Who’s To Blame?

When I was in college, I used to play a lot of billiards. It was never for money, always just for fun, and therefore we used to joke around a lot.  Every now and then when one of my friends was trying to sink a particularly difficult shot, I would stand behind the pocket that I knew he was aiming for and do something silly to try and distract him. Sometimes I would be successful, and he would miss, resulting in a dirty look from him, and a maniacal laugh from me.

I recently heard a great quote,

“If the shooter misses the mark, it’s not the target’s fault.”

In the above circumstance, clearly it’s neither shooter’s fault nor the target’s fault but really the fault lies with the bearded guy standing behind the pocket making odd faces, and ridiculous dances.

I do however; want to take a moment to discuss how this quote may relate to dog training. Training dogs is in its essence an act of one species attempting to communicate to another species in a language in which only one of them is fluent. Of course this point in itself can be debated, as good dog trainers try to utilize movement and body language that the dog can inherently understand. However for the moment let’s assume that what we’re referring to are verbal commands of which the dog has no previous or innate knowledge.

In such a situation, the human being can also be referred to as the speaker and as such as the “shooter”. The dog may also be referred to as the listener, or as such the “target” of the communication/speech.

“If the shooter misses the mark, it’s not the target’s fault.”

I’m fortunate to be in a position where my career allows me to travel the country and work with many dog trainers from various walks of life. In doing so I get to utilize my powers of observation quite a bit. All too often I see humans give a command, and a dog attempt compliance however making an incorrect choice. The result of which is the human delivering a correction.

The key element in this scenario is that the dog was trying. He wasn’t being disobedient; he was attempting to do what his handler wanted. He misunderstood the requirements, he didn’t understand. The communication did not land as it was intended, the shooter missed the mark.

It may be worthwhile to take a moment at this point to define some terminology. Namely the word ”correction”.  I will be the first to admit, that in different contexts, I often mean different things by this word. So for the sake of this discussion, when I say correction, what I mean is something that is significantly aversive to the dog. Something beyond a mild communication that informs the dog of an error. I mean rather, something of the significance that it could have an adverse effect on the dog’s attitude. This can be different for different dogs. For many dogs a sharp snap on a leash and training collar is enough to make them feel that they have transgressed, for other dogs such as my dog Lobo, a stern ”No” has a more significant emotional impact, than any physical correction that I could offer.

In my opinion, when training dogs the responsibility falls on the human’s shoulders to make sure that the dog understands what is being said, and when that fails to be the case, to be sensitive enough to recognize that it is our job to change something about our own behavior in order help the dog along. In other words, is the speaker’s responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively, if the listener does not understand, it’s not their fault.

I do believe that there is a time and a place for such corrections when training dogs to be responsible members of our society. I do not believe that in the context of obedience training, particularly when the dog is attempting to comply even though they’re making an incorrect choice, that such corrections are warranted. This is not to say, that a dog should not be told that they have made a mistake. And it is not to say, that a mild amount of pressure could not be put on the dog to guide them into the correct choice. But there is a significant difference between mild pressure that simply communicates, motivates and guides, and the type of correction that causes an individual to feel that they are in trouble or that they have transgressed in any serious way. In most cases I find it beneficial to praise the dog for their good efforts, before re-attempting the exercise while this time making an adjustment to the way I deliver my communication.

I would be willing to bet, that if many individuals pause for a moment when they were struggling with their dog, they would often see that the dog’s mistakes were the result of a failure in communication. In other words, the shooter missed the mark.

Before you curse the target, re-adjust your aim.

-Tyler Muto