Train Your Dog, Train the People in Your Life: Part 1

Positive dog-training methods—they’re not just for dogs anymore!
By The Bark Editors, December 2020, Updated January 2021
The skill set of ideas, techniques and strategies used by positive-reinforcement dog trainers is widely applicable to other situations and can easily be used to influence the behavior of many other species (including humans). In her new book, Treat Everyone Like a Dog, Karen B. London, PhD, delves into the ways these skills can be deployed to make life easier for everyone—dogs and people alike.

In part 1, she shares some of the book’s backstory as well as why it’s helpful to substitute kindness for criticism.

Bark: What made you decide to write this book, and who do you think could benefit from reading it?

Karen London: Over the nearly 25 years I have been working as a dog trainer and canine behaviorist, I have increasingly incorporated what I do as a professional into situations outside of work. As a social species, we humans are naturally interested in influencing the behavior of those around us, whether by teaching other people things or encouraging them to do what we want them to do.

My work with dogs is one big effort to influence dogs’ behavior, whether that means aggressive behavior (a factor for the majority of dogs I work with) or other behavioral issues and concerns, however minor. All of the behavioral modification and training I do serves one of two general purposes: getting dogs to do something their owners want them to do, or getting dogs to stop doing something their owners don’t want them doing. The former includes sitting when asked or coming when called and the latter often includes biting, barking, lunging or pulling on the leash during walks.

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I had been using the knowledge gained in my career in other contexts for many years, but the moment the idea for this book was truly born was when my sons (now teenagers) were quite young—in preschool or even earlier. I yelled at them because they had not put their shoes in the bin (where they belonged) the night before and we couldn’t find them. I was tired and frustrated and angry. Their eyes got wide and they looked alarmed; it made me sick to realize that I was the source of their bad feelings.

The thought that slammed into my sleep-deprived brain was that I didn’t become upset with dogs or feel angry at them when they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, and I certainly never yelled at dogs who didn’t act as I wished. In such situations, I would simply pause and consider what to do in light of the fact that I clearly had not adequately trained the dog to be able to respond to the cue in that situation on that particular occasion.

In retrospect, I wish I had done the same thing at that moment with my children. I realized—with the heavy guilt familiar to parents everywhere—that I was not doing this parenting thing as well as I wanted. I also realized that I had a better plan: to treat them with the same respect and loving kindness that I always showed dogs. My children—and all people—deserve that.

I wrote the book for anyone who (like me) wants to use the kindest, gentlest and most effective ways to teach and train other individuals. Since I began to treat everyone like a dog, I’m more effective at teaching and at influencing the behavior of others, I’m nicer, and the behavior around me and the relationships I’m in are better. Who doesn’t want that for themselves? A wonderful thing about the ideas and skills of dog training is that they are accessible to everyone. The concepts are understandable and easily applicable, if only we think to apply them beyond the world of dog training.

The people most likely to benefit from reading the book are coaches, teachers, parents and those in managerial positions, but anyone who regularly interacts with others (and isn’t that all of us, even in these pandemic times?) will find specific, practical ideas for making those interactions easier and more pleasant.

B: You discuss how common it is to be critical of others (including dogs) when they make mistakes, rather than considering how we can help them. Why do you think we so often gravitate toward the former rather than the latter? How can we turn that around?

KL: I think people have a tendency to be angry about what other people do because they think (consciously or unconsciously) that others are purposely doing something wrong or problematic. The issue is often one of empathy; we are too often slow to realize that another person is struggling or doesn’t know what to do. It’s easier for many people to apply the label stubborn or difficult without realizing that other people’s behavior has nothing to do with authority or defiance or a desire to make things hard for us.

People often act in undesirable ways because they’re feeling lost, stuck or confused. The simplest way to reframe the issue is that often, a person is not giving us a hard time, but rather, is having a hard time. For example, if we can see that when a person is being pokey, they’re not trying to antagonize us by going slowly but rather, they’re unsure what to do, and that makes them hesitant. Or, they’re not deliberately late but rather, are facing some barrier to being punctual that we’re unaware of.

So, many people’s natural reaction to behavior they don’t like is to punish with frustrated yelling, with disdain or contempt, or with serious anger. We can be quick to correct but slow to offer assistance. Whenever someone is doing something we don’t want them to do or don’t like, it’s so easy to react negatively, out of irritation. I think this tendency comes from thinking that another person should be doing something different without realizing that, for a variety of reasons, they are incapable of it. With practice, we can do better if we think to ourselves, “What can I do to make it more likely that they can do this successfully?” or “Is there something I can do to make this easier for them?” It’s often the case that a person will be more likely to change their behavior in a positive direction if we offer help instead of criticism.

Once we acknowledge and accept this truth, we are better able to influence that person’s behavior in a way we want, and in a way they probably want, too.

More to come in Part 2.