I was reminded of the amazing Mork and Mindy when I received an email recently.
The sender was having an issue and it reminded me that puppies, and dogs, have a lot in common with aliens. They arrive in our homes, speaking their own doggy language and with their own code of etiquette. Of course, the canine way of doing things isn’t always compatible with our human lifestyle. They need to be taught what works in this new world and that’s going to take time to ensure they fully understand. However, many owners resort to just giving commands in their human language and expect the dog to get it – if they don’t, then shout louder! Although, sometimes what we think we’re training or telling our dogs just isn’t what the dog is learning.
So, what was happening with this client? Well, their young, very sociable puppy was continuing to jump up on people. We had gone over all of the procedures to teach a dog to greet calmly so I didn't understand why it wasn't working, when I received a surprising reply by email. The owner had started blowing in the dog’s face when she jumped up as she’d heard dogs didn’t particularly like this. She admitted that she probably shouldn’t be doing this as it could be seen as punishment. Correct! If you’re adding something to your training that is meant as an aversive then, yes, you are using punishment and that is likely to lead to some sort of behavioural fall-out.
The reason most dogs jump up is to greet face-to-face, as they do with each other. They are saying ‘hello’ the way they instinctively know how. However, if worried puppies will also lick another dog’s lips as a form of appeasement, to say ‘don’t worry about me, I’m just a silly puppy’. So, if a puppy is jumping up to say hello and is punished by having their face blown on, they’re not necessarily learning that the jumping isn’t welcome, they're learning that saying hello isn’t welcome. So, what might they do to appease you and show that they’re no threat? Try to lick your mouth while jumping up, of course! Therefore, the blowing hasn’t taught anything but has actually increased the unwanted behaviour.
Now, I often get down on all fours with my dogs and engage in silly games that involve a bit of rough and tumble, including blowing in their faces. It’s part of how we play together. My dogs love it and it actually really excites them. So, rather than punishing, this client could be inadvertently starting a great game with her dog! She could be actually rewarding the jumping up by starting stimulating play every time it happens. This will, consequentially, increase the behaviour and make it much more likely to happen.
So, remember to really think about how you’re communicating to your little aliens. Are you saying what you think you’re saying? Do they really understand? Until next time, Nanu Nanu Earthlings!