Seeing the Past Through Present Behavior:

I got an interesting surprise today. I went to see a rescue Chihuahua mix who isn’t housetrained. Like all ‘rescue dogs’ the new owner said she was abused because she was fearful when she got her, about six months ago. I noticed a little sensitivity but nothing I would gauge as ‘fear’ in our greeting. She was hesitant about me touching her, even when I was sitting on the ground. So I decided to get started with the process. First thing – associate a clicker with treats. That is when I got the surprise. I clicked. She instantly jerked her head around and looked at the treat she obviously expected to be on the ground. It could have been a fluke so I tried it again. Sure enough, I clicked, she instantly was searching the ground for the treat. Hmmmmm.
Here’s the importance of this event. Somebody had taken the time to teach her that a clicker meant treats. They also taught her to do a 360 turn – but nothing else. They didn’t teach her to pee and poop outdoors. Imagine that. Or, maybe the original owner taught her that and put her into rescue because she couldn’t be housetrained.

I got the 360 out of her by touching a treat to her nose and then retracting it. That is a great way to find out what a rescue dog knows – tease the heck out of them, get them frustrated and watch the behaviors start flying. As I was discovering what she knew, I talked to the owner and learned something – she’d been ineptly punished for having accidents. (I almost never use any form of punishment for housetraining – and I mean ‘almost never’. Most often that teaches sneakiness.) How did I know? The new owner had never seen her pee or poop. To expand the old question, “Does a bear poop in the woods?” the answer is, “Yes, right next to the dog.” Dogs do not naturally care where they pee or poop. They also aren’t bashful about displaying the process in front of people…unless they’ve been punished for having accidents.

The point of this is that reliable information from rescue people is like getting a beagle to give you directions to the rabbit – you have to keep quiet and let your powers of observation provide the answer. External events/consequences have predictable influences on behavior. Withhold an expected treat and you get variability. Meaning the dog will do something different when they find out that their ‘one-trick’ repertoire has failed. The other factoid is that dogs only hide their business when they have connected peeing/pooping + people = punishment. If you run into an adult dog and want to change its behavior or discover what it knows, start offering differing consequences for no reason at all. That will ‘frustrate’ the dog and start triggering other behaviors as it tries to figure out your particular form of insanity.

4 thoughts on “Seeing the Past Through Present Behavior:

  1. Thanks Gary. I must admit that I have been guilty of observing a dog and not being able to put in context a behavior and as humans we want a good story.
    However I do wonder how that small dog who looks like a Jack Russell can be listed as a Golden Retriever mix.

  2. Larry,
    When I worked in shelters I spent three years nudging a bunch of dog trainers into learning the breeds. The tipping point was when a woman called about her Irish Wolfhound. It was listed as a “AirdaleXGreatDane” mix.

  3. If in most house training circumstances it is best not to utilize punishment, what do you recommend for those moments where a pup is caught red-pawed peeing on the carpet in front of their owner? Would redirection work, such as putting them outside to finish the job after the owner cuts them off with a cue? Thanks!

    • Brandon,
      There is rarely a benefit to applying punishment to housetraining based on purely practical aspects of the process. The best thing to do is smile. It means your dog is willing to pee or poop right in front of you – which is a prerequisite to getting the behavior in the correct location. So smile. Be happy. If you attempt to pick the puppy up and run it outside you run the risk that will act as an aversive event and cause the pup to avoid you when it has to eliminate. The goal is to create a passion where one does not currently exist. That will end the accidents.

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