Nebulous “gray” areas in the daily life of any human are normal. It’s just the way life is. Life is complex. Life is full of undefined circumstances and variables that daily enter our lives and must be taken into consideration in our decision making process. And the more involved one becomes in the course of human affairs, the more complicated it becomes.
This is not the case for our dogs. On the contrary, life is very basic for them. For a dog he is either the leader of the pack or a member of the pack; there is either nourishment or there is not; there is either sex or there is not. Things are very definite, very clear.
Enter the human…
We like to believe that our dogs think and feel as we do. They don’t. Dogs don’t have grudges, they have no political aspirations, nor do they value jewelry, cars, money, or fame. What they do hold dear is being in a society--your society. Your company. They are pack animals with a pack mentality. Life has few adornments.
In their uncomplicated world actions are either acceptable or not acceptable, rewarded (in a wolf pack it might be the better portion of a ‘kill,’ for example) or not rewarded.
Gray areas—those vague, hazy ‘what if’ and multi-response decision making zones—are foreign to dogs. Their primal drive is to survive and perpetuate their social pack. To this end they have become masters at evaluating us humans and reading us, recognizing nuances that we are utterly unaware of.
In my opinion introducing and cultivating gray areas in a dog’s world is unfair—and it’s especially unfair if after doing so, you expect a precise response. It can’t happen and it won’t happen. On occasion the dog may accidentally get it right, and then the handler jumps to the conclusion that , “See. He knows. He’s just pulling my chains.”
This can become a very frustrating, nonproductive circle.
Commands need to be black or white. Commands need to have clarity. When I tell any one of my dogs to “Sit,” I don’t mean “Please.” Neither do I mean, “When it’s convenient for you and you’re comfortable with the idea.” I mean sit, and sit now. Naturally I would only give this command to a dog who understands how to execute a sit. He has to know what the command means and how to succeed. I would never insist that an untrained dog or puppy instinctively comprehend what I’m talking about. That would be utterly unfair!
Gray areas result in misunderstandings, sloppiness, enormous confusion, and subsequently a dog that is not a happy worker—and one who is also having to cope with a very frustrated trainer as well!
Take the following example: Prince and I are practicing retrieves and I decide I need a retractable lead, so I tell Prince to ‘Stay’ while I go to the training bag for my Flexi. Low and behold Prince follows and sticks his nose deep into the bag, helping me find his favorite toy. I tell him that I can do it myself, thank you very much, grab the Flexi, and we both return to the lawn area to practice retrieves. Prince does great. Retrieves every one. But the next day at an Obedience Trial Prince breaks his Group Long Sit Exercise.
I’m livid. How could he!? How dare he think he can get away with that!
But consider: why shouldn’t he think breaking his sit/stay is okay? Didn’t he break a sit/stay only the day before and not experience any consequences? On the contrary, I actually played retrieves with him afterwards! Was this fair training? Absolutely not! How on earth can Prince understand when it’s okay to break a stay and when it is not? Can he read my mind? Interpret the AKC Regulations?
In the example above I had given a stay command, but when Prince followed me to the training bag, I did not return him to the place where I had left him and let him know in no uncertain terms that he must stay because I said so. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. My failure to do so left Prince in a huge gray zone. I was unclear, and subsequently left poor old Prince wondering, confused, and having to second guess my wishes: “Does she mean it this time or not?”
In order to be fair, I MUST ALWAYS MEAN IT. One of my maxims is :
"SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, AND MEAN WHAT YOU SAY!"
And I must also always be explicit and exact in my training. Take this scenario as another example:
I throw the dumbbell and tell Prince to “Take it.” Prince starts to go for it, but is distracted by a wonderful smell six feet to the left of the dumbbell. I sigh, cluck my tongue, go out and pick up the dumbbell, then guide Prince back into heel position by his collar.
I toss out the dumbbell a second time and send Prince to retrieve it. Prince kind of lifts his bottom, but is a little unsure and plops it back down. I see that he’s a bit hesitant, so I point at the dumbbell and verbally encourage him: “Go get it. Hurry! That’s it. Pick it up. Good boy!” I add jubilantly as Prince eagerly flies out and picks it up. Before he can even sit in front I take the dumbbell out of his mouth and pop a cookie into his wide open jaws.
The next day at an obedience trial Prince fails the Retrieve on Flat exercise. At least on the first command. When I give him a second command, he zooms out and nabs that baby joyfully.
I am not happy. In fact I’m downright ticked off. I leave the ring practically towing him behind me. “He knows how to retrieve,” I fume at a friend.
But does he really? Well…certainly on second commands. But I have not been fair to Prince in his training. When Prince took a detour in training the previous day to sniff something off to the side, I failed to let him know that that behavior was not acceptable. I simply guided him back and tried again. It left Prince wallowing in an enormous gray fog: he had no idea that what he had done was not acceptable. I had failed to make that understood.
Worse yet, the exercise once repeated was still stuck in a quagmire of gray ooze: I gave him a command to “Take it,” and then failed to show Prince that one command was all that I was going to give. Instead, I not only gave a second command to retrieve the dumbbell, I compounded the problem by giving a hand signal with it—the hand that pointed at the dumbbell was a signal!
Poor old Prince has no idea what is required of him--and it's my doing as his trainer. I have failed to clarify. Prince has no idea as to what is going to make me happy—and making me happy, pleasing me, is of utmost importance to him. If I’m happy, he gets more pets, more treats, more smiles. All is right with the world, especially his. Yet I have never clarified and shown him how I want him to execute this maneuver. I have been utterly unfair.
In practice I praise and reward him for sloppy work and then expect him to get it right in the ring. Boy, am I unfair. I have failed to present a black and white picture of the retrieve to Prince, and subsequently Prince has no idea what is acceptable and what is not.
All dogs can and do make honest mistakes. But if your dog makes the same mistake twice in a row, I would recommend that you draw back and look at your training. Your dog obviously does not know how to be successful. It is your job to show him how to succeed!
So next time you train, honestly ask yourself if what you are doing is clear, concise, and devoid of gray areas. In other words, are you really being fair?
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