Ep. 17: Are Rules Mean?

Feb 26, 2024

Have you ever thought to yourself, setting rules for our dogs seems rather mean? You want to a good dog owner, you don't want to be mean! Perhaps you wanted to use positive reinforcement because you thought that meant you would be nice to your dog. Your dog gives you unconditional love, you want to show them how much you love them back!

In this episode, we discuss what terms such as "positive reinforcement" really mean within the context of dog training, how rules and routines can actually help to set the dog up for success and much more.


Dianna L. Santos


Speaker 1 (00:00):
Welcome to the It's Time to Train Your Dog Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things dog training that could be giving your dog some new skills that they may need. Maybe you're inviting a new puppy or adopted a dog into your home. Maybe you're interested in dog sports. We're going to be covering all of that as well as behind the scenes look of what your instructor or a trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about our rules mean. So before we start diving into the episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the Owner and Lead Instructor for Pet Dog U. This is an online dog training platform as designed to help you achieve your dog training goals. Whether or not you just brought a dog home, maybe you have brought in a new puppy, maybe you've adopted a dog from the shelter, or maybe you've had a dog for a while, but you're like they need a couple more skills. Maybe they need some help in the manners department, or maybe you've heard about dog sports and you're interested in getting more involved, or you're already involved in looking to develop some more skills and things like agility or canine parkour, maybe tribal and more. We likely have a training solution for you with our online courses, seminars, webinars, mini webinars, and eBooks. So if you haven't checked out Pet Dog U yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. I should know a little bit more about me. Let's step definitely the episode itself.

So in this episode I want to talk about this concept of rules are mean, and it kind of bleeds into this idea of if I'm going to be using something like positive reinforcement training, that means everything is supposed to be flowers and unicorns and rainbows. It's about being nice to my dog and I don't want to do anything that's mean to my dog. And the problem with framing things this way is that they're not really the right way of thinking about it. I'm going to be breaking down a couple of different things in this episode to try to help some of this terminology make a little bit more sense and to ensure that people aren't attaching an inappropriate emotion to something. So first, let's start with positive reinforcement. Just the word sounds. Oh, great, positive is good, right? Reinforcement is great, but it's actually a scientific term, and if we break it down into the two pieces, positive in the scientific sense means we're adding something and reinforcement means that we're doing something to increase behavior in the future.

So we put those two words back together again. We're adding something to ensure there's going to be an increase in behavior in the future, in this case, on behalf of our dog. It's not that this is good or that yay we're happy or stuff like that. It's just literally what it is that we are doing. We are adding something to ensure there's going to be an increase of behavior in the future. Why does any of that matter when we're talking about rules? Well, if you have the opinion, the positive reinforcement is only good, which again, is not the right way of thinking about it. And then if you have the opinion that rules are icky and gross and mean and bad, then you can obviously get the idea that people who want to practice positive reinforcement do not have any roles, and therefore their dogs are unruly or they're naughty or whatever, and none of that needs to be true.

It's not really. So positive reinforcement, again means we're adding something to increase the likelihood of behavior continuing in the future. So an example of this would be if my dog were to do something, let's say a sit, and I want them to do that more in the future, I'm going to give them something like a cookie every time that they sit because then they're going to want to sit more in the future. I'm adding something to increase the likelihood of that behavior. Now, we can tie that in with rules to say, okay, I live in a household where we have some relatives that come over that are a little unsure. They're a little unsteady. Maybe some of 'em are a bit older and we can't have the dog knocking them over. We also have tiny children, let's say our make-believe person or family. So we want to make certain that we're not having the dog all over children or older people.

So we're going to have a rule that says, dog, all of our feet have to stay on the ground. No jumping on people. So when you're greeting them, we want you to be standing on all four feet or even better if you want to sit to basically ask to be pet or to have attention paid to you even better. And when you do those things, we're going to use positive reinforcement training, which means we're going to give you something to ensure that that behavior is going to continue in the future. That is what I view the approach to rules should be, is I'm identifying what my lifestyle is, what my goals are, how I want the day to go from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed and everything in between. What is the routine that I'm going to have?

What type of lifestyle do I have? What do I want to have happen? What do I want to avoid happening? And then how can I design rules to set my dog up for success? Understanding that our dogs are not people. They are very little aliens that again, if the world was ruled by dogs, they would be living much differently than how they live in our homes. What can be completely appropriate for a dog? A lot of the times we are not overly keen on it as people, and a lot of the things that we find normal as people, the dogs are like, what are you doing? An example would be hugging dogs aren't going around hugging each other. It's a very primate type of behavior that we do. So if we can view the design of rules in that way that I want to think of what my lifestyle is, how I want the day to go, and what my dog I want them to do, and how I can design rules to ensure that they are being set up to succeed, then you are in a much better position than if you're viewing the rules as something that's gross and icky and mean.

I'm being mean to my dog, saying to the dog, Hey, you are going to get cookies and praise and play opportunities and all this stuff if you keep all four feet on the ground or use it. That's not you being mean. That's you being clear. So let's try to see this through, right? Let's say that someones like, no, I disagree with you completely. That sounds mean. That sounds awful. We're being mean to our dogs. I don't want to do that role. Okay, so then what happens when the dog does jump up? Then they knock over the kid or they knock over grandma as an example. We don't want broken heads. We don't want broken hips. That's all bad. So what happens in that instance now, more likely not you're going to be reacting. You're not going to be very pleased. I mean, the kid's probably going to be crying. Grandma's not going to be thrilled with you.

So now we're reacting, which is typically never a great position to be in, and the dog is still clueless as to what the problem is. They're like, what? I was just saying, hi, so my fault. They're unsteady. Why aren't they have another pair of legs? If we can again, look at this from the dog's perspective, they want to be successful in our homes, in our day-to-day life. They don't want to be causing problems because causing problems that make us upset makes their life worse. They want to do the things that are going to keep harmony as much as possible, but we have to help them because they're doing what dogs do. And sometimes what dogs do just doesn't really work with what we need them to do. I do want to point out that sometimes people latch onto these terms like positive reinforcement and then they take it to the nth degree in many directions. We're going to look at all of them. One is if I'm using positive reinforcement, that means I'm only nice to my dog and it means I'm only going to do nice things to my dog, and that's the only way that they can learn.

It's framing it in such a way that it's not true in the scientific sense. So what do I mean by that? Again, positive reinforcement is a scientific term. It's part of what we call the four quadrants of learning, and there is four of them. So there's positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Like punishment is bad. It's like, nope, nope, nope. Again, these terms mean different things. We're talking about this in the scientific sense. So if positive means that we're adding something, negative means we're taking something away. If reinforcement means I'm increasing behavior, punishment means I'm decreasing behavior. So why does this matter? Whenever we are learning or going through life, all four of those quadrants are probably in play. Just life throws these things at us. Since we are bringing the dogs into our world, we choose to have a dog, we get to figure out what part of these quadrants we want to concentrate on.

The most positive reinforcement can be exceedingly effective, and it also doesn't damage the relationship as much as some of the other quadrants can be if the information isn't received properly. That being said, to think that you're only ever going to be inside the positive reinforcement realm is just not true. And I'll give you an example. We're going to stay within. I want my dog to have all four feet on the ground or I want them to sit when they're greeting someone. So we're going to be sitting them up for success. We're going to ask them to stand. We're going to ask them to do a sit and do all this training. Great learning means there's going to be experimentation on behalf of the dog to try to figure out, oh, what works? How about this? How about this? How about this? How about this? Sorry, that's normal.

And at some point your dog is probably going to jump up. We want to reduce that behavior, so we may take something away that the dog wants, which is our attention. So if your dog went to jump up on you, turned your back and walked away and just completely ignored them and did something else that would be negative punishment, you took something away your attention to reduce the jumping up that sounds so icky to people like, oh, gross, I don't want to do that, but we have to recognize that it makes sense to the dog, right? I did something and then the result, the consequence, which again is not good or bad, wasn't what I wanted. My person went and walked off. I didn't want them to walk away. I wanted 'em to pay attention to me. But I remember all those times when I had my feet on the ground or I put my bottom on the ground, they stayed and they paid attention to me.

Maybe they even played with me. Interesting. I'm going to go back to my person and they're going to come toddling up to you and go, what if as I put my butt on the ground and then you are going to use positive reinforcement and you're going to give them all this lovely attention, you're going to tell them how wonderful they are. They're so smart, they're going to give them treats, maybe going to play with them, whatever. The comparison to the dog is very clear. I jumped up, my person went away and they went to look on their phone or something, but then I sat and they gave me all this wonderful attention. I'm going to sit more. So I hope that makes sense. But when we latch onto these terms and we put emotion behind them, it can get messy really quick. But what does this have to do with rules?

Well, the other thing that there'll be dialogue within the dog training community, and even people just who just own dogs, they'll hear positive reinforcement and there'll be people on the other part of the spectrum say, oh, that just means that they're just letting their dogs get away with bloody murder. They're just so purposive and they don't ever ask the dog to do anything again, that's not true. It's not supposed to be positive reinforcement literally is just again, this training approach, this way of learning. We add something to increase behavior and designing rules to set the dog up for success. In day-to-day life, you can implement positive reinforcement to ensure the dog does the thing you want them to do more often. And that's the key here, and that's one of the beauties about positive reinforcement and why there are so many trainers who really enjoy using it.

It shifts the way that you think about your dog. It can even shift the overall relationship because in order to increase a behavior, we have to be able to reinforce it. We have to be able to reward it. That means we have to be observant. We also have to think of what is it that I want my dog to do? I'm not just trying to inhibit something. I'm trying to think of what do I want them to do instead? It's one thing to say, I don't want my dog to jump on me. That's great. Okay, we're part the way there, but what should they be doing instead of that? We can't just give our dog, don't do that. What do you want me to do? And then people say, that's not true. You're like, I want my dog to just behave. Okay, well, let's go through some examples.

We have the jumping up piece, so we don't want the dog to jump up. I would say, okay, then what do we want them to do? Well, maybe I want them to keep all four feet on the ground, or I want them to sit perfect. Then we're going to build that behavior. That's going to be a rule. When you're greeting someone, you're going to have all four feet on the ground or you're going to sit. And when you do, we're going to give you lots of treats and praise and reward and tell you how amazing you are. And the dog is going to do that more and more and more and more. And as a side note, behavior that's not reinforced is going to decrease because dogs do what works. So if we're giving all this praise and all these cookies and playtime and attention when they have all four feet on the ground or they're sitting, but then we walk away and we ignore them when they jump up on us, they're not going to jump up as much because it doesn't work.

It doesn't get them what they want. Let's say that you have a bunch of company over and those kids are kind of mingling around doing what kids do, and maybe they drop some of their toys or something. I don't want the dog messing with the kids' toys, but what do you want them to do? Maybe you want them to just look at it. Maybe you want them to look back at you. Maybe you want them to just back off and then go somewhere else. Still, the dog is doing something. I hope that makes sense and that they're making a choice to not get the toy. They're making a choice of leaving the toy alone. That is still something the dog can do, and we can build it up with impulse control exercises, but there's still an actionable thing for the dog to be taught. So this rule of if I drop something, but I didn't tell you that you can have it, you're just going to leave it alone.

And when you randomly drop things and the dog just lays there and they're like, I know that's not for me, and you give them lots of reward with a good little puppy, then you'll be able to progress some there. So I hope that makes sense, that we can think through with every part of our daily life, what is it that I want the dog to do? And you can start off with what you maybe aren't such a big fan of. And then from there you can think of what is an actionable thing, a decision point, a behavior that I actually want my dog to do, and then how would I be able to train that?

So at the end of the day, our rules mean they should be things that we are setting up to help our dogs be successful because they desperately want to be successful. They don't want to be causing all kinds of stress and strife because stress and strife causes them stress and strife. They want everything to be kind of chill, and they are very adaptable. They will try to mimic us. They do everything in their little puppy powers to make this work. But we have to do our part as dog owners and trainers to say, okay, here's the human expectation. How can I help this make sense to my dog? And also try to think through why is my dog doing the things they are now, particularly if they've been doing them for a while? Because again, our dogs do what works. So if you've been so far up until this point of listening to this episode, you've been struggling with your dog, maybe doing canine parkour off of your body.

When you come home from work, let's say, and you've been doing everything in your body, you've been get off of me, stop it. Get off of you're pushing the dog and you're just so upset, like, and he just seems to come back at you with more vigor. And they're like, yeah, the pushy shovey get off me game is a really fun one for the dogs because it's a tension. So we'll just end up with this example. If you're out of the home, if you're out of your house all day at work, we need to be able to pay the bills that are there to feed the dog.

When you come home, the most important resource to your dog is you, and you have not been there all day. They are social, interactive, inquisitive, smart, problem solving little creatures, but social is a really important piece. You are very important to them, and you've been gone all day, so now they want and desperately need your attention. So they're going to be really super excited and they're going to try to say hi to you, and your face is way up in the clouds as far as they're concerned, just going to jump up to try to reach your face. And when you go stop by, stop by, stop it. You're pushing them away and you're doing all this stuff. You are giving them attention. There's a thing that we will say in the dog training world, bad attention is still attention, right? If the dog has the choice of, I get no attention, or I get my handler is raising their voice at me and shoving me away and whatever else, Hey, B is still attention.

At least they're doing something with me. And that's why when we're working on greetings, removing yourself from the situation, removing all the attention can really be effective because it's so clear to the dog. So if you've been struggling with this kind of thing for a while, like, oh, it's been months. I come home and the parkour just gets worse, they're almost knocking me out at this point. Maybe we want to adjust how we're doing this. Think through what is it that you want your dog to do? Oh, I would love for them to just have their feet on the floor. They don't even have to sit, just stand. Just stand still, and they'll be able to pet you. Perfect. So there's a bunch of ways that we can work on that. We can have actual training when you're not just coming home from work where you are walking in from the door, you've been there all day, and you just randomly like, okay, I'm going to go out the front door, and then you're going to walk in.

Your dog's going to be standing like, oh, hi. And then you're going to feed them a whole bunch of treats when all four feet are on the ground, and you're going to do that a whole bunch and tell 'em how amazing they are. Oh, you're the best. If there are other people who are home, they're going to do the same darn thing, and your dog will be like, this is great. I stand here when people come in through the door and I get gies, this is wonderful. Also, you're going to use a little bit of that negative punishment where if they are to jump up, no yelling, no fussing, no pushing, nothing, you're just going to turn around and walk right back out that door and close it behind you. No huff, no fuss, nothing, and the dog goes, oh, I didn't want that. I want the cookies.

Come back. You're going to wait a minute or two, and then you're going to come back in through the door. If all four feet are on the ground, you're going to give them a whole bunch of cookies and tell them how great they are. This is what I mean is that rules do not have to be mean and they shouldn't be. We should be designing rules and routines that help our dogs be successful, and that means that we have to think through first, is there anything happening right now that I'm not really all that keen on? And be honest, make a list. Don't just stop there. Okay? If you're going to write this out on a piece of paper, one column, my dog does these things which drive me crazy, and the next column, what do I want them to do instead? It can't just be a, don't have it be something either an action or a decision, and then think through how you may be able to train that and then create consistent routines and rules that will help reinforce that.

So a rule in this case would be the dog has to have all four feet on the ground when someone comes home or when someone walks in through that front door. That means that everyone in the household has to be on the same page. We're not enticing the dog to jump up on us. We're not getting them all jazzed up, so they're all crazy, so they're more likely to jump up on us. We're probably going to have a treat container right by the door so we can reward the dog for having all four feet on the ground. If we have company over, we may be standing at the front door waiting for this person to come in, and we are rewarding the dog. There's a whole bunch of different things that we can do, but that's what I mean is having a better understanding about these concepts and not getting so hung up on the emotion that we may attach to certain words, because that can get us into a lot of trouble.

Positive reinforcement is not supposed to be permissive per se. It's not a license for your dog to just run amuck, and allowing our dog to run amuck is not good for them either. They're going to run into more conflict points at some point. Instead, we can set them up for success by understanding what is it that I need for my dog to do on a day-to-day basis to be successful, and how can I design rules and routines to help them do that? And then what training do I need to do to teach them the skills that they need? So I hope this helps. The CliffNotes version is, rules are not supposed to be mean. Positive reinforcement is not permissive. It doesn't just mean unicorns and rainbows, and there are four quadrants to learning. Positive doesn't mean good. Negative doesn't mean bad reinforcement, doesn't mean yay, and punishment doesn't mean in that context the more, but I'd love to hear from all of you, what did you think about this episode? Were you having any thoughts when you were listening to it as far as you know what I have thought that rules could be perceived as kind of mean? Or did you ever think, oh yeah, you know what? I actually thought the positive reinforcement did kind of mean that I would just be permissive and just allow my dog to do whatever.

We'd love to hear about it in the comments. We'll be posting this episode up on the Pet Dog U website. It'll also be on our social media, so you're more than welcome to comment there. We are going to be a little bit more active on our podcast. We took a little bit of a hiatus because I've been ridiculously busy, but I'm looking forward to doing much more regular episodes. We're also going to be doing interviews with several of our instructors and outside speakers. So if there is a particular topic that you're interested in, please feel free to let me know. I'll definitely ensure that we made that happen for you. We want to provide what you all are interested in. But thank you so much for listening. Please give your puppies a cookie for me. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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