Of Chesapeake Bay  

The Civilized Dog:

Foundations for a Civilized Dog

By Lynn Franklin
Copyright 2008 by Lynn Franklin

Originally published in the International Parti Poodle Gazette

Why the civilized dog?

            Whenever I take my standard poodle out in public people always flock around us.  At first I thought they were attracted by the novelty of seeing this regal but not very common breed.  But then I noticed a pattern in people's comments:  "He's so calm!"  "He's so polite!"  "My gosh, my dog would be jumping all over people."
            In other words, Sam behaves like a civilized dog.
            Many dog owners find the concept of a civilized dog repulsive.  They believe that civilizing their dog will break his spirit, squash his personality, and make his life less enjoyable.  It’s a very romantic idea, implying that happiness is lack of discipline – the child in all of us.  We had to learn to mind our manners, and we resent the fact.  The least we can do is spare our puppy the same trauma. So people housebreak their puppy, and that’s it.  Then for the rest of the poor creature’s life the people fight a rear-guard action against their dog. Daily life becomes a never-ending struggle to keep shoes, slippers, trash and tonight’s dinner out of the dog’s reach.  People dig their heels into the sidewalk while their beloved companion pulls them for what is called a “walk” but is really, in all senses of the word, more of a drag.  They kowtow again and again to strangers, apologizing for the muddy pawprints the dog planted on their suit.  Thus owning a dog becomes a trial.  The dog, far too often, gets tried and convicted . . . and ends up in the pound.
            But even dogs who remain with their people are not happy.  The dog, after all, evolved to achieve happiness by pleasing his humans.  Watch the dog’s body language when the woman in the white dress jumps back and squeals "Eewww."  Or when the person walking him yanks on the leash and scolds.  Or when the adored one yells because tonight's steak mysteriously vanished from the kitchen counter. 
            Dogs are not stupid.  They read emotions better than their human companions.  They feel the anger, the disgust, the rejection.  Worse, they have no idea why these people are aiming these feelings at them.  What have they done to merit such displeasure?  After all, they haven't been taught how to survive in the human world.  Is it any wonder that so many dogs drop their tails and cringe whenever they hear a loud voice? 
            Sam, in sharp contrast, knows the rules and operates within them; as a result his life is much happier and more complete than the dog who “retains his spirit.” Sam wears a seatbelt in the car, which allows him to watch the world go by or curl up for a nap.  At our destination, he trots a few feet ahead of me, enjoying the changing scenery.  When people approach, he moves to my side until they pass by.  He never approaches a stranger unless I give him permission.  In other words, he blends into his surroundings like any other civilized being.  He is worthy, and he knows it.
            Because Sam is a civilized dog, he's welcome everywhere.  Shop owners invite him into the store.  Business people encourage his visit.  Restaurant owners allow us to sit at outdoor tables.  Children, men and even women in white suits ask to meet him.
            Life is good for the civilized dog.

First things first

            If this sounds more like the life you want your dog to live, please read on.  Starting below, and in the next few issues of the Gazette (reprinted on this web site), I'll discuss fundamental skills needed by the civilized dog and offer ideas for teaching them.  None of these behaviors are difficult to teach.  They require only consistency, a love for your dog, and appreciation for the nature of civilized life.  Many of these skills serve as foundations that may save your dog's life.
            Let's start with a few fundamentals:

            1. Forget the canard that old dogs can’t learn new tricks.  Any breed of dog, at any age, can learn new behaviors – and any dog owner can teach them.  Remember, dogs evolved to not only be with people, but to work with them.  While most of our dogs no longer hunt and herd, they still want to do things.  Two months before my 12-year-old standard poodle contracted lymphoma, he attended a dog trick class -- and ran circles around the younger dogs.  Once a dog learns how to learn, he will be not only able but willing to continue learning.  In fact, dogs are actually proud of this ability, and enjoy learning a new trick more than anything.

            2.  If dogs evolved to deal with humans, the humans – and this includes you – evolved to deal with dogs.  Once you get started, it’ll come naturally.

           3.  The most important skill you need for teaching your dog is consistency.  Consistency, in this as in so much of life, is everything.
For example, if you're trying to teach your dog to not jump on people, you must reinforce the correct behavior and discourage the incorrect every single time.  Never, never, ever, allow a stranger to rush your dog with arms open, saying "it's okay if he jumps; I love golden retrievers."  Allowing your dog to jump sometimes and not other times will not only confuse him, but will actually reinforce the behavior you're trying to correct.  Sound counter-intuitive?  It’s not.
            Inconsistency is behavioral poison.  Its effect has been documented by, among others, the famous American behaviorist B. F. Skinner.  Skinner’s research is the centerpiece of many dog training manuals and it applies equally well to humans.  Why else do the suckers in Las Vegas sit there and feed quarters into the one-armed bandits for hour upon hour?  Inconsistency is why.  Inconsistent results allows them to think that the next pull of the lever may result in a shower of coins.  If they won a few pennies every time they’d eventually get bored and quit.  More important, if they never won they’d quit, and quit with a bitter taste in their mouths.
            Skinner found that behaviors that were periodically reinforced in unpredictable ways persisted longer than other behaviors.  To stick with human examples, consider Skinner’s take on the nagging child in the grocery store.  We’ve all seen this phenomenon.  The child demands some specific item, usually candy.  Sometimes the child will cry or throw tantrums when the parents say "no."  Most parents, trying to discourage this behavior, will ignore the tantrum . . . usually.  But occasionally even the most vigilant parent will succumb to the tantrum and give the child what he wants.  Perhaps the parent was tired that day or was shopping with her mother-in-law and just didn’t have the psychic energy to resist.  Whatever the reason, Skinner determined that giving in to a child's tantrum even ONE TIME will reinforce the tantrum – and actually encourage the child to throw more tantrums in the future.  The candy becomes identical, in the child’s mind, to the unpredictable shower of coins from the slot machine.
            Translated into dog training, allowing that visiting dog lover to embrace your jumping dog will undo weeks of hard work. Don't let it happen.  The civilized dog has to know that one never, ever, breaks the important social rules.

            4.  Consistency, for all its importance, is admittedly difficult for people to achieve.  If you've never done any dog training, other than housebreaking your puppy, seriously consider signing up for an 8-week basic class.  The purpose of these classes, as one trainer whispers to another, is not to train the dog but the owner. While I can give you steps for teaching some of these behaviors, only a live instructor can observe things you are doing to confuse your dog – and only in becoming self-conscious about these things can you receive the rewards that are so abundant in the dog-human relationship.  Re-enforcement, in other words, is as important for you as for your dog.
            Dog training is about the human member of the team learning to communicate with the canine member.  While some breeds of dogs are more responsive to training than other breeds, YOUR dog wants to please and understand YOU.  Some dogs want to please more than others, but if you learn how to communicate with your particular dog, the rewards will follow.
            Most dog clubs and some veterinarians, community colleges and civic centers offer dog classes.  Many of these classes, especially the ones at dog clubs, are aimed at people who want to compete in obedience or agility trials.  While these can be fun, this is not where you want to start.  For one thing, many of these classes assume your dog, and more importantly you already know the fundamentals.  For another, skills taught in competition classes often do not translate into every-day life.
            Sometimes this is humorous, and other times bizarre.  Sam and I once spent an afternoon at the dog park with an obedience instructor and her two border collies.  Both of her dogs had earned advanced obedience titles; one had even gone on to win the coveted Obedience Trial Champion title – the highest possible achievement in these circles.  To say I was intimidated was an understatement.  Not only had my year-old poodle never earned a title, border collies are one of the most trainable of breeds.  Before releasing the dogs to play, I'd watched her dogs retrieve dumbbells, walk in flawless heel position, and drop into down with a hand signal.
            Still, I trusted Sam, so I swallowed my misgivings and allowed him to run with her dogs.  The three of them were on the other side of the field when we decided to leave.  We called the dogs.  Sam came immediately.  The titled border collies ignored their owner and continued to romp.  What the heck, they weren’t in the obedience ring!
            This lesson in this is to choose a class that specifically focuses on teaching dog manners.  Some dog clubs offer this.  Others offer classes to prepare dog owners for the AKC's Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) test.  The CGC classes are excellent because they focus on civilized behavior – teaching dogs to walk on a loose leash, greet strangers without jumping, and work near other dogs without growling.  You don't have to take the test to take these classes.  They are simply excellent situations to learn to communicate with your dog.
            Once you've identified a class, don’t just sign up.  Be thoughtful about this – after all, you are going to have to live with your dog for the next decade or so.  Do the same kind of research you would do if you were choosing a music teacher for your child.  Talk to the instructor.  Go observe the class.  The best classes use food, toys, praise and petting to reward the dogs for good behavior.  Ninety five percent of the class should focus on rewarding good behavior, with only five percent or less devoted to correcting bad behavior.  You want to train your dog, not break him.  In fact, it’s better to think “teach” than “train,” which has something of an unpleasant connotation.
            This ratio of positive reward vs. correction – 95 percent to 5 percent –is also scientifically established.  Scientists have various names for the different means of changing behavior – that is, negative reinforcement vs. punishment – and different combinations are effective if you’re training a guard dog, a war dog, or some other specialized dog.  But if it’s a civilized dog you’re after, it’s the rewards that work for the dog, not the punishments.  The very occasional sharp word serves only to emphasize the praise, and to remind the dog that you mean business.
            Consider, as many psychologists have, the pre-pubescent child who when punished for something will simply find a way of repeating that behavior behind his parents' backs.  If you punish your dog for stealing food without rewarding him for not stealing food, the dog is no dummy.  He will get the message loud and clear.  Don’t snatch the steak when mom is watching.
            As you observe a potential dog class, notice the attitude of the dogs when the instructor approaches.  Do they wag their tails in greeting?  Or do they cower?  If they cower, they cower for a reason.  If you see an instructor snatch the leash from the owner and drag a dog across the floor, look for a new class.

            5.  Practice with your dog at least once a day, every day.  Dog class counts for only one day.  Dogs and humans bond because they work together daily.  That’s the way it worked when the objective was killing the mammoth, and it works today when what’s desired is civilized behavior.
            This doesn't mean you have to carve out hours of your day for dog training.  In fact, the most effective dog training is done in 5-10 minute segments at different times of the day.  This is surprisingly easy to do.  While you're waiting for water to boil for dinner, ask your dog to sit.  Reward with a treat, perhaps a piece of his dog food.  Ask him to do it again; you should see a faster response.  Reward again.  Now move on to a different behavior, perhaps down or come.  Water ready for the pasta?  Praise your dog with hugs, more treats, and the words "practice over."
            You can also practice during the commercial breaks of your favorite television show.  What else are commercials for?  Or ask your dog to do a behavior while you're out walking.  One of my favorite places to practice with Sam is in a gas station parking lot while waiting for the tank to fill. 

            6.  Important:  Don't expect a dog to perform a newly learned behavior in a place with high distractions.  In case you didn’t get that, I said: Don't expect a dog to perform a newly learned behavior in a place with high distractions.
            First off, dogs are very environmentally oriented.  They are first cousins to wolves, after all.  What a wolf does depends on where it is.  If your dog learns to sit in the living room, he might not recognize that same command in the bedroom because he's associated the behavior with the living room.  To the dog, sitting in the bedroom is a totally different behavior.
            This is why the obedience instructor's border collies didn't respond when she called them at the dog park.  Her dogs associated "come" with the obedience ring, not with every-day life.  Sam, on the other hand, had been taught to generalize the behavior so he could recognize it everywhere.
            To teach your dog to generalize a new behavior, first practice it in quiet environments.  Perhaps work on the sit in the living room.  Once he's consistently (there's that word again) sitting on command in the living room, ask him to do it in the kitchen.  Chances are the dog will just look at you.  Wha? That's fine.  Gently show him what you mean, using the same approach you used to teach the behavior.  Once the dog is sitting in the kitchen, take him into the bedroom and teach him to do it there.
            When you see that your dog is consistently doing the behavior in a quiet environment, start adding distractions.  Remember the wolf:  Wolves stay alive by paying attention to everything around them, no matter how trivial it might seem to us.  We, on the other hand, survive and prosper by focusing our minds.  We are asking our dogs to tune out everything and focus on us, a very counterintuitive thing for dogs.  So it’s difficult for them.  Expect it to be difficult.  That way, you will be patient and they will learn. Have a friend squeak a toy while you ask the dog to sit in the living room.  If he misses the command, say "oops" and try again.  When he does it, lots of rewards.  Reward, reward, reward.  Be patient.  Don’t punish! Stop when the dog is tired and try again later.
            As the dog learns, increase the difficulty of distractions.  The backyard has lots of distractions.  Once your dog can sit there, take him for a walk in the neighborhood and ask for a sit.  Then go to the park, the grocery store parking lot, and, yes, the gas station parking lot.  The more variety you give your dog to do his new behavior, the more likely he'll know how to do it under all circumstances.
            At some point, someone is going to rush over and gush, "Your dog!  He's so calm! He's so polite! My gosh, my dog would be jumping all over people."
            Ah.  Rewards are sweet.

            7.  Such rewards won’t come consistently, at first, but they’ll come.  Until they do, refuse to be discouraged.  Remember that, like people, dogs find some behaviors more difficult to learn than others.  Even physical differences can have an influence.  Slender dogs with little fur to pad their joints, like whippets and greyhounds, will find it difficult to learn to sit and lay down.  The ground is extra hard to them.  Dogs like hounds that were bred to chase animals will find it difficult to break off the chase and come when called.  Friendly labs won't readily understand why you don't want them launching themselves at strangers.  Beyond that, each dog is an individual and needs to be treated as such.  The important thing to remember is that even if a particular behavior is difficult for your particular dog, your canine companion will eventually learn what you want.  Always.  Guaranteed.
            You, too, can have a civilized dog.

            In the articles you'll find on this web site, I'll explain how to teach specific behaviors necessary for our civilized dogs.


Civilized -- And Proud of It