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“Instead of focusing on what you don’t want your dog to do, focus on what you want your dog to do.”

This is a common phrase in dog training, and it’s a good one. In fact, it’s one of my go-to phrases when helping clients dissect behavior problems with their dogs. It helps clients focus on what to reinforce instead of what to punish, and helps them set their dogs up for success.

But even though a trainer’s motivation by using this phrase could be setting the dog up for success, there’s a pitfall. And it’s a big one: Ego.

Let’s rewind a minute and think about a trainer or client’s responses to the question “What do you want your dog to do instead?” Inevitably, the client or trainer will respond with variations of:

“I want my dog to do x, y, z.”

But while you may find x, y or z reinforcing, does your dog feel the same way?

While it’s good to consider our needs when building behavior change plans, it’s vitally important to think about the dog’s needs. Sure, we might want a dog to do a certain behavior in a specific context, but is that behavior the optimal choice to meet the dog’s needs at that moment? Is the behavior we want a dog to perform the option that helps the dog feel the most comfortable at that moment? Is the behavior we want a dog to perform the most positively reinforcing option for the dog at that moment?

For example, suppose a client wants her dog to sit-stay while houseguests come up to say hello. For some dogs, this is an excellent training goal. But what if the dog in question is uncomfortable greeting lots of new people? While the client may want her dog to sit for pets and hellos, the dog may be more comfortable choosing to sit-stay on a target at a distance away from new people entering the room. What if the dog gets so excited when new people come in the house that remaining in a stay position becomes stressful and frustrating? This dog may be less stressed by enjoying a high-value chew or puzzle toy behind a barrier until the house guests settle.

Because each dog is an individual, it’s important to consider each dog’s behavioral and emotional needs. Otherwise, we may think we’re practicing force-free training, but we might be placing undue stress on a dog, or be placing a dog in a fear-inducing situation. This perspective isn’t always the most popular, nor is it the easiest. Recognizing a dog’s individual needs requires vigilance and flexibility. After all, many people, trainers included, enter the dog training field with the perspective of what they want from dogs.

If we believe in positive reinforcement and force-free training, we must assess what behaviors will be most reinforcing for the dog.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.