Dogs learn best in black and white. This is good, this is bad. This is allowed, this is not. It's so simple! Learning happens through contrast and the more obvious the contrast the easier, faster and more reliable the training. This is a no-brainer and totally self evident to anyone who's ever worked with dogs. So, why do so many people struggle with basic behavior problems? Because the world we live in is rarely so black and white. Humans prefer many shades of proverbial grey. For example:

  • Q "Do you like red wine?"
  • A "Sometimes."
  • Q "Do you prefer white?"
  • A "It depends." 

Even wine, which can be simplified to red or white, is not a simple black and white choice. What is it being paired with? Are we having dinner or shooting pool? These grey areas make life more interesting but are less than ideal for dog training. Regardless, they exist and we have to learn to navigate them. How can we teach our dogs the concepts of "sometimes" or "it depends" when it comes to expected behavior?

  • Dog: "Am I allowed to bark?"
  • Human: "Sometimes."
  • Dog: "Am I allowed on the furniture?"
  • Human: "It depends."
  • Dog: "I don't get understand."
  • Human: "Well, you see, you can get on the furniture if your feet are clean but not when my Mother-in-law is here, because she doesn't like dogs. Oh, and not when I just got done getting the fur off the couch in preparation for company. Oh yeah, and we are getting a new leather sofa next month, you can't get on that one, at least not while it's new, your Dad will have a fit! Maybe in a few months, he'll forget about it when it's not new anymore…."
  • Dog: "Oh, I see. What about the barking?"
  • Human: "Oh, right, well, here's the thing about that…"

I'm being facetious but really only half joking. Even if this conversation were possible (it's not) most of the clients I see can't even tell me exactly what rules they want the dog to follow. So, the first step is to decide what you actually want. 
I would highly recommend the avoidance of grey areas whenever possible. For example: no dogs on the furniture, ever, period. That's a simple black and white rule but let's look at something in the grey zone such as barking.
Dogs bark; it's a part of their natural language so the complete banishing of barking is not something I would recommend. In fact, dogs were selectively bred over millennia to bark more than their wolf ancestors because humans liked it. Today, most of us still like our dogs to bark but only "sometimes" and not too much. For example: a desired grey area might be barking at the front door but not at everything visible from the front window and not at guests. This is fairly simple, praise the dog for initially barking at the door and then take over. There are many options here: give a quiet command, give a correction for any barking after the quiet command, put the dog on leash, direct the dog to a sit-stay…anything to send the message that his job (barking at the door) is appreciated but now it's over. Now his job is to take direction from you and be quiet. Obviously the details are beyond the scope of this article but what we're talking about is "applied obedience" or the application of previously learned behaviors and communication systems. The point is that we are no longer working in black and white so we have to draw the line clearly and consistently between light grey and dark grey. No barking at the window is black and white so simply don't allow access to it or consistently correct all window barking. Ditto for guests. 
Conclusion: Barking is just one example of endless potential grey areas. The key is to avoid grey areas wherever feasible. Otherwise you need to be consistently inconsistent, if that make any sense? You see, "sometimes" or "it depends" are not innately consistent but you can teach these grey areas by being hyper vigilant in the consistency of the details. Where EXACTLY are you drawing the line? What's the deciding factor and how are you going to explain this to your dog? Think things through, make sure the whole family is on board and get some professional help from a balanced trainer if you are having trouble. 

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2014