A standard piece of advice in training dogs and horses has long been to make it easy for your learner to do the right thing, and hard for your learner to the wrong thing.
This comprehensive directive embodies a great deal of the training we do. I like it a lot as a rule of thumb to help clients learn how to problem solve. On the other hand, it’s ambiguous.
Ambiguity occurs when a statement is equally susceptible to more than one meaning (usually conflicting meanings). In the practice of law, there are rules for dealing with ambiguity in the language of contracts or laws, but in real life, we have no such guidance.
“Making it easy to do the right thing” is reasonably clear. If I want my dog to sit to greet, I might exercise her first so she’s not bursting with energy; I might practice sits a lot outside of an exciting greeting context so that she is likely to choose sitting as a recently reinforced behavior; I might move slowly and quietly so that she doesn’t get excited and feel like becoming airborne. I might hold a treat in my hand at nose level to keep her focus low. Or I might stand on her leash to prevent her front feet from leaving the ground.
The problematic phrase is: “making it hard to do the wrong thing.” “Hard has a lot of meanings. Ignoring those which don’t really apply here, it can mean “arduous” or “strenuous” (the opposite of “easy”). That could come into play: for example, standing on the dog’s leash would make it arduous to get up high enough to jump on the person being greeted. It could denote difficulty (being puzzling, complex, or intricate — the opposite of “simple”).
But “hard” has quite a few other meanings which some trainers invoke. “Hard” can denote “tough,” “uncomfortable,” “distressing,” or “awful” (opposite of “comfortable”). It can also be “harsh,” “firm,” “strict,” “exacting,” “callous,” “hard-hearted,” “unkind,” “ruthless,” “merciless,” “cruel,” and “pitiless.” (Antonym here is “kind.” My goodness, my thesaurus has an awful lot of synonyms for this particular meaning of hard. Such focus on the grim!)
Another set of meanings involves “sharp,” “powerful,” “heavy” and “violent.” The antonym here is “light.”
It is easy to imagine this latter, large, set of meanings informing training choices. These meanings easily encompass acts like hanging a dog from a choke chain, kicking or kneeing it, applying an electric shock, or pinching its toes when it jumps up. I don’t use these techniques for training* and I don’t want to encourage my students or clients to use them either.
I’ve found myself wanting to say “make it easy for the dog to the right thing, and hard for the dog to do the wrong thing” to students to help remind them of a simple problem-solving algorithm. But I keep regretting it since it leaves too much room for reactive, abusive, or unnecessarily aversive training techniques.
If it were me, I’d change the phrase: “Make it easy for your dog to the right thing, and inconvenient or impossible for the dog to do the wrong thing.” The problem is, this is really a lot less catchy sounding. Anyone else out there have a better suggestion?
Footnote: *I will lift a dog from a collar or knee it IF we are in emergency management mode; the dog is overaroused and/or behaving dangerously, and I need to get control fast. This is not the same as choosing a training technique and using it systematically.
Periodically, this question drives me crazy.
What is respect? In particular, what constitutes the kind of respect dogs are supposed to have for humans?
About 95% of the time someone tells me their dog respects them, or points out a dog who respects people, the dog is visibly afraid of the person. Is that respect? If that’s what it is, I am not interested, and it’s a very easy discussion for me.
I’ve had herding instructors tell me, “your dog does not respect you.” Does that mean my dog does not fear me? If I ask, the answer is something like, “respect means she does what you ask right away” or “does not pull on the leash” (*oh shit*), or something like that. But when I ask, “how do you teach that,” they tend to wiggle a bit and not have a concrete answer. And I’m pretty sure that when they teach if to their dogs, it involves at least partly instilling an element of fear; of “or else.”
Can respect be earned by humans without using fear? If so, how? I’m pretty sure I’ve done all those things — controlling resources, being fair, teaching the skills so my dog understands, etc., with Mellie, but it’s also still pretty clear that there are times she’s just going to do what she wants and is “blowing me off.” For example, leash walking. Or thinks I’m a raging incompetent (“if you wanted me to go over that jump you should have told me in time”). is that a failure of respect?
I’m truly at a loss with this. I know people I respect, so I’ve asked myself “what is it about those people that makes me respect them?” The answer is usually that they are fair, fairer than usual; or stronger than most people (especially myself) would be in a similar situation. I have enormous respect for some of the young single moms I’ve met who are also going to school and working one or more jobs. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t ever have done that; it’s enormous. Just an example. And this really does not translate well to “dog respecting a person,” because it requires all sorts of theory of mind and abstract thinking which dogs don’t appear to do.
I welcome comments. I’d really like to hear what people mean by this, and how they teach it.