Let’s imagine an experiment. I put you in a room with a big red button. I don’t tell you what’s going to happen, but you’re human and you’re curious, so you push the button and a hundred dollar bill comes out of a slot.
“Oh,” you think. “It’s a good thing to push the button.” So you push it again, and get another hundred dollars. But, as you continue to push it, strange things start to happen. Sometimes, no money comes out. Other times, a mechanical hand comes out and takes some of the money away. Then you push it and water squirts out of the slot right into your face.
Suddenly, you’re not so sure whether pushing the button is a good thing. It could be, but now you have to figure out whether it’s better or worse to push it. Frustrating, isn’t it? But this is exactly how your dog feels when you’re not consistent.
Enforcing the Rules You Created
I don’t mean that you have to give your dog a cookie every time they do a trick. Ideally, your dog’s reward becomes your happiness when they behave. Instead, I’m talking about creating rules, boundaries, and limitations, and then enforcing them.
In the human experiment above, let’s say that I did not want you to push the button. In that case, I could have set it up to squirt the water the first time, or maybe even give you a shock, or play a recording of me going “Tsch!” You’re going to get the idea pretty quickly that pushing the button is a bad thing.
But one day, you’re bored and I’m not paying attention. You push the button and get a hundred dollars. And maybe getting money occasionally is enough for you to put up with the possibility of a bad outcome, so you test the button again…
In the canine version, you’ve created the rule that your dog is never allowed on the sofa, and you start out doing pretty well with the training. Every time your dog tries to get onto it, you stop her from jumping up, and you make her get down every time you find her there. This slowly creates an invisible barrier around it, claiming the sofa as your territory.
So far, so good. But the first time that your dog gets on the sofa and you see him but you don’t make him get down, it’s like the button just gave him a hundred dollars. Maybe you were distracted or forgot the rule, but now you’ve set a precedent: your dog doesn’t know what he’ll get when he pushes the button, but pushing it has become worth the risk because he knows that at least once you knew he was there and did nothing.
Consistency is Key
This is why consistency is absolutely vital and achieving it requires commitment. Being a good Pack Leader is like going on a diet. You’ll only see results if you stick with it. If you cheat or only follow through sometimes, then you’ll achieve exactly the opposite of your goal.
Like humans, dogs are curious and they will test the rules whenever they can. It’s how a dog in the pack learns what is and isn’t acceptable. They’ll gradually escalate their behavior until their mother or another dog corrects them. This process continues until they know the rules and follow them. When a misbehavior has no consequences, a dog is more likely to do it again.
So when you create a rule, it’s up to you to enforce it always. Otherwise, your dog will become confused and frustrated, and will start pushing your buttons.
Stay calm, and consistent.