Cesar sits with a dog.

Humans are very easy to train when it comes to teaching them abstract concepts. Almost everything we learn in school starts out that way — words, dates, math. Eventually, we learn to apply that information to the real world, but a kid may go years only knowing that “Z” is for zebra without ever actually seeing a real zebra.

You can show a child a picture of a toaster and tell them, “Never stick a fork in this. You could kill yourself,” and they will get the idea and (ideally) remember it at some future point. Even such complicated things as medicine or flying an airplane or even rocket science all start out as abstract ideas of words and formulas.

Needless to say, dogs do not learn this way at all.

Can you imagine trying to teach a dog how to fetch by showing them a picture of a ball, then explaining what to do when they see you throw a real ball? If you could actually manage to teach a dog that way, then you would either be the greatest dog trainer in the world or have the most amazing dog in the world, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for either to happen.

Dogs are instinctual learners and they gather their information from the real world, through their senses. If they can’t smell, see, hear, touch, or taste it, it doesn’t exist. Even if they can, the experience of a picture of a ball is incredibly different than the experience of a ball. You could show them a blank piece of paper and get the same reaction as the picture — which is probably disinterest.

When we can harness and direct a dog’s instincts to teach them, then we’ve mastered a very powerful tool. You can use a dog’s instinct to move forward to lead them on the walk. You can use their instinct to back away from assertive energy to claim territory, or to get them to move into a calm, submissive state. You can use their instinct to please their Pack Leader to teach them all sorts of things.

But there’s one problem when it comes to using instincts to fix a dog’s misbehavior: It only works if you do it while they’re misbehaving. You can’t teach a dog not to pee on the floor if you don’t catch them doing it. You can’t stop them from digging in the trash when you’re not home if you don’t catch them in the act.

So how do you use instincts in these situations?

Sometimes, it’s necessary to allow the misbehavior to happen so that you can apply the correction at the right time. Yes, you read that correctly. Sometimes, you have to let your dog pee on the floor — as long as you’re there to give the correction at the right instant.

But… there is a challenge to it. The key word is “let.” When you’re training a dog like this, you can never, ever lure them into the misbehavior or give them permission to do it. I think you can see the confusion that would cause in the dog’s mind.

“Okay, Fifi, pee on the floor. That’s it girl, pee!”

Fifi pees.

“Tsch! Bad girl!”

And now your dog has gotten mixed signals and doesn’t know what you expect her to do. A confused dog can actually be a bigger problem than an aggressive dog. Since they don’t know what you expect, they’ll try everything — and then repeat anything that seemed to get a positive reaction. These are the dogs that lunge and pull on the walk, or scratch up doors or furniture, or bark all day long.

The trick is patience and observation. Let the dog do their thing, but don’t let him know you’re watching. When his mind starts to move toward the unwanted behavior, that’s when you step in and correct. In the case of housebreaking, this is also when you take him to where you want him to do his business.

Catching the dog just as he’s about to unload and mark your sofa will have more of an effect than shouting at him when you find the stain and puddle later. You’ve used his instincts to make a negative association with peeing in the house. Eventually, this will become a new instinct all its own.

So remember: When you’re working with your dog, if it isn’t there, it isn’t real. It’s your job to make sure you’re not trying to teach them abstract concepts.

Stay calm, and keep it real!

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