thru poop!! As for the dogs that didn’t care, well, you know how some dogs are. 🙂

    My dog ran thru the tunnel, no problem.

  2. calkinsbetsy says:

    Thanks Nicole, love this. I often use the “art and a science” idea with my clients….and they often look back at me like I have two heads! 🙂 But I don’t care, because every once in awhile, I capture a client’s head AND heart and I get to experience their transformation. Almost as satisfying as reaching a dog the same way. I never get tired of it.

  3. Love this blog! My experience with this very thing happened a couple of years ago. Late afternoon on a hot summer day I took my sheltie, Jack, to the park, where we usually train in a parking lot. One of the first things I asked him to do was a moving stand. I left him in a stand and walked a few feet away. When I turned around his feet were not still, as they should have been. He was lifting one at a time, then putting it back down and lifting another one, with an odd look on his face. I sucked in my breath to remind him to ‘stay’ when it finally occurred to me that the pavement must have been extremely hot! My poor Jack was doing his best to stand still while his footpads were burning. Duh! I quickly hustled him to the grass, loved all over him, and then repeated the exercise there. Lesson learned!

  4. Great article Nicole, rules were meant to be broken especially the ones that really do not work like the old ones. Imagine actually letting a dog lead the way by learning to make choices on their own which can lead to empowering the learner( dog) to make better choices. I love the analogy about photography. Perfect photos are boring while photographs that just kind of happen are much more interesting. 🙂 Dennis

  5. fangboner1 says:

    One of our dogs was extremely hard to train. One practically trained himself. He thoroughly enjoys rules. I never bought into the he has to comply because you told him to… Paying attention to the enviroment is just as important. Great article!

  6. I love the example of Cognitive Flexibility , I always say “The Art of Dog Training is getting a Dog to pay attention to you, instead of you having to pay attention to the Dog.” Then after building that bond, we can look towards them with trust to show us they can show us, through training together, their ability to utilize flexible thinking. “It would be way better if you don’t ask me to go into a down position, there are sticker stems beneath me, it wouldn’t be any fun.” Hence the outstanding example to be flexible
    when requesting a trained action from our Dogs, we must listen to them also.

  7. Anu says:

    Great post which I can relate to with my fearful dog.

    After Remy joined our family I realized quickly that most dog training rules didn’t apply to teaching him. He was afraid of everyone and everything, including the clicker. Remy had no puppy curiosity or interest in food, both astonishing revelations to me. I had to fly by the seat of my pants and make it up as we went along. So I did, and with the help of your book which has never moved off my nightstand in almost three years.

    If I’d adhered to dog training rules arbitrarily without considering and adapting to Remy’s perpetually anxious mindset, I think he’d be a basket case.

    Today I’m happy to say Remy thinks of the clicker as magical, and he’s no longer the picky eater he was. He’ll never be an easy dog to raise, but I’m good with that. Now that he’s finally learned to trust me I’m rewarded with seeing the goofy, sweet late bloomer he is.

    Thank you for your wonderful book. Reading (and rereading) it makes it possible for me to hang on to some of my marbles as I raise Remy in the most gentle and positive way I can.

  8. Lesley says:

    Great post. England? June? I’m interested!!

  9. wildewmn says:

    Thanks all for sharing your stories! It’s nice to know that there are so many out there who take a moment to think about why a dog might not be responding as usual. And yes, many of us learn the hard way to pay more attention, but hey, at least we learn. 😉

  10. With Siberian Huskies, two quick comments.

    First, when sledding, your lead dog needs to be smart enough to interpret your command safely. Tell him/her to lead the team out on thin ice, and watch a smart lead dog move around the danger. You develop a real trust with a lead dog who knows when to ignore your command. (Though it does make training this breed amusing).

    Second, during the summer, we hike on mountain trails. Having the dogs beside me is impossible and behind me is problematic, so being out in front of me is the safest option. When we approach a fork in a trail, I give a simple “gee” or “haw” command, and the dogs respond appropriately. The fact that they are in front of me does not make them in charge.

    Great article!

  11. Thank you, I have always felt that although the dog should be trained, it shouldn’t be a robot!

  12. Sarah says:

    When I learned about dog behaviour, I also learned that if you are right handed the dog should walk on your left, and if you are left handed the dog should walk on your right. People are not ambidextrous and whatever the power hand is the dog should be on the opposite side.

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