A dog with a computer.

It’s not that difficult to learn to use a computer, especially if you only do simple tasks on it, like email, spreadsheets, and going online. There may be different kinds of computers and operating systems, but you really only need to know the programs you’re using.

As long as the computer doesn’t have hardware problems, if you keep giving it the right commands, it will keep doing what you want it to. Where you run into trouble is if you start giving the wrong commands.

If you try to use browser commands in a spreadsheet, you’ll get unpredictable results, and you’ll get no results if you try to find the “option” key on a PC or the “Windows” key on a Mac. With a computer, the mistake is obvious. But people make the same mistake with their dogs.

Dogs Are Like Computers

In a lot of ways, dogs are like computers, too. They have a specific operating system — call it “Dog.” As long as you’re giving commands for that system, you’ll be fine — but keep in mind that “commands” here do not refer to things like telling your dog to “sit” or “stay.” In this sense, a command is any action you perform, verbal or not, intended to get a specific behavior from the dog — right now, and at a later time.

One of these commands might be the one that will put your dog into a calm, submissive state until you return home, so that there is no separation anxiety. Another may create a permanent boundary for your dog, so that she won’t get on the bed when you’re not around. There’s even a command to create a limit, so that your dog is allowed to bark at things outside that might be an actual danger, but only for a certain amount of time.

These are all programmed in every dog and they can be accessed by humans — but only if we’re using the commands for the right operating system. Unfortunately, we run into trouble when we forget that we’re working with “Dog” and try to give the commands for “Human” instead.

This is why shouting words at a dog repeatedly won’t stop him from barking or misbehaving. The dog doesn’t hear this as “No, Fluffy, no!” or “Shut up already!” It hears it as excitement. If the dog is barking already, you’re encouraging him to keep barking even louder. If he’s tearing up the carpet, he will start tearing even harder.

If you give your dog affection at any time, you’re just reinforcing whatever the dog is doing in that moment. This is great if your dog is being calm. Not so great if the dog is fearful or anxious or misbehaving. That’s because the “Dog” operating system works by creating associations.

There’s an old saying, “A scalded dog fears cold water.” Basically, if a dog has had a traumatic experience with something, it’s going to try to avoid that thing forever. They don’t have the insight that humans do. A person in the same situation isn’t going to avoid water — they’re going to know to check next time to see if it’s too hot. This is why one bad experience can create a permanent phobia in a dog, and humans can’t overcome it just by telling the dog that everything is okay. Instead, it takes time. We have to overcome the programming by gradually reintroducing the dog to that scary thing until curiosity overcomes fear.

The good news is that creating associations works the other way as well. For example, if we bring our dog to her crate after the walk, when her energy has been drained and she’s already naturally calm, she will begin to associate her calm state with the crate. Eventually, the crate will become a trigger for the calm state, so that the dog will automatically relax when she goes inside. “Crate” becomes the command that tells the “Dog” operating system to run the program “Calm and Submissive.”

On the inside, computers are incredibly complicated machines, but we have created easy ways to control all of that through very simple interfaces. Dogs are not that complicated inside. We have created the complexity for ourselves. But by learning how their operating system works, we can take control and get our dogs to do what we want them to every single time.

Stay calm, and in command!

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