Default Behaviors

A back view of golden Cali and lab Koala as they watch the human prepare their dinner
Both dogs sit while they supervise meal prep

In a recent conversation about puppy training, Deni mentioned trainers that “teach puppies false beliefs” about humans. One example she gave was that some puppy trainers “teach puppies that they can control” what the person does — by their own behavior.

I thought about that for a minute, then responded that I didn’t think that was what was happening. Instead, I describe that as teaching default behaviors.

Cali tries her magic sit by the back door
Cali hopes that the magic sit (or lie down) will produce results — even when no humans are nearby

My example was the “Magic Sit.”

I don’t see that as teaching puppies that they can control the human’s behavior (though that belief may be naive …). I describe it more in behavioral terms: The puppy learns that good things happen when she sits. If her trainers or human family members are consistent, the puppy also learns that those same good things do not happen when she jumps, whines, paws, or does other unwanted behaviors.

If puppy training starts very young (3-4 weeks of age), as it does for some service- and guide-dog puppies, the puppy catches on very quickly. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll have a tiny puppy who sits as hard as she can, placing herself right in front of you, to show you how good she is being. In hopes of getting a cookie, of course. This is where Deni’s reading of the situation comes in. The puppy (and older dog) does try to use this “good” behavior to get rewards on demand.

Who’s in charge here?

But that’s not how it is supposed to work. The human is supposed to retain some modicum of control. (Hey, it’s a nice idea, right?)

If the human is paying attention, they will ask the puppy to sit in many situations: Before going out an open door; while the human is getting meals ready for the puppy; for grooming; when greeting visitors or returning family members. You get the idea.

When the sit is paired with predictable situations and equally predictable rewards, the puppy internalizes the idea that the thing she wants — dinner, access to her yard, attention — arrives when she sits. And only when she sits. So sitting becomes the “default” behavior — what the puppy tries when she wants something the human has or controls.

Soon, the human doesn’t even have to ask the pup / dog to sit. When we’re about to get dinner for Cali and Koala, a meaningful look is enough to get them to sit at the kitchen doorway, quiet and not underfoot.

Unfortunately, most humans have a tough time being consistent. And puppies will always remember very fondly that one time (or one hundred times) she got rewarded when she jumped, barked, or whatever. And try it again. And again.

Dogs are pretty good at getting us to do what they want and need. Luckily for us, though, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

If your dog’s usual way of getting you to play with her or feed her or let her out is too rough or pushy, start teaching her a new way to ask. (Enlist a positive trainer if you need some help getting started.)

Once the old way stops working, the dog will eventually stop trying it. Remember, though, if your dog has spent years successfully getting you to play with and pet her by jumping up on you, for example, it could take a very long time to convince her that that no longer works.

Good luck!