Monday, June 20, 2016

Punishment Creates Conflict and There is Always Fallout

To preface this, I use positive reinforcement to train my dogs. I try not to use punishment and I honestly believe that teaching your dog "what to do" versus using corrections for "what not to do" is the better way to go. That being said, I'm a human and sometimes I screw up.

It was 5:30am on Saturday morning and I woke up in a total snit. It was just one of "those days" where the world was ending and I just didn't want to adult. I was crabby and incredibly tired because I've been having a hard time getting sleep on Friday nights. What can I say? I'm a total baby when I don't sleep well. I had to get up to take my husband to work so that I could have the car, the dogs needed to be worked before I went to work and I had too much stuff to do. I think I was feeling really overwhelmed.

Do we really have to get up? Phoenix is not a morning dog, either.

So I drag myself and my dogs out of bed, we get the husband off to work and we arrive at the school/park that I like to use for training. It's now 6:30am. I let them wander around on leash to take care of potty needs and then we get ready to do some fetch and training. I usually work them off leash, with one relaxing on a mat and one working or playing with me. That way it's super easy to switch back and forth between dogs. This sort of training, we've been doing for nearly 4 years since I got Phoenix. I try to do a balance between training and letting them be dogs so we train for a little while and then they can go play or sniff and then back to training. Since the park is a public space, I try to keep things structured and the dogs semi under control as much as possible. I usually lay my mat down first and have both dogs sit on it before I unclip the leashes, both dogs have had extensive mat work and are generally glued to the mat if it's out. That morning I was so tired and I didn't really know what I was doing, I didn't have the mat ready. I just asked them to sit and unclipped the leashes. As I turned my back on them to get their mat and chuck it off the bench and put their leashes down, they just took off. They decided it was play time and were zooming around, roughhousing with each other.

It was early in the morning and there was no one out there. It honestly did not matter that the dogs were running around being dogs but it irked me because well, let's face it, I was already irked by lack of sleep and other things. I didn't release them to play and I was not okay with the fact that they just took off. I ended up yelling at them and I'm not proud of it. "HEY!!! (EXPLICIT!!!) THIS IS NOT WHAT WE'RE DOING!!!!! (EXPLICIT) GET BACK HERE!!!" (or something like that). I didn't use any of the cues that they know, not a single one and not even their names. Phoenix came back right away. Zoe took longer to convince, she's generally has a lot less impulse control training than Phoenix, she's more of the trouble-maker in the family and she's much more sensitive to my moods. Zoe is the dog that is easily shutdown and tunes me out by tuning into the environment. She drives me crazy when this happens and it's honestly the most frustrating thing about her. Even though I rewarded both dogs when they came back, yelling is very punishing for them and none of us were happy.

So I get Zoe back and settling on the mat and start training with Phoenix. I ask Phoenix if she's ready, she wags her tail at me and I tell her to "GO!" and I chuck the ball. She watches me chuck the ball but she wouldn't go get it. She started out into the field and then just stops and keeps looking at me. Goes a little further, stops and looks at me. Fetch is a game that we've played for years, she's very well versed in the game. She didn't want to fetch the ball because I had just yelled at her for running around on the field. She was extremely conflicted and she wasn't sure if she should go. I had to work really hard to convince her that it was okay and that she could go get her ball. I did eventually get her fetching and we had a  really good training session, too.

When it was Zoe's turn, she did okay for the first 10 minutes but I had a really hard time keeping her attention and she was really distracted. Her head was not in the game, which is not too unusual for Zoe but I'm sure I didn't make it any easier on her by being bitchy. She's an extremely sensitive dog and she picks up on absolutely everything I'm feeling. If I'm pissed off or agitated she knows it and she actively avoids me. Who wants to be around a bitchy person, anyways? I can't really blame her.

I felt SO bad. You guys, I can't even tell you how bad I felt for yelling at them. It really sucked and I was not happy with myself. Especially since I didn't even use any of their known cues or anything. The dogs are never wrong, they were just being dogs and since I didn't put the mat down they thought it was goof off time. My communication with them was not clear and it was totally my fault. It was so dumb to yell at them, especially since there was no one around and there was no harm done by them running around and playing.

Sometimes my expectations for my dogs are just too high and I know that I need to work on my mindset. I don't know why I set such high standards for them but it's definitely so much easier to work with other people's dogs. I have all the patients in the whole world when it comes to working with any dogs other than my own. I think sometimes I just get frustrated because I've been training them for so long that I feel like we should be done with these more basic things and that they should just know what I mean and be able to do it.

I know that I just need to work on these things more. Their implied stay needs work and I need to clearly communicate what I'm wanting without the mat being present. Next time I will definitely end up tethering one dog while the other is loose. Taking them both off leash at the same time is just asking for trouble and impulse control issues. They were likely just confused because when we go to other off leash places, they both come off leash at the same time and there's no mat. They are just free to run around. I'm also finding out that if I want Zoe's attention she can't have doggy time first. It's better to train her from the beginning versus allowing her to goof off because I just can't get her back. She gets way into the environment and she's just not mentally there for me to work with.

Punishment creates so much conflict and there is always fallout as a result from using it. I know it sounds pretty crazy but 10-15 seconds of yelling was all it took to screw everything up. I had to work so much harder with both of my dogs to make up for being punishing to them. Not only did it damage Phoenix's drive to play (something I've worked so hard on getting) and her confidence in me, it also screwed up my recall and both dogs were really hesitant to do anything or try stuff. I could definitely tell that they were unsure of me and worried. I never want them to feel that way, I should always have their backs and they should be able to trust me. Training is supposed to be fun and I blew it. It was definitely not the way I wanted to start my morning or any training sessions. It was such a rooky mistake and I'm so embarrassed that it happened because I definitely know better. I think the next time I wake up feeling crabby, we will skip going to the park or maybe I'll just take Phoenix. That way I set us all up to win instead of failing. At least we ended on a better note than when we started and I did learn from the experience but it's not something I want to repeat.

Have you ever screwed up when trying to train your dogs? What did you do and how did you fix it?


  1. You have my sympathy as I too have tried to train or play when I'm not in the zone and frustration ensues! Don't beat yourself up about it though, they love you and I'm sure next time will be better and easier for all. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt post though, it's good to know we're not alone in our mistakes.

  2. I think everyone screws up when training every now and again. Hey, we're only human. I had to learn that it's not the best idea for me to work with my dogs on certain things/in certain areas if I'm not feeling on top of my game. I don't take my puppy out in public anymore if I'm having issues with my own anxiety because I learned the hard way that in that state I'm likely to do more harm than good. I had to learn that it's okay to take a break, end a session early, give the dogs something to do indoors and step away for awhile if I'm starting to feel frustrated. I know that all sounds like common sense but it was tough for me at first.

  3. My one major reservation about the R+ movement is that I really wish the community could focus on being as kind to the handlers as we try to be to the dogs. I totally grok the sadness and guilt and hating to see the effects in your dogs, but -- we all screw up, now and again. It happens. All we can expect of ourselves is what we expect of our dogs: that we do the best we can in the moment with the information and resources (including, y'know, emotional bandwidth) available to us at the time.

    There's nothing wrong with Phoenix and there's nothing wrong with you. You're just learning, just like she and Zoe are, that's all.

  4. This post could be something that happens in our house from time to time. Like you, if I am not my best self, my patience with my two isn't perfect. I try not to beat myself up about it too much and move forward. I know my dogs forgive me well before I forgive myself.

  5. We've all done the wrong things and usually when we have had a bad nights sleep. Our patience is out the window. I'm sorry this happened.

    Have a woof woof day you two. My best to your mom. ☺

  6. I think this happens to all of us, and do doubt quite often in the morning. Even on good days my first hour or so is still at least half cranky. It really sucks when you have a sensitive dog, that's something I haven't experienced. I couldn't imagine how much worse I'd feel if every time I snapped Laika had a strong reaction.

  7. Oh man - if you think any of us are perfect in that regard, I know that I'm not and I doubt that anyone else is either.

    My two dogs are so different - R has a hard head and thick skin. I can yell at him (in a scene like yours) with almost no fallout or effect on his behavior. On the other hand, Shyla would be crushed at least for the day if not longer. She would avoid interacting with me in a way that made me even more frustrated. I know from experience.

    I've finally learned that there are days when I just shouldn't do any formal training with Shyla. I'll screw it up and hurt my fragile dog. E.g., like days that I'm in a lot of pain. Forget it - I'll snap at her and the rest is history.

    Actually, part of why I've fallen in love with taking Fenzi courses is that doing their training exercises keeps *me* in the right state of mind. I am seeing that avoiding any negativity and being generous with rewards with Shyla makes both of our lives happier.

    Don't beat yourself up about it. Perhaps the main thing to "take home" from that day is not to train or give your dogs the opportunity to blow you off when you're having a bad day. That's the lesson I've had to learn because my frustration threshold is pretty low on those days.

  8. I fully agree with Hannah that almost every positive reinforcement person/post/facebook group/ect is incredibly harsh on the handler. A dog can have a bad or off day without anyone batting an eye, but if a handler has one? Fuck, the gloves come off and you are slaughtered. It's messed up.

    I'm not the perfect handler. At all. I've yelled at my dogs, I've shoved them off me if I'm in pain/angry/annoyed/"hangry", and I've even popped a leash or jerked a collar/harness a few times. I'm not proud of it. I've felt like shit every time I've done it. I know I can't be perfect, but when it comes to my dogs, I want to be.

    I think we need to take a step back from our expectations, for both ourselves and our dogs, at least a few days a week. It's helped me stay more level headed.

  9. Don't be so hard on yourself. It happens. Everyone has a bad day and the dog just pushes one too many buttons and the human looses it. As long as you aren't someone who beats up dogs, they will understand. My mom loses it on occasion and goes off on a yelling tangent, we just leave her alone, and later she apologizes and things are all good. It is life, it happens and we forgive our humans. Frankly, sometimes we are so naughty we need to really be put in our places as we too are not perfect.


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