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I was substituting for a second-grade class. The teacher asked me to read “No, David!” by David Shannon. Throughout the book, David, a young child, makes bad choices.

One student yelled out, “David needs a spanking!” I immediately recognized a teachable moment. I asked questions about David’s behavior. The class erupted in chatter. The answers all revolved around how David was being bad.

I calmed the class and asked another question: “What is David’s mother doing?” The students all said she was telling David “No!” Now I wanted to get the students to think.

“When David’s mother was saying ‘No, David!’ was David learning better behaviors?”

The answers were all “No, because he keeps doing bad things.”

I asked the students if his mother told David what he could do? I saw a few students begin to think. I continued along this line: “How could David know what a good behavior was if he was not told and shown what good behaviors were?”

The entire class grew quiet. A few piped up: “David did not know.” Then the boy who started this lesson on confusion commented, “Just like when we are told to make a better choice but no one tells us what a better choice is!”

How does this apply to our pets?

My client had a difficult time understanding how confusion brings about undesired behaviors. The woman was not teaching; she was not proactive. Instead, she was reactive, just like David’s mother. I took her into the kitchen and directed her to get me something. It was hot so she got me water. No. Then she added ice. No. Maybe I was hungry so she went to the refrigerator. No. She went to the cupboard where they keep snacks. No. I kept this up for several more minutes. I asked how she was feeling. Frustrated and confused.

Now, I changed tactics and gave her a clear direction: “Please go to the kitchen island and get me the red candle next to the pile of mail.” My client followed it perfectly. I asked how she felt now. She answered much better because she knew what I needed. Then she had that “Ah ha!” moment. She realized how confusing she was being for her dog.

I evaluated a dog who was described as manic. His greetings were horrid. He jumped, body slammed and grabbed people. He was always pacing and panting. A previous trainer suggested to ignore the dog until the dog behaved better. Another trainer said the dog was “over trained” because the dog was trying too many things to get attention.

Then the owners were told to send the dog to a boot camp manners program, which they did. The dog came back worse. The advice from both trainers was not proactive. The boot camp trainer used painful methods (shock collars and punishment) to whip the dog into shape. Now the dog was even more anxious. The dog was panicking trying to figure out what to do.

Just like David, how was this dog supposed to know what he could do when no one proactively taught what was a desired behavior? The dog was not bad. He was confused. I showed the people what to do in a humane way. As we gave clarity to the dog, his behaviors improved.

Please read or listen to “No, David!” You can find the story online. Think about how you interact with people, children, and pets. Are you clear or confusing? What actions from us will bring about better responses from them?

Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.

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