In my years, I’ve had many foreign friends who didn’t speak English as a first language. During conversations and talks, I would say something they didn’t understand and they’d ask me what it means and I would explain it to them. One of my friends in particular really wanted me to stay on top of him because he ultimately wanted to remove his accent and really command the language.
Now, most of my friends who didn’t speak English first I wouldn’t go out of my way to correct their grammar or wording but the problem is by not telling them they said something wrong they had no idea what they were saying was wrong! Doing nothing was doing something, just not in the sense that you might think.
I’m now encountering the same problem with my 2-year-old son, Brennan. For a kid of only 30 months old, he has a great command of the English language already. He can hold conversations and far exceeds what is expected of his age. He’s already smarter than I was at his age. It is my job to make sure he gets words right in both their use and their pronunciation. Sometimes this is very necessary—when Brennan was learning to say the word “shift”, many corrections were required.
One of the hardest things to correct though is how he says the combination of “let me” because he says “lemmen…” all the time. “lemmen see”, “lemmen hold it”, “lemmen smell it”. It’s adorable. For a while, I wasn’t correcting his use of it because I thought it was cute, but I soon realised that my inaction was its own action.
By allowing Brennan to continue saying “lemmen”, he was unknowingly making a mistake every time he said it. Because the responsibility falls on me to make sure he learns, my doing nothing was teaching him he was saying it right.
I see this many times with well-meaning dog owners who simply are allowing behaviours that they don’t want to occur without any resistance from them, but wonder why the dog is not “getting it” or sometimes they simply have no idea how to address it.
It’s not enough to address a behaviour problem only during training scenarios or when it’s convenient for you to address it. Something like pulling on leash will not go away unless the dog learns the futility of pulling on the leash. That means if you are in training mode, and insisting the dog not pull then he likely won’t, but if your trip from the house to the car he is allowed to drive you all the way there by force, it will take him longer to learn the no pulling rule simply because you’re permitting it without addressing it in other circumstances.
Think about what behaviours you don’t like from your dog, small or big, that you allow to occur without doing anything about. Undoubtedly you have your reasons for not addressing these issues, but understand that by doing or saying nothing you are essentially communicating to your dog that those behaviours are acceptable by the standards you’ve set.
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Rocky’s down-stay was a great example of this. I was almost 3 years after the start of his training with me that I realised: every time someone pets Rocky while he’s in a down-stay, he breaks. I allowed this problem because I wanted to encourage my dog to be social. As a rule, Rocky will tolerate any being on the planet, but he doesn’t like them. He doesn’t go out of his way to make human friends. Well, the pattern I didn’t pick up on is nothing has changed… he used it as an excuse to sniff for a second and then take off and do his own thing. But I allowed this for a long time under the hope of encouraging him to be social.
Once I picked up on this pattern, I addressed it by having folks approach him and pet him in his down-stay, replacing him as necessary. I started with people that Rocky was familiar and even excited about seeing and then I progressed to people he didn’t know. The funny thing is, this has made him more social!
We can see examples of this everywhere in dog training. For example, if you tell your dog to stay and he stays for 20 seconds and then walks off to do his own thing—by not replacing him, you’ve taught him “stay means plant your butt for a few seconds and then you can do what you want”. Conversely, when I tell dogs in my training programs to stay, it means “stay here until I tell you otherwise”. Teaching the distinction is very easy: use a release word and replace the dog if he breaks the command before hearing the release word.
In many instances, doing nothing can be a punishment as well. This is something you regularly hear dog trainers or well-meaning dog people on the internet say.
Ignore the dog and the behaviour you ignore will go away.
Well, this is true but only if the behaviour is driven by the dog’s need for your attention. I don’t care how long you turn your back on your dog while he chases a squirrel, he’ll chase that fuzzy little thing until sundown if you let him.
So start looking for examples of where your inaction can be seen as permission in the eyes of your dog. Instead, learn to address things that you don’t agree with from your dog. This could mean simply redirecting him or by instituting alternative behaviours or even punishments if the circumstances call for it.
After all, how can your dog fix a behaviour that he does not know is a problem in your mind?