Participation Trophies: Why We Are Doing Our Dogs a Disservice By Always Letting Them Win
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Unpopular opinion time, though I have many of those. This topic came up in a facebook group today and I felt so strongly about it that instead of turning it into a short "Training Tips Thursday" segment I wanted to write a full blog on it. Someone mentioned ".....and always set your dog up to win, always" As a mom I really mulled this comment over in my head and found that, though I've heard this tons of times in my profession, from other trainers and owners alike, it is incredibly misleading advice to pet dog owners. What people really mean by this statement is "Never make it too difficult for your dog". How freaking boring is that??
Growing up in school I was quite intelligent (not to toot my own horn, toot toot) and the small town I grew up in had very few programs for kids like me. Being in the regular curriculum bored me to tears, so I would goof off in class and not always do as well as I should have despite knowing the material. When you take all stress and frustration and problem solving away from your dog, that's what you're doing to them. You're dumbing down their intelligence and making a dog that will either become over dependent on you (hello separation anxiety) or that has no idea what to do when they feel stressed and uncomfortable (ding ding ding, you've won reactivity!) As a mom I have even more insight into how detrimental this is because we are doing the same with our children. Everyone is equal, no one wins or loses, any effort is always good enough even if it's not your best. Think of how confusing it is then when they get into the real world and get rejected for a date or job, or for our dogs if they aren't allowed to do some new thing they really want to. We must teach them how to deal with stress and discomfort, because like it or not it is a part of life, for us and our dogs.
Many of you who know me know my love for Halloween and all things horror, so I will pull an example from a great horror franchise to illustrate my point; Saw. Now if you've watched more than the first one you know that Jigsaw actually WANTED his prisoners to win. He always made his "games" winable in some way. It was up to the person to get through the fear and pain and stress to find it. THAT is what we need to do for our dogs. No, not lock them in a room having to cut off their foot to get out; make them solve the puzzle. Give your training sessions a way to win, but hold your dog accountable for figuring it out. A dog you have spoon fed commands to is not truly obedient, they have just memorized "I hear this, I do this, I get this" Great! That's a start. But in our training program we value much more when a dog makes a mistake and figures out how to correct it. Many of you have seen this with your own dogs in our sessions with the Place command. They start to step off, "Crap this is BORING!" but they hesitate and stay put or get back on before we had a chance to tell them. Why? Because we taught them how to make choices. You can stay on Place like I asked and get praise and maybe a goodie, or you can break position and get some training pressure via leash or ecollar until you've figured out how to turn that pressure off. Even without a leash or ecollar on the dog, they stay on Place, how? Because they have made the choice to stay and be rewarded. They know how to win the game because I made it winable for them simply by saying, pressure or not? You're responsible for that by whether you listen to my command or not. I always end my training on an up note; a treat party, a game of flirt pole, lots of loves and praise. Even if they made mistakes.
I find mistakes in training, both by dogs and their owners, where the true magic of learning happens. We're all living beings. It's when we learn to move on from our failures and get it right that we thrive. But we need to show our dogs how to handle it! We can't just dive in and fix it, although we want to, we need to give them a chance. Of course, if they are truly confused, guide them. But still don't just pull them over and do it for them. We don't want dogs who mess up and shut down. We want dogs who mess up and try again or try something else. If you have a dog that is afraid to mess up in front of you or to keep trying, you need to reevaluate your relationship with that dog. Give your dog the opportunity to win, but back off and let them figure out how. Our dogs are growing far too coddled and it is causing so much confusion for them. This is where I take issue with the Purely Positive side of trainers. They will tell you your dog should never feel stress or discomfort. They should be happy 24/7. That's not life folks and it's setting you up for unrealistic expectations for your dog and your self. You don't grow unless you learn to deal with the things that scare you a bit or you are uncomfortable with, and neither do our dogs. There of course is a right way and a wrong way to do that; we wouldn't (I hope) throw a child who's afraid of water into the deep end of the pool to get them over it; any more than we would say take a dog reactive dog and, with no build up or work what so ever on counter conditioning, throw them back stage at Westminster. If you need help making the monsters for your dog less scary, call us, we'll show you how. But it won't be an easy sunshine and lollipops road, it will be hard work on all our parts.
For the Dogs,