Happy Pups. Happy People. Happy Planet.

Raising Teenagers (part 2)

When I was a kid I really loved school, well, until about the 5th Grade, when I learned that the letter D was used for more than just spelling words. I learned that sometimes adults used that letter to show you that you were a short jump from being a huge embarrassing Failure, and being grounded for the rest of your summer. I’ll never forget the first time I brought home an F on a report card. It was at the end of my 7th grade year and it was in a social studies class. My mom was disappointed and wanted to know how she could help me better succeed and keep me organized at school. My dad, well, that was a different story. His response was not in support of how to improve my behavior, but how to scare me away from getting failing grades ever again. And in this case, it certainly did change my behavior, but not in the way he had hoped.

My dad lost his mind and yelled at me, called me a loser, grounded me, and punished me in every way he could think of. Not punches, don’t worry. In hindsight I understand his intent. If Jimmy wants to avoid this punishment, he’ll get better grades. But as we all learn at some point, he ended up punishing the wrong behavior. He thought he was teaching me to be a better student, when all he really taught me was to avoid being honest with him. From that point on, I learned to hide my grades. I had an older sister two years ahead, who got great marks on her report cards, and I could never find the right kind of bribe to get her not to show her report card to mom or dad. “Where is yours?” they would ask. “I left it in my locker at school.” That only worked once before they started taking me to school to get it. Then I started becoming smarter. When we got our first computer and a scanner, I quickly learned how to scan my report cards, edit them and print them out. Replacing F’s and D’s with B’s and C’s. It wasn’t gonna get me a cash bonus, but it also was gonna keep me off the chopping block. And that was good enough for me.

The problem with my dad’s approach is that he was only punishing a symptom of a greater problem.

I am sure we can all think of a similar situation happening to us in childhood. Maybe you were like me and got soap in your mouth for saying swear words in front of your parents, only to learn not to say words in front of your parents as opposed to not saying them at all.

When one of my nephews was potty training, he was afraid to go number two in the toilet, so he would do it on the floor. After getting scolded enough times he started hiding his little gifts under towels where we “couldn’t see it”.

How many of us go ten to fifteen over the speed limit, until we see a police officer, then we slow way down? As soon as he is out of sight we put the pedal back down to the floor.

In all of these instances, we see punishment being used, and yet behavior is not changing. Why? Because punishers only “work” when the punisher is present to deliver them. It actually punishes the wrong behavior. We get punished for doing things in the presence of those with power over us. We learn to avoid, fear, and deceive. It does not make us better people, and damages relationships. I see this in dogs everyday.

Recently Katie (Uptown Pup Trainer) and I were discussing potty training issues that have been sprouting up among clients and friends. What we have noticed, is that clients who resort to punishing their dogs for going potty in the house, think they are punishing the dog for pottying in the house, when they are actually teaching the dog to not potty in front of them. What they will naturally do is learn that if you are in the room when poop is present on the floor, you do something that they see as punishing, so naturally they hide their little “gifts” where you can’t find them. Even worse, when they go on walks, they often don’t want to potty in front of their people, out of fear of punishment.

So when you are deciding what types to training methods to implement with your own pups, and kids, make sure to ask yourself, “What behavior am I really punishing here?”. If you see that the unwanted behaviors do not decrease, but the deception does, do not blame the learner for that, but re-evaluate what you have taught them in the past and rethink how you want to do things so they can be rewarded for doing the opposite of the unwanted behavior. After all, is it not impossible to teach someone how not to do something? All you can really do is teach them how to do something, so maybe try something that is opposite of what you don’t want them to do.

Many of my clients start their training with what they don’t want the dog to do. They want them to not jump, bark, dig, shred, and chew. But we cannot fault a dog for just doing what comes natural to them. What we can do is teach them alternate, or incompatible behaviors. The dog jumps on you? Reinforce for the dog sitting nicely in front of you. The dog pulls on a leash? Reinforce them for being next to you and focusing on you. The dog counter surfs? Reinforce them for laying on the floor while you are cooking dinner. You will likely start to see the dog offering what they know gets them paid, instead of doing what annoys you. Remember my previous post? If a dog isn’t doing what you want, it’s not that they are stubborn. It’s that they lack understanding, or incentive. Both are on you to provide.

If I could go back in time and give my parents advice to help me get better grades in school, I wouldn’t tell them to punish me for bad grades.I also wouldn’t tell them to pay for good grades because kids have a hard time working for such a delayed reward. I would tell them to find a way to reinforce me daily for doing my homework. Instead of avoiding the penalty, I believe I would have worked happily for a daily reinforcer. So will your dog.

-Jimmy

Side Note: I did graduate college Magna Cum Laude…so there is that.

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