How to Foster Confidence and Self-Esteem in Your Dog.
According to Learning Theories, Positive Reinforcement is widely recognized as the best and, in fact, the only effective way to impart skills and build self-confidence. However, there are two subtle nuances and flaws within this statement that deserve your attention:
1. Learning skills are distinct from behavioral skills.
2. Self-esteem and resilience also develop when faced with failure and adversity, not solely in times of success.
It is crucial to emphasize that Positive Reinforcement remains an essential tool for nurturing confidence and self-esteem in your dog. Positive Reinforcement stands as the primary method for teaching dogs new tasks or skills, as it hinges on motivation and rewards. Yet, it is not the sole element at play and for many dogs it is not enough.
Let’s talk about those two very important aspects that you should consider to build self esteem in your dog:
1. Learning Skills vs. Behavioral Skills
Boundaries, rules, and discipline fall under the realm of social behavior and coping mechanisms rather than learning theory methodologies. These are two distinct fields. To illustrate, let me share an example:
Years ago, during my tenure as a jazz musician, I began teaching music to troubled kids in the South Bronx Projects. My teaching approach was rooted in positive reinforcement, yielding fantastic results. Why? Because there were two other staff members responsible for discipline; they adeptly set boundaries and rules, maintaining clarity with the children. My role revolved around the enjoyable task of music instruction, while theirs involved handling conflict and behavioral issues. It’s evident that these roles differ significantly.
I want to stress that, in behavioral training, there is no requirement for physical corrections or the use of tools like prong collars, e-collars, or choke chains. While these tools might have their place when used by knowledgeable trainers, they do not align with my training philosophy and are not, in my opinion and experience, necessary.
2. Self-Esteem and Resilience in the Face of Challenges
Teaching your dog to navigate through distressing situations contributes not only to enhanced self-esteem and resilience but also to self-control, a vital skill in behavioral training. Confronting unfamiliar or uncomfortable circumstances and mastering them cultivates resilience and confidence. This capability enables your dog to respond appropriately and independently when confronted with conflicts. The goal is to teach your dog the ability to cope and react autonomously when conflict arises. Which is what Behavior Training exercises are about.
Relying solely on Positive Reinforcement may lead to a constant need for redirection and the offering of alternative behaviors.
In contrast, behavioral training exposes your dog to stressful situations while maintaining a manageable level of discomfort (under threshold), allowing your dog to learn coping skills, independent thinking, and the power of true choice. This fosters self-control and the development of social skills not impulse control and obedience performance skills like “sit”, “down”, “wait”, “place”, etc
Consider the following example:
If another dog barks and lunges at my dog, my objective in Behavioral Training is not to command my dog to “sit” and “wait”. Instead, my aim is to equip my dog with the skill to control his reactions. It becomes his choice to either ignore the dog, attempt to facilitate socialization, or move away. These choices come from my dog’s self-control, as opposed to my direct commands like “sit,” “wait,” or “leave it.” The ability to control his responses and remain in the “green zone” characterizes Behavioral Training. Conversely, instructing my dog to “sit,” “stay,” or “leave it” constitutes Obedience Training, focusing on conditioned learning from external cues.
Let’s take another example: jumping at guests.
Dogs jumping results from overexcitement and human reinforcement. In Behavioral Training, the goal is to teach your dog to manage his excitement during guest interactions, preventing jumping from occurring. This avoids the need for correction or redirection. Dogs naturally greet by sniffing and investigating, not by jumping. In Behavior Training we’ll teach the dog to greet guests without jumping.
In Obedience Training, the objective is to condition your dog to “sit” and “wait” for guests. The issue with Obedience Training arises when dogs lack self-regulation, potentially breaking the “stay” command or barking while in the “place” position. The fundamental problem with this approach is that your dog is “waiting”. At some point you have to release him/her. When you do, then they usually jump on your guests. The other problem is that a lot of high energy dogs, who are usually the jumpers, will bark excessively while waiting in their “Place position”. Teaching your dog to “wait” on Place is not the same as teaching your dog to greet your guests without jumping.
Behavioral Training exercises and methods are designed to teach your dog self regulation and independent thinking. This eventually translates into social skills and coping skills which will enhance self esteem and self confidence. Obedience Training is designed to condition your dog to obey your cues on command with positive reinforcement. Very different outcomes and methodolgies.
Trends and misleading mantras:
Now, let’s address a recent trend promoting the idea that confidence and self-esteem can only be nurtured through positive reinforcement, banning the use of the word “No,” and cautioning against establishing boundaries.
This mantra goes as follows: “Never tell your dog ‘don’t do that’; instead, teach them what to do.“
As with any decision in life, there are trade-offs to consider. To adhere to this mantra, you must navigate a complex labyrinth of environmental control until your dog reaches a state of readiness. This complexity arises due to a lack of clarity regarding boundaries.
In my experience, this mantra has led many dog parents to frustration, failure, and considerable distress for extended periods of time. It does not apply universally to all dogs. I am well aware of this because I find myself busier than ever, inheriting dogs that have gone through programs and protocols failing to establish clear and direct boundaries.
There are methods to impart clear boundaries and rules without resorting to force, corrections, or dominance-based Alpha theories. This reflects my vision and what I have successfully accomplished over the past 13 years designing exercises and routines to teach dogs self control through Behavioral Training.
© Gabriel Riesco, Pawmos Dog Training LLC | All Rights Reserved September 2023