Dogs Crave Direction

By Cheri Lucas

Raising a child is all about giving direction. We tell our children to do the right thing, treat people well and work hard. But imagine a scenario where a child doesn’t receive good parenting. Perhaps they are never told what they should or shouldn’t do, or given any lessons on how to navigate through life. As a result, this child may suffer consequences in adulthood that stem from not being taught important life lessons in their youth.

This same analogy can be applied to our dogs. Frequently, frustrated clients bring their dogs to me with issues they haven’t been able to resolve. Recently a client brought their dog Ranger to me for an evaluation. Ranger was relentlessly begging at the dinner table every night. No matter how many times my client told him “No!,” he would leave for a moment, only to return to plant himself firmly against a family member’s chair.

What Ranger needed, was direction following his correction. Ranger understood what “no” meant, but he didn’t know what to do instead of the behavior he’d become accustomed to practicing. Dogs literally thrive on direction. In their natural world, their lives are full of structure and discipline. Dogs are hardwired to follow direction because, without it, chaos would ensue.

Together, my client and I created a strategy that set Ranger up for success. We taught him the “place command.” This exercise teaches a dog to go to a place, which could be anything from a cushy dog bed to a floor mat or towel. When done correctly, the physical place becomes an area where the dog can go to that represents safety and relaxation. The command “place” implies “Go there, stay there, relax there, nothing can go wrong there.” In other words, the place becomes a sanctuary.

Teaching the “place” command.

When first learning this exercise, Ranger often broke the command and came off the bed. I instructed my client to gently guide Ranger back onto the place with a leash. It’s important that we remain patient throughout this learning process. We want to ensure that there’s no negative connotation to the place. That would defeat the purpose. I instructed my client to practice this exercise 3 or 4 times a day, but only 5 minutes at a time. Dogs learn best with short intervals of training, with plenty of rest in between. This is when latent learning begins.

Once Ranger was fully conditioned to this command, it was time to integrate the new practice to the dinnertime hour. We positioned a bed a few yards away from the dining room. When Ranger began to approach the table, my client gently guided him to the bed. Because we taught him that the place was a state of mind, not just a physical place, he settled down quickly and stayed there for the entire course of the meal.

The reason this strategy worked so well for my client, is because she could now tell Ranger, in essence, “instead of doing this (begging,) why don’t you go to your bed and relax?” She began to see how many practical applications this place exercise had. Ranger also had a habit of jumping excitedly when guests came over. On her own, my client discovered that she could send Ranger to his place when the doorbell rang. Once her guests were settled in the house, Ranger was invited to approach calmly and greet them. She was thrilled!

Dogs want direction from you more than anything else in the world! Next time you begin to tell your dog not to do something, remember to give them something else to do instead! You will have taught your dog how to avoid the negative consequences that come from a lack of direction. You’ll have a happy and balanced dog who’s a joy to live with!

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