“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
― Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden
This is the third post of a 5-part series about the amazing possibilities that appear when you view your relationship with your dog from the perspective that your dog is perfect. If you haven't read the other posts, here are links to the first and second posts.
Last week we discussed expectations and frustration. This week we are going to talk about the human perceptual system. The quote at the beginning of this post is a great example of how perception works. If you take that quote a step further, you can imagine that if a gardener focuses on the thorns, he's likely to pull out his rosebushes. That solves the problem, but now he has no roses. If he focuses on the roses, he will learn strategies to deal with the thorns while maximizing his ability to enjoy the roses. Sadly, most of us spend far too much time focusing on our dog's behavioral "thorns", and some of us don't even notice the "roses" anymore.
Once we start to understand our perceptual system we can use that knowledge to alter our perspective. We can then train ourselves to perceive (notice) when our perfect dog is behaving in a way we like. Altering our perspective has two incredible benefits. Firstly, training yourself to notice when your dog is behaving in a manner you like means you will enjoy your dog more, even if his behavior doesn't change. Secondly, if you do want to make changes to his behavior, the key isn't to notice the failures, it's to notice the successes.
Learn see your dog’s behavior as perfect rather than flawed. Your expectations effect your perception of the world. The more you practice seeing your dog as flawed, the stronger your tendency to see him as flawed will be. Similarly, the more you see your dog as perfect, the stronger your tendency to see him as perfect will be. This is a real psychological principle known as the expectation effect. Your thoughts effect what you percieve. In this manner, they actually shape your reality. This is the same phenomenon that causes you to suddenly experience an incredible increase in frequency of noticing a particular model of car on the road just when you begin considering purchasing that same kind of car. The cars were there all along, you just weren’t primed to perceive them. If you want to live with a perfect dog, you need to get in the habit of seeing him that way, priming your perceptual system to notice the perfection that is already present, but just outside of your consciousness.
This perceptual shift can completely change how the training process progresses. We aren’t training to correct a flaw in the dog. We recognize the behavior is a perfect expression of the dog-owner-environment system. We would like to see a change in that system because it doesn’t work in other parts of our life. We change the system, and the (perfect) dog will suddenly change the way he reacts to the new system (in a perfect manner, by the way,) to demonstrate behavior that is closer to our desires. In this manner, you can modify the system and your expectations until you reach a balance that you are comfortable with. If you can’t find that balance, it’s not the dog’s fault, you either are unwilling or unable to make the system changes needed to elicit the change you want, or you are unable to modify your expectations in the face of reality. It’s not the responsibility of the dog to meet your expectations, it’s your responsibility to create an environment where the behavior you desire can emerge.
Finally, when your perception shifts and you become aware of the perfection of your dog, you are primed to utilize the most effective form of shaping behavior, positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement, as simply stated as possible, is rewarding behavior you like, which increases it’s frequency in the future. When you see your dog as perfect, because of the expectation effect, you are far more likely to notice behavior you like. This gives you the opportunity to reward that behavior, in turn making it happen more often. The more time that your dog is engaging in behavior you like, the less time he will be engaging in behavior you dislike. The seed of the dog you want exists within the dog you have, you just aren’t tending to it in a way that makes it grow. Planting an acorn in the desert won’t produce an oak tree, or at least not a very impressive one. It’s not because you have a bad acorn. It would be irrational to blame the acorn or be disappointed in it. Only when the environment is perfect can the perfect oak tree encoded within the acorn can materialize itself. Your dog is no different.
This week's exercise is to notice and reward your dog when he engages in desired behavior. It can be behavior you ask for or - even better - behavior that the dog engages in without prompting. We are looking to make a big change in your perceptions, and we need to set up a way to track our progress. If your dog is food motivated, I'd suggest putting half of your dog's daily ration in a treat pouch and using it to reward behavior you like throughout the day. Your goal is to empty that treat pouch daily. If you don't succeed, you can feed the leftovers to your dog in his bowl and try to do better tomorrow. If you empty the pouch early, congratulations! Now continue to notice things you like and reward the dog with things like play, attention and affection. If you find yourself emptying the pouch early consistently, try mixing food and non-food rewards throughout the day. If your dog is clicker trained, you can absolutely use that as well. If your dog isn't food motivated, you can use non-food rewards, but I would highly suggest finding a way to track yourself. You can pick up a hand-held tally counter from amazon for under ten dollars, or there are lots of free phone apps that you could use. The number itself isn't so important, what we are looking for is an upward trend.
What behaviors are we looking for? That's easy, what do you like and want to see more of? The list of possibilities is endless, but you need to look for and notice them! If you find this challenging, it's a sure sign that you could benefit from this exercise. A few things to get you started - sitting quietly, playing with a toy, appropriate interactions with other people - all those perfect things your dog does every day that you usually don't notice! And yes, rewarding some behaviors will in the short term interrupt those behaviors and may produce behavior you don't like as much - for example if the dog is sitting quietly and you reward him, he will probably get up and become active. Not a problem, just ignore him (preferably while meditating on the fact that it's so easy to notice the undesired behavior and so challenging to notice the desired behavior). Eventually he will settle down, giving you another chance to notice and reward him. This is going to be a process, not an instant fix.
Remember, this exercise is designed to train you to notice behavior you like. It will also begin to change your dog's behavior, but that is just an awesome side effect. I guarantee you that if you were only to notice all the times your dog is behaving in a manner that you like you would have a completely different relationship with him. Once you are primed to notice more of those moments, the avenue for changing the behavior you don't like becomes obvious - reward what you like. When your perfect dog knows what you like, and knows that those behaviors produce rewards, he will begin to offer those behaviors more often.
The thing we call the dog's behavior will always be a perfect reflection of the dog-owner-environment system. Changing that behavior is best accomplished by changing the aspect of it we have the most control over, which will always be the owner (you!).
Next week we will talk about what it is that makes a good dog different from a bad dog, and how your perfect dog has nothing to do with it.