Camerado! I give you my hand!

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Law of (Un)Intended Benefits

Everyone has heard of unintended consequences. You perform an action for a particular purpose, but you gain something that you did not expect, and possibly do not want. For example, recently in the news was a story about a Texas woman who put a large sticker on her car disparaging the President. The wording on the sticker was quite profane. A sheriff noticed it, took a photo, and posted it on Facebook, where it went viral. Due to the notoriety of the viral photo, the owner of the car was soon being sought by the police…but not for the sticker. It turns out that she had a standing warrant for her arrest on different (non-violent) charges, and now that she was in the spotlight, she was soon taken into custody for that warrant.

The sticker in question, profanity redacted.
She wanted to draw attention to herself with the sticker, I’m sure. But I doubt she wanted that particular type of attention. That is an example of unintended consequences.

Pet owners experience the Law of Unintended Consequences quite a bit, mostly because pet training is something the average owner only takes partly seriously, but the pets take quite literally. You give your dog a bite of food from your fork when he barks at you during dinner. You think, “Just this once won’t hurt.” But “just this once” is not a concept dogs understand—at all. And unless you never, ever repeat your error, the dog will bark at you and expect the food at every meal for quite a while before he gives up. The chances are pretty good that you, or someone with whom you live, will give the dog a bite from the table (or will reward him in some other way for barking during a meal) at some point before he stops trying. That 2nd time will seal the deal for the dog, and now you have an obnoxious behavior that you created and have to fix (humanely, please—it’s not his fault you made a mistake).

The flip side of the Law of Unintended Consequences is that it works in positive ways, too. The unintended consequence can often be beneficial to the recipient in ways they never expected.

Let’s take the “heel” command, for example. “Heel” is a command that tells the dog where to walk in relation to you, on or off leash. It typically requires the dog to be on  the handler’s left side, with his shoulder even with the handler’s knee, and the leash must be loose. It’s a useful command for a number of reasons, one of which is that it eliminates pulling on leash because a dog cannot be heeling and pulling simultaneously.

NOTE: pulling on a tight leash is natural and normal for most dogs. Additionally, humans often make the problem worse by rewarding it! Heeling is not natural or normal to dogs, so it must be taught. Teaching a solid heel is not the only way to control pulling on leash, but it is an incredibly effective way.

But “heel” has a lot of unintended* benefits. In addition to stopping the pulling, it:

  • Teaches the dog to allow the handler to be in control during the walk; human in control = safety
  • Teaches the dog to withstand frustration (walking in a line at a human’s pace is boring for most dogs)
  • Teaches the human better leash handling skills so as not to confuse the dog
  • Delivers mental stimulation, which many dogs lack, because it takes a lot of mental energy to perform at first, and requires the dog to think
  • Amplifies the bond between dog and handler; and, most importantly,
  • Teaches the dog to pay better attention to the handler during an activity where most dogs want to pay attention to everything BUT the handler


A dog at heel is safer around cars
Think about it: during a typical walk, how much of your dog’s attention is focused on you? Zero? That sounds about right. There’s so much to see and do and explore! The dog has very little need to pay attention to his handler, who is basically a dead weight at the other end of the leash.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if your dog paid more attention to you than anything else when you asked him to? It would solve pretty much every problem that leashes create (pulling, barking, lunging, dragging, tripping you, eating trash on the path, going after other dogs, etc.). The dog would get more walks, which would benefit you both. Both of you would enjoy your walks. Believe it or not, all of this is still true even if, after the dog is trained to heel, you don’t even use the heel command for most of the walk!

In short, teaching a solid heel teaches your dog to pay more attention to you. That’s its actual purpose. The unintended benefits are better leash manners, no more pulling/dragging/tripping/etc, and happier walks. But the fact that the dog now pays more attention to you when on walks supplies even more benefits. It deepens your bond. It improves the recall (“come”) command. It prevents accidents. It improves the dog’s (and your) confidence. Controlled walks are also less annoying to people you might pass on the street, and a dog in a nice heel helps onlookers who might be nervous around dogs to relax. (Yes, there are plenty of people who are afraid of dogs, even your sweet one. They deserve to walk down the street, or work in their yards, and not worry that they'll be molested by dogs walking their people.)

Heel may seem like a lot of work to get your dog to walk nicely on leash, and indeed there are other ways of creating a loose leash without it. But most of those ways will not give you the attention that “heel” does. And when you look at all the (un)intended benefits of this command, it makes it infinitely more appealing and worth your time.

Now, at this point, you may be saying, “but I don’t care if my dog pays attention to me on a walk. I want him to enjoy the walk!”

A good "heel" would have prevented this tragedy
Well, of course! Sniffing and exploring and engaging with the environment are all part of the pleasure of walks, and they should be allowed. But they should be allowed on your terms, not the dog’s. When the dog gets to decide where to go and how fast to get there, your arm gets ripped out of the socket and it’s no fun to walk the dog. And if your dog has negative reactions to stimuli such as squirrels, cats, or other dogs on a walk, teaching him to attend to you when he spots a distraction not only solves your problem but lowers his stress faster.

Do you really want to be a human sled? No? Then teach the dog to allow you to control the walk, and his reward will be lots of time to explore and sniff. Arms stay the same length, and everyone wins.

The same is true of the “stay” command.

I read somewhere recently that a training outfit did a survey of dog training clients to ask them what commands they used most often at home. The training outfit was trying to decide what commands were most important to include in their training classes, given the short time frame. They were a bit surprised to learn that “stay,” one of the mainstay commands they’d been teaching forever, didn’t make the top 6. According to those polled, “stay” was not a command many pet owners used at home regularly.

I admit that I was as surprised by this result as they were. I’ve been training people to train their dogs for over 2 decades, and “stay” is part of my top 6. Its usefulness is blindingly apparent to me and many of my seasoned colleagues. Perhaps the dog owners who answered the poll found it difficult to teach. Perhaps they thought it was boring or unnecessarily stressful for the dogs. Maybe they thought it was fine that their dogs were always stuck to them like needy shadows, and constantly underfoot (there are definitely people who inexplicably enjoy this annoying trait in their dogs and would feel hurt if their dogs stopped doing it.) Maybe there was a different command that worked better than “stay.” Or perhaps they simply didn’t understand all the benefits of the “stay” command. I’ll never know, because I was not involved in that poll and I didn’t get to ask any questions about it.

But I remember wondering for a few seconds after reading those results if I was putting too much emphasis on the “stay” command in my own classes and lessons. I teach it in my Basic classes, and we really put it to the test in my Intermediate classes, introducing serious, “real-world distractions” in different environments. Was it a waste of time? Were my students even going to use it?

Luckily, it only took me a few seconds to answer my own questions. Students may wonder why they need to teach "stay," but once you begin to implement the command, its usefulness is obvious.

“Stay” tells the dog to remain in one position until released by his handler. It’s pretty precise. And while there are several ways to teach it, it is designed to be the “parking brake” for a dog.

In their natural state, dogs like to move, to rove, to cover ground, to explore. Sure, they relax, stop moving, and even sleep on their own, but they rarely do so consciously when they would rather be doing something else.

“Stay” requires the dog to stop and hold a position, regardless of time, distractions, or where the handler goes. The point is to park the dog, which is often a necessity. But it has some unintended benefits, as well.


  • It teaches frustration tolerance.
  • It teaches relaxation.
  • It teaches attention to the handler over other stimuli.
  • It teaches that the handler is consistent, and will return, which helps with separation distress.
  • But most importantly, since it is not a natural thing for a human-centric dog to do (dogs are hardwired to follow us around, and they generally get rewarded for this), it requires a decent amount of mental strain to perform. It can even be a bit stressful, depending on the distractions or the distance.
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It's a simultaneous stay and heel!
Since some stress is required for a being to learn, the stress of being told to “park it” near distractions and when the handler moves away helps teach the dog to cope in a world full of distraction and potential danger. It teaches discipline to a task that dogs do not purposefully perform in their untrained state.

The benefits of “stay” are numerous. I hope that the training outfit who ran the poll figured out that they just needed to explain these benefits better to their students, rather than move away from teaching “stay” at all.

These are just two of many examples of commands or exercises we teach that have multiple benefits to dogs and owners.

We trainers explain lots of things to our clients. Due to time constraints and other factors, we rarely have time to go as deeply into explanation as I did in this post, so I hope it has helped you to understand why you should listen to your trainer, first off, and how to find the value in training exercises you might be inclined to put aside when training class has ended.

If your dog improved because of the exercises, then he needs you to continue doing them. And here’s some other great news: he wasn’t the only one in your relationship who was improved.


*In reality, dog trainers are completely aware of the benefits I've listed here, and, for us, they are intended. But dog owners may be blind to the added benefits. So the term I really should be using is "unanticipated-by-the-end-user benefits." But that doesn't roll off the tongue, does it?









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