As I reached for the door, Barley surged forward, wagging so hard that his tail hit his ears. I paused and glanced at him, and he struggled into a sit. His butt hovered off the ground for a moment, then planted. I opened the door and he looked up at me. “Ok.”
He surged forward as I called, “Get your cow, Barley!”
Even though his small squeaky toy was right at the base of the front porch steps, Barley charged towards the street. I realized as he was halfway across the yard what he was after.
A twig that I threw across the street several hours before, then told him to “leave it.”
When I told him to “leave it” several hours ago, he laid down and stared at it. He didn’t audibly whine, but his eyes were straining ahead and his mouth was tight. He’s that obsessed with fetch.
I forgot about the twig. But Barley didn’t.
“Barley, NO! Come!” I yelled, my voice sharp and harsh.
Barley turned on a dime and ran back to me, his body and head low, his tail tip wagging just a bit. In a flash of frustration, I grabbed him by the collar and tossed him inside. He yelped.
He immediately turned and put his ears all the way back, drawing his lips with them. His tail wagged from one ear to the other, his head low, and he licked the air as he stood on his hind paws, trying to reach my face.
For a dog who is normally not very touchy-feely, this was a big display.
I took a breath and made eye contact with Andrew, coming back to earth. He raised his eyebrows. I preach positive dog training for a living, yet I just yanked my dog so hard that he yelped. I said lamely, “He was running into the road after a f*cking twig.”
Andrew turned back to his work. I knelt and let Barley lick my face, repeating, “I’m sorry,” to him. He picked up a toy and shoved it into my chest, ducking away from the pets.
After a few moments of attempted reconciliation, I left for yoga with a stone on my chest and a knot in my stomach. I’ve been snapping at Andrew and Barley a lot in the past 72 hours, and I was sick of my own behavior.
Why is it hard to be more patient?
I do a lot of my best thinking in yoga class. I know, that’s not the point of yoga. But I’m not yet very good at clearing my mind. Instead, I chew over my day’s problems.
Today, the problem was how to be more patient with Andrew and Barley. Since this is a dog training blogs, we’ll focus on how to be more patient with your dog.
I ran the events of the day through my mind several times. I know better than to punish Barley for listening to me. How asinine is that? I also strive to avoid fear and pain in all of my training practice – so what the h*ll was going on with me?
Finally, Applied Behavior Analysis floated into my mind. I slotted the events into a basic mental ABC chart.
Antecedent: Barley does something I don’t like. This generally looks like him performing an action that is contradictory to a cue I just gave.
Behavior: I lose my temper with Barley. This looks like me yelling or even grabbing at him.
Consequence: Barley offers appeasing behaviors and the unwanted behavior ceases. This looks like his tail wagging hard, him attempting to lick my face.
I got shivers down my spine. I already knew that punishment can be reinforcing. But I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t just regression to the mean that I was dealing with. It was also the fact that Barley’s appeasing behaviors were really nice for me. He’s normally a very hands-off sort of dog, actively ducking away from petting from strangers and even me. So when he tried to make amends after being scolded, that was often the cuddliest he’d ever be.
Even several hours after this realization, it still makes me really sad. Part of the reason that I scold my dog (even when I don’t want to and actively strive to be more patient) is that his attempts to make amends are pleasant for me.
But that’s not the only reason it’s hard to be more patient.
While I sweated through some downward-dogs and star-pushups (Schole Yoga in Salt Lake City is a workout, let me tell you), I brainstormed other reasons that I failing at being more patient with my loved ones. Some read like excuses, others feel more valid.
- Barley’s appeasing behavior is nice. See above.
- I’m stressed. I’m on day seven of living a fully-remote lifestyle, and the adjustment has been relatively smooth. But I’m still a bit stressed and trying to find my way into a new routine.
- Barley is stressed. The constant moving is certainly hard on Barley, too. It doesn’t help that our AirBnb host has a Goldendoodle bitch in heat on top of all the other change!
- Lack of training practice. With this new fully-remote, full-time travel lifestyle, I’m not spending as much time training Barley. That means he’s pulling on the leash a bit more, listening a bit more slowly. He needs more training to continue improving compliance in new situations.
- Punishing is rewarding. I already mentioned this. See the fighter pilot example in this article.
- It’s what I was taught. While I’ve almost always been a (mostly) positive reinforcement based dog trainer, I’ve watched boyfriends, teachers, law enforcement, parents, friends, and families stop unwanted behavior through punishment. We coerce each other all the time, and our society teaches us that losing our cool is expected.
- I panicked. As Barley bee-lined towards the road, I was afraid. Losing my dog to something as stupid as a car accident when I should have just had him on a leash is one of my worst nightmares. Fear and frustration don’t help us make good choices.
- I wanted to make sure that Barley got my point. This reason rings true, though I hate to admit it. I was so afraid, so angry, that I wanted Barley to really get my point. The point wasn’t well made – I effectively punished Barley for listening to me. But in the split second where I yanked Barley forward by the collar, the primal version of me was trying to make a point to my dog.
- I’m concussed. Really. I got a concussion just 9 days ago, and my brain is still healing. This makes me a bit more irritable, a bit more impulsive, and a bit less smart.
When you are trying to be more patient with your dog, you might have a different list of reasons for your struggles. But hopefully, my list will help get your mind going on some potential reasons.
How to be More Patient with Your Dog
Here, we’ll go step-by-step through each of the eight reasons I found it hard to be more patient with Barley today. I’ll give some suggestions for ways to deal with these underlying reasons that it’s hard to be more patient, and then we’ll close with my game plan going forward.
It’s nice when our dogs “try to make amends.”
Deal with it by finding different ways to bond with your dog. While that brief reconciliation after you scold your dog might feel nice, it’s a bit poisonous. Instead of seeking that closeness through conflict, find another way to get that closeness. For me, that means capitalizing on Barley’s early-morning cuddles as much as I can. Get that serotonin and oxytocin where you can. You can also teach your dog a “hug” cue, which gives you physical closeness without the initial conflict.
The tendency of finding extreme closeness after a conflict is why you see so many relationships in high school (and beyond) constantly yo-yo from fight to make-up. It’s why those relationships are hard to break off.
It’s hard to be more patient when you’re stressed.
Find different ways to de-stress. This will look different for everyone, but it’s absolutely necessary. If you’re stressed enough to be snapping at your dog or loved ones, you need a change in your life.
Help yourself out by exercising (really, try it – runner’s high is real), meditating, doing some yoga, taking a nap, going out with friends, journaling, the Pacifica App, drinking a glass of wine, or getting out into nature.
If you’re just frustrated with your dog specifically, walk away. It’s ok to recognize that you’re too stressed or frustrated to deal right now. I do this when Barley sniffs really good girl-dog pee and starts drooling and teeth-chattering. This drives me irrationally bonkers. Like, it makes my skin crawl to just think of it. In order to avoid yanking him around by the leash, I will close my eyes and take a few deep breaths and mentally remove myself. If we’re not on a walk, I just walk away. If needed, I’ll tell Barley to stay where he is.
Stressed dogs aren’t always good dogs.
When your dog is stressed, your dog is less likely to be on his best behavior. He might not be able to focus on training and he might revert to old “problem behaviors” that are actually calming mechanisms (like chewing on things, barking, or digging).
Help your dog out by using some calming treats, working on a relaxation protocol, giving your dog some off-leash time in nature (if safe and practical), and letting your dog engage in de-stressing behaviors like chewing, running, and sniffing.
We don’t always make enough time to train our dogs.
It’s funny how just when our dogs need training the most, we’re least able to spend time training them? Make time for training by doing micro-training sessions while food is in the microwave or you brush your teeth, taking treats on walks and working on basic training out in the world, or teaching your dog to “stay” while you get chores done around the house.
Punishing is rewarding.
You know that “rush” you get while you fight with a loved one, the self-satisfaction of being a bit cruel to a little sibling, or the gritty pleasure of road rage? It can feel good to be mean.
Deal with it by recognizing that pleasure and inserting a different response instead. For example, when you’re tempted to yell because your dog is on the counters again, take a deep breath and call your dog away from the counters. Your result is the same – the dog is off the counters. You won’t feel guilty, and your dog is much happier. This can take practice, but really try to feel the difference between the two responses.
We learn to use punishment to get what we want.
My solution for this is essentially above. When trying to reduce punishment in our lives, we need to find new ways to redirect behavior and reward others for a behavior that we like better. Beating ourselves up doesn’t help.
We punish when we panic.
A surge of adrenaline is rarely good for clear-eyed and even-headed decisionmaking. Strive to make redirection and rewarding an alternate behavior your default response and it will be easier to “reach” for the kinder response when you’re not thinking clearly.
Punishment feels like it really gets the point across.
To be honest, this feeling probably exists for two reasons. One, it’s true. Punishment works – that’s why we don’t reach for the red-hot pan time and time again. Two, punishment feels good, so we rationalize it by saying that it’s necessary. Both of these ideas are mostly true. My argument isn’t that punishment doesn’t work (or even that we should never, ever punish a behavior). Rather, aim to reduce punishment in your life and be more patient by recognizing when you can redirect a dog, reward a different behavior, and thinking about exactly why you want to punish at that moment. If you want to punish just because it’s reactionary and it feels good, don’t.
But if you want to punish because you truly just want to interrupt a behavior and there’s not a reasonable and better way to do it, go for it. Just do no harm. An example of this might be leaving the room when your dog barks at you (negative or removal punishment) or saying “no” to save the roast beef without scaring the dog.
Concussions don’t help.
I’d advise against getting a concussion if you want to be more patient. If you are concussed, do your best to heal. That means spending less time exercising, drinking, or looking at screens. Concussion recovery sucks – best just not to get one.
My Game Plan Going Forward to be More Patient with my Dog
Now that I’ve gone way too far into some potential fixes for some potential underlying reasons for my outburst today, let’s go over a game plan to be more patient.
- Come prepared with treats and set up training scenarios. I love training Barley. Even if training didn’t help the behavior problem at hand, training alone helps both of us feel better. I also can use training to specifically work on recalling Barley away from twigs.
- Spend more time away from Barley. While we’re living on the road, I’ve been within a few feet of Barley almost around the clock. I just signed up for a week-long free trial at a local yoga studio, which packs the double punch of giving me some structured yoga time and time away from Barley.
- Yoga. See above.
- Hitting the trails more. Hiking repairs my relationship with Barley and gives us both a big stress release. I’m going to hike 3-4 days this week. Salk Lake City has some amazing off-leash hiking trails just 20 minutes from my rental.
- Continue focusing on redirecting behavior (my own and that of my loved ones) and rewarding incompatible behaviors. This has been a big focus for me for a while, but I always need more work.
Oh, and I’ll try to just be less concussed.
What did I miss? How can we all be more patient with our dogs and loved ones?
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley.