My dog is usually smart, so why's he making the same mistakes over and over? I finally found out!
Sterling is a smart boy. He recognises all the words that connect to food, treats, and walks... his favourite things. He's learned that sometimes when I order a meal and get a delivery call, then a few moments later, there's tasty food he can beg for at the door. He knows that if he sits next to me before mealtimes and makes monkey noises, I'll either give him a toy or something else he likes to distract/calm him down. My friends are often impressed with his ability to wait for a treat — if you knew what an excitable boy he was, you'd be impressed too. He won't eat without hearing the word "Ok!". Sterling, like most dogs, can also understand how I'm feeling from the tone of my voice and body language, and boy does he manipulate me.
Still, I find myself often wondering why he keeps making the same bad choices. He'll insist on eating things he shouldn't when we go on walks only to fall immediately sick later. People may relate that to an animal not having enough intelligence but that's just not true. Training and many other situations have repeatedly shown me that dogs understand the consequences of their actions and repeat or avoid certain behaviours accordingly. But here's the thing, for dogs the timing of the consequences plays a huge role in whether the dog learns its lessons or not!
When I first stopped working from home and started going to office on a daily basis, my first challenge, in my otherwise totally independent dog, was the separation anxiety he developed. When I came home, the first few weeks I would always find something or the other destroyed. I quickly learned to keep things I valued out of his reach. I did the research and bought him the right toys to keep him busy. I also noticed that on days he was destructive, he would look sheepish and guilty, almost as if he knew I was upset, I suppose this was because I would come home and talk to him in an upset voice while pointing at the mess. I just couldn't understand why he kept doing it though!
As it turns out, from Sterling's point of view, he connected the tone of my voice and my emotion to him having done something. Because I was upset HOURS after he made the mess! With dogs, the reaction and consequences must be immediate for them to make the connection. So for Sterling, all he knew was that I was upset with him, but he wasn't sure why. Another fine example of Sterling's stellar decision-making skills is the number of tennis balls he's tried to ingest. He went through three or four balls before I banned them from my house.
My brother also often tells me that his dog, Theo, is forever eating socks that he later needs to poop out, causing some concerning, but also hilarious problems. Because we live with and bond so closely with our dogs, we often have a tendency to anthropomorphise them and project our own thoughts and reactions on to them. While dogs are incredibly intelligent and capable of a lot, the way their brains work means there're fewer connections being made between eating the sock and then having a blockage later. You'd think that the unpleasant trip to the vet would prevent them from making the same bad choices, but really your dog just thinks that trip to the vet was a random event because it's happened so much after the problem event.
In a nutshell? Dogs are alllllll about that immediate reaction. They live in the moment so completely that anything that happens in that moment becomes connected, but outside of that is a new moment... so how can it be?
Understanding this is crucial and helps you relate to your dog better for a stronger bond. Also, it makes training SO much easier.
Does your dog make bad choices repeatedly? Tell us about them in the comments!