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  • John Whittaker

Consequences (Are they really necessary?)

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

When used creatively consequences lead to reliability.

Reliability leads to freedom.

"Unfortunately, dogs often don't understand the natural consequences of their choices (being hit by a car) . . . or comprehend the injuries they can cause. That's where functional dog training comes in. "

A question was once asked "Who makes the best parents? The parent who expects their child to always get everything right? Or the parent who prepares their child to do what's right, as well as a plan in place for when their child makes a mistake? We would propose the latter. The same is true with your dog.

The greatest problem with dogs is they often don't understand the natural consequences of their choices such as being hit by a car. They also don't comprehend the injuries they can cause jumping on an elderly person or a toddler. That leaves you, the responsible dog owner, to teach what behaviors are acceptable, which ones are unacceptable. We consider these to be rules that are always in effect such as never walking into the street, or never jumping up on someone, without a command. Then there are behaviors such as coming, or walking beside you, that are expected but require a command. In either case, if your dog defies the rules and runs into the street, jumps up on someone unexpectedly or doesn't come when called consequences can be disastrous.

As good dog "parents" we need to teach our dogs reliable manners. These are rules that are always in effect without the need for commands. We also have to have complete off-leash control for when mistakes happen. Let's say your dog knows he or she can only walk on sidewalks unless you give a command like "heel" as you cross a street. Now let's say someone leaves your front door open. Of course this happens while the neighbor moving in across the street has the cutest Labrador Retriever in their front yard. Their dog is just begging your dog to come for a visit. Your dog chooses to disregard the long standing rule and has every intention of crossing that street just as a car is speeding by your house. You should have a command to recall your dog instantly. A command that causes your dog to literally spin around on one paw in order to come. That's being prepared. In order to teach a dog to do this under this type of distraction is only accomplished through consequences.

Let's say you prepared well for this very day. You use your formal recall command which is normally awe inspiring to see how fast your dog turns around, and how excited he or she is to come back to you. Not today. This is the world's most beautiful Labrador. To make matters worse your dog's a male, she's a female and in heat. The perfect storm. You need a viable means to stop your dog INSTANTLY or the speeding car will do it for you. A clicker isn't going to help you. Vet hospitals have dog's brought into them all the time with broken bodies and stories of "my dog always listens" or "she never leaves my side".

Why consequences?

We can and do use positive reinforcement to create behaviors. We use positive reinforcement to maintain behaviors, linking performing behaviors (obeying) to tremendous pleasure. At the end of the day there are distractions which are perceived as more pleasurable than following everyday routines, rewards and verbal commands.

For some reason in recent years dog owners have been sold the idea that all you need is a reward system. That you can love, click or feed your way into having an obedient, well behaved dog. That incorporating negative reinforcement (consequences) is somehow wrong. The fact is positive reinforcement makes performing enjoyable, negative reinforcement makes it reliable. What we find wrong is irresponsible owners, with uncontrolled unruly dogs, who are one mistake away from injuring themselves, another dog, or a person.

Consequences Work: And our own lives are filled with them!

Our lives are filled with consequences that are used to mold our choices, and correct us when we make a mistake. Why do we pay our credit card bills on time, even if money is tight? Fees and damage to our credit scores. Why do we not pass other cars when there are solid lines? The potential for head-on collisions, fines if caught, and increased rates for insurance. Why do we return rental cars with full tanks? Unless we’ve paid extra to return a car with an empty tank, the cost per gallon goes from $4.00 to maybe $15.00 a gallon for the rental car company to do the refueling. We live with consequences. They shape our lives. Dogs live in the moment. They don’t always understand natural, upcoming consequences as a result of their choices. They need consequences as well.

Imposing consequences through training is a very responsible choice when you understand dogs and behavior. Also, a very compassionate choice as it saves lives and prevents injuries. Often their own.

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