The Internal Locus of Control

A few months ago, I saw a client who had a shy agility dog.  The client was a little stuck on application of Control Unleashed principles and I helped her get unstuck.  She’s making progress.  It was not a particularly dramatic case.  But I’ll always remember that consultation for what *I* learned.

This client is a psychologist who works at a prison.  As we discussed the training of impulse control, I shared with her my mantra:  I want the dog to control the dog.  She then told me about working with prisoners who were preparing to be released.  Many of these men (in the prison where my client works) have been in prison for a lot of their lives, and do not know how to handle the less structured environments on the outside.  They have to figure out when, where, and what to eat; they must appear for official meetings on their own, with no one coming to collect them at the appointed time; they must find a job and show up on time, repeatedly, on their own.  Even those determined to stay out of trouble have difficulty with this.  These gentleman tend to perceive their problems as being caused by others and themselves as powerless to change their situations.  My client told me she is working to build an internal locus of control in these prisoners, rather than letting them rely on the external locus of control (authority, constant rule enforcement) in the prison environment. Returning soldiers often struggle with the same issues, making their reentry even more challenging.

Ka-ching!  This, I realized, was exactly what I have been trying to teach my clients to teach their dogs for years.  Now I had a handy new vocabulary to help the owners understand.

I teach almost every client how to teach their dog better impulse control.  We start with some simple Zen exercises.  In these exercises, we’re asking the dog to choose to sit still and look at the owner (or handler) to earn a treat, rather than staring at or licking a hand holding food.  The key here is to say nothing.  We make it easy for the dog to figure out the right answer, and reward him for each successful response.

Owners are often puzzled.  “My dog already knows Watch Me” they say.  “We learned Leave It” in class.  Why are we doing this?

The answer is the internal locus of control.  The dog has learned (to some degree) to follow a command.  Some dogs are very good at this, indeed, and it’s easy to see why the owner may be miffed at the insinuation that he’s failed to train the dog or that the dog is anything other than brilliant.  But — as I immediately explain — this isn’t a failure of previous training or learning ability.  It’s a whole new skill.

Yes, dogs need to learn how to follow at least a few critical commands.  Every dog should understand Come, Stay, and Leave It.  Those are lifesavers.  But there are many other behaviors I hope dogs learn to perform automatically.  Automatically means “cued by the environment or the context.”  If your leash is attached, that should be the cue to walk nearby and keep the leash loose without the owner having to command it.  If you are greeting a person, that should be a cue to sit and hold the sit for the duration of the greeting, without being told “off!” “down!” or even “sit.”  For behavior modification purposes, I’m often trying to teach a dog to look briefly at the trigger and then back at the handler… without being told.  The difference is the internal locus of control.  It gives the dog power to control his own agitated responses.  It gives the owner a break from having to helicopter around the dog and constantly cue the desired behavior.  It is peaceful and calming.

Some dogs do this on their own.  Some need help.  That is what I do.


2 thoughts on “The Internal Locus of Control

  1. Love this post! I am definitely guilty of over managing Bonnie through cues, you’ve inspired me to make a more concerted effort to teach environmental cues instead of always having to ask for the behaviour, thanks!

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