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Dog Training: Knowing When to Break the Rules

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In photography, there's something called the Rule of Thirds. It has to do with composition. If you digitally overlay a tic-tac-toe grid on your photo, ideally, your subject should be positioned where lines intersect, or at least in the top, bottom, left, or right thirds. Placing a subject smack dab in the middle generally looks more like a snapshot than a work of art. The great thing, though, is that once you're experienced with a rule, you can decide when to break it.

So what's this got to do with dogs or training? Everything. Trainers learn early on about learning theory and how to teach basic obedience skills. As they progress, they get a feel for what to do when a dog doesn't respond in typical fashion during a training exercise or when applying a behavior protocol. This is the when the hard science and skill begin to turn into an art form. A truly great trainer can fluidly move from one technique to another based on moment-by-moment observation of a dog's body language and behavior, essentially customizing the interaction for that particular dog. A great trainer -- or owner -- also knows when to throw out the rules completely.

There are plenty of canine-related directives out there. Some of the older ones don't have much logic in this day and age. For example, the one about the dog always walking on the person's left harkens back to the military, where the soldier's gun was carried on the right and the dog was on the left. As I've stated before, if you're carrying a gun down the street, you've got bigger problems than which side your dog is walking on. Besides, I want to be able to ask my dog to walk on either side, depending on the environment and what suits me at the time.

A well-established rule is that once you give a dog an instructional cue, he absolutely must comply. Now, there's a lot to be said for that, and in general, I agree. But the other morning on a walk with Bodhi, I wanted to take a photo of him against a backdrop of wildflowers. I pointed to a spot and asked him to sit, which, being the fabulous model that he is, he did. I then asked him to lie down. He just sat there looking at me. Trust me, the boy knows his down cue -- but, as evidenced by his clear desire to remain sitting, he did not want to do it. Of course, I could have easily forced him. But instead, I looked around at the ground and saw that there were some of those horrible little stickers and bushy things that can attach themselves to dogs. Bodhi is quite aware of those things, as he's gotten them stuck in his paw pads before. Clearly, he was apprehensive about lying down in them, and rightly so. In this case, it was good that I "broke the rule" and realized that I should have been more observant of the environment.

Certain rules persist, whether they make logical sense or not. Shouldn't you always eat before your dog? That is the rule, after all. But in real life, isn't it better to eat either before or after your dog, depending on what's convenient for you? If your relationship is well balanced, your dog is not going to infer from eating first that he's just been crowned Leader of the Pack. You have the opposable thumbs and make the decisions, after all, so you're in charge. Hey, don't get me wrong; rules are great, and they're necessary. It's best to establish them, but it's also wise to take a step back and consider breaking them when the situation calls for it.

Nicole Wilde is a canine behavior specialist and author. Visit her website www.nicolewilde.com. Follow Nicole Wilde on Facebook.

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