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Michael Chill
Animal Services Dog Training

I went to the home of a young couple who had an 11-month-old female golden retriever. Their complaint was that the dog was destructive - not unusual for a dog her age and breed. We went over several solutions, all which were doable and understood by the couple. Towards the end of the consult, the man made the comment, "But she makes me so mad! She knows it's wrong, but she still does it!"

I couldn't let a comment like that go. He was misinterpreting his dog's reactions and then getting frustrated over it. I explained that "she doesn't know she's done something wrong; she simply has an association with the trash being torn up with your anger." That explanation didn't make sense to him.

"That's the same thing. And, yes, she DOES know that she has done something wrong, and I can prove it to you. When I get home, if she is at the front door, wagging her tail and happy to greet me, I know that everything is fine. If, when I get home, she is not at the front door, I can be sure that something is destroyed, usually the trash in the kitchen. That PROVES that she knows she's done something wrong! She even acts guilty!"

I tried to explain again that she didn't really know she did anything wrong, and that she merely had an association with his anger when the trash was destroyed, and that anticipation of punishment was not the same thing as guilt. I went on to explain more of the behavior, but I obviously wasn't doing a good job of it. Although both he and his wife appreciated the solutions I gave them for the destruction, none of us were satisfied with my attempts to explain their dog's reactions. I kept talking, trying to put it in different ways, but was still unable to articulate what I knew was really occurring.

In cases like this one, the explanation of her behavior wasn't important to the solutions for the problem, but I felt it was very important for their understanding of their dog. I also know that, had I been successful, he would have been much less frustrated. But I finally had to drop it, feeling as frustrated over my inabilities in this instance as he was over his dog's destruction.

A few weeks later, the man called my office and the first words out of his mouth were, "Okay, you win!"

I was thrilled to hear this! Not only do I love being right, I hoped that how he came to understand what I was trying to explain would help me better illustrate this concept to others.

"A little while ago, my wife and I were in the kitchen. Our dog was with us and everything was fine. I bent over to take the trash bag outside. It broke open and the garbage fell onto the floor. My dog looked at the garbage, looked up at me, tucked her tail and ran out of the kitchen! Right then, what you were trying to say came into my head; she hadn't known she did something wrong,' because she didn't do anything wrong in this case. All she knows is that when there's garbage on the floor, she gets yelled at!"

By Jove, I think he got it.


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Copyright ©2012 Michael Chill, Animal Services Dog Training.

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