For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

What Newton didn’t say (as far as I’m aware) is “or at least there should be”.

(Otherwise known as why purely positive dog training isn’t effective.)

I had a fun evening out with a very longstanding friend this week (we met on our first day at nanny training college some 25+ years ago). She is one of the finest kids nannies I know (witnessed by the fact that her last employers kept her on until their third child left for university. Yes, UNIVERSITY. The kid is 19 years old!) You can imagine that she knows a thing or two about raising kids. It’s her passion.

As ever, the conversation turned to the psychology of behaviour and, as ever, we found more similarities than differences in bringing up children and puppies. I know, I know, puppies are NOT people and shouldn’t be treated as such, blah blah blah. But, let’s face it, both are highly social beings learning how to live in human society. At a certain point, they both have no understanding of language. And at all points they both have a well-defined appreciation of outcomes.

And it’s outcomes that I want to talk about. Because, with dogs and kids (and adults actually, but we’re so not going there..!), behaviours are driven by what happens in response to them. In short, behaviours that are successful (i.e. achieve the desired outcome) are repeated. Behaviours that do not achieve the desired outcome are unlikely to be repeated. This is a simple construct which dog trainers (and nannies) use to explain the need for boundaries. And in the main, with consistent application, it works.

There is, however, a hiccup. Which is that the perceptually unsuccessful behaviour may still be rewarding for the protagonist in some way, and therefore may not only be repeated, but could in fact increase.

This is where the sage advice of “reward the behaviours you like, ignore the ones you don’t” starts to fall down. It’s also where dog trainers start to get a little nervous as it’s where the other “P” word starts to be used. Yes, punishment. It’s not a pretty word, associated as it is in our society with pain, fear and intimidation.

“But I don’t want to punish her, I just want her behaviour to change”. Well, how do we change behaviour? We change the outcome.

So let’s take the “P” word out of the equation and talk outcomes. Consequences if you like. The result of doing something being less than favourable. That’s all we need to do. To decide what the outcome will be, and then to follow-through.

Threats mean nothing.

Consequences mean everything.

Threats have a tendency to tip over into retribution.

Consequences are reasonable, appropriate and proportionate.

They are also predictable. Because predictability gives the learner choice. If refusing to eat my broccoli always = no pudding, I can make an pre-informed decision about what I will do. The same applies to refusing to sit when asked = no treat (and no immediate opportunity to make good). But if throwing a temper-tantrum alters the outcome, guess what? Yep, a bigger tantrum next time. And if that’s your dog, it’s a tantrum with teeth!

Newton clearly saw the balance in the world when he penned his 3rd law. So maybe we can bring some balance back to our dog- and child-rearing practices by applying this undeniable principle there too.

It puts me in mind of a sign in a local shop: “Unattended children will be given a free puppy and an espresso”. A frustrated response to some adults’ behaviours? Clearly. Effective? If they followed through, you betcha!!!


Pretzel espresso

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *