I can count on one hand how many times I was a recipient of corporal punishment when I was a kid. I was grounded maybe 2 or 3 times for doing stuff that I should have known was wrong. By and large, I’d say I was a good kid. I never got into trouble with the law or at school, I was lazy from time to time so my parents never had fun at parent/teacher meetings but for certain my parents could have done worse than me. So it’s safe to assume that my motivation for “behaving” when I was young wasn’t based on threat of punishment from my parents.
My father taught me about social pressure long before any of my mentors or dog training books did. Many people have heard the old adage “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”. Most people will tell you that cuts deeper than an actual punishment. I never got those words as a kid, but I remember one time my father said “You know Wade, I would have expected more of you in that situation”… which is just a modified version really. Hands down the best version of social pressure my father had—and most dads have this tool in their tool belt—was a look. A look that told me your behaviour has gotten my attention, and not in the way you might like. I can remember instances of doing my thing and turning to my father and seeing this look on his face; it would make me stop in my tracks. Like I said before, I was rarely punished as a kid so my response was not out of fear of a smack or being grounded. The response was because I recognized I was behaving in such a way that my father, who I respected, didn’t approve of. He was telling me you’ve stepped out of bounds and I need you to correct yourself. If I didn’t yield to this warning, my dad would often put into words what this look said non-verbally—a mere “knock it off” was on the short list of phrases that followed the look if I didn’t yield to it.
My parent’s approval meant a lot to me when I was young and it still does today. For you, it might not be your parents. It might be your best friend or group of friends who establishes your social obligations, perhaps it’s your wife or husband. Being the creatures we are, we are bound by social obligation in one way or the other but in order for social pressure to be effective, you must value the person or people’s opinion. Establishing that relationship is paramount because without that relationship your social pressure is powerless. This is why so many dogs blow off well-meaning dog owner’s attempts at reigning in unruly behaviour!
The goal in my approach to training is to form a bond with the dog—a mutually beneficial relationship between human and dog where consideration for the dog’s education on our world is placed as the most important thing. No matter how you view dog training, the pure truth of dog training is: dogs don’t come programmed with the rules of our world and it’s our job to inform them. You can do that with any kind of mindset that you like, but I prefer to approach it like making friends with the dog because that’s why I first wanted a dog. As Chad Mackin once said “rarely do people get dogs for the leadership opportunity”, but that doesn’t make the obligation on you any less real. If you have a troubled dog, it’s up to you to educate and guide that dog through our world and let him know what’s cool and what isn’t. Building a well-structured social mindset in your dog (which shouldn’t be hard considering their nature) is paramount in using the least amount of external motivators.
Food and corrections have a place in responsible real world living—but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that should be used. The more you build up your dog’s social drive, the more he’ll be willing to abide by the rules that the social group lays out so things like obedience no longer require the extrinsic motivation that was once thought to be necessary for the life of the dog.
As I mentioned before, it wasn’t threat of punishment that motivated me out of my behaviour with my dad. It was respect and a desire to cooperate and get along. People and some professional trainers make the mistake of always assuming there needs to be an “or else” behind every request or ever word given to the dog when in reality if we can get them inline with us we’ll no longer need an or else. Think about how many times you’ve needed an “or else” to motivate your closest friend to do you a favor. (ps. if you need external motivations to motivate your friends to do things for you, you might want to take a closer look at that relationship)
First, you establish the relationship. You play, adventure and bond. Then you establish some rules (obedience) where the dog learns trust and respect within those parameters. Then you establish good habits. Eventually, you’ll have a dog who understands the social rules of your group and you’ll not have to remind him every time something pops up in the world that’s ready to tempt him. And should he get it wrong, all you need is a look or a “knock it off” to bring him back in bounds.