The doorbell rang and the young male Dobie in his crate began a furious barking. “It’s OK, Buddy, it’s OK. Good dog, good dog.” his owner cooed in an attempt to reassure Buddy dog, as the barking continued. “Don’t praise him for being bad!” I tactlessly hollered from the other room, continuing with a bellowed, “Quiet!” for good measure. Startled, the pup stopped barking for a moment, and finally, I managed to do the right thing and praise him when he quieted.
What had we both done wrong? As we shape behavior with a dog, especially in the first year of its life with us, whether as a young pup or a 6 year old rescue, there are key instants when you have the opportunity to imprint or “mark” your dog’s correct response to a situation or command. Those moments should be considered rare and valuable treasures and we should wait and watch for them like a gourmand searching for truffles in the French woods. I call it the teachable moment, and our response to that moment makes all the difference in the world to whether a dog learns and reinforces calm, balanced behavior or obnoxious habits that will come back to haunt us.