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Be a Consequence Machine

A common misconception about dog training is that it’s all about the “commands”; you have to teach the commands, or else your dog won’t do XYZ. As you were training new behaviors you would repeat the ‘command’ over and over and over again in the hopes of eventually drilling the word into the dog. “Sit sit sit sit sit sit sit sit sit sit GOOOOOOOOOOD sit” We are obsessed with making sure the dog KNOWS what we mean, thinking that it’s the secret to getting our dogs to listen.

Beagle rolling in grass
"I'm sorry, did you not command me to roll in poop?"

But the real secret to good training? It’s being a consequence machine, and making sure you are especially generous when your dog is offering behaviors that you like. The truth is that training is less about what happens BEFORE the behavior (known as the command, cue, or antecedent) and more about what happens AFTER the behavior happens (the reinforcer, punisher, or consequence!). Dogs (all living organisms with a brainstem, actually, including YOU) perform behaviors to acquire or avoid certain consequences. Consequences DRIVE the behavior, which means the consequences a dog receives following a certain action tell the dog whether or not to do that behavior again.

Often times we take “good” behavior for granted; our dog approaches us and doesn’t jump up for a few seconds, our dog looks at another dog and then turns back to look at you, our dog walks nicely on leash for several seconds. Typically we don’t think to NOTICE these examples of polite behavior because they’re easy to miss; they don’t intrude in our lives or cause a ruckus. But if we ignore these behaviors our dog goes “huh, that wasn’t really a good deal for me”, and they try something else, like jumping up on us instead of waiting patiently for attention, barking at the other dog instead of checking in with you, or starting to drag you towards a squirrel. You know, the behaviors we humans label as "problems". And if these behaviors are reinforced by us (we speak to and push the dog down when they jump, which many dogs misconstrue as play, we run our dog over to the other dog to say hi, we walk with our dogs as they pull) then they very quickly learn: ‘Ohhhhhh, this is actually a better deal for me. I’ll do this next time!’

Beagle sitting next to lake
"Will work for cookies and sniffy opportunities"

The truth about good dog training is that it’s focused more on consequences than commands, and good dog trainers notice when their dog is offering desired behavior and reinforce those behaviors with something the dog finds motivating, even if you didn’t ask for the behavior. So, become a “consequence machine” and I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly your dog starts to do more of what you like!


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