When Management Succeeds

“Management fails.”

Have you heard this saying? Did you understand completely what the person meant?

I’m going to explain it in some detail for those who aren’t familiar with the terminology or concept, then tell my own management story.

A woman is sitting on a bench, holding a small black and white terrier who is sitting very relaxedly in her lap. A larger tan dog is on the floor looking up at the woman. The woman is talking to the larger dog.
Clara offers a calm down behavior in the presence of Cricket

Management

In the dog training world, “management” means the things you have to do if you haven’t trained your dog in a behavior appropriate to a certain situation. Some examples:

  • If you have a dog who persistently jumps on guests to your home, and you solve the problem by always locking him in a back room when you have company, that’s management.
  • If you put up a baby gate instead of either teaching your dog not to go in a certain room, or teaching him how to behave in there safely, that’s management.
  • If you have two dogs who fight and you choose to separate them forever using doors and crates rather than doing counterconditioning and/or training them in behaviors which are incompatible with fighting, that’s management.

Management is not a bad thing. If you have ever had a puppy, you probably learned pretty fast to manage some things, or you wouldn’t have made it. You can’t teach them everything they need to know at once, so you control the environment to prevent certain problems.

Management is also very important as a background for training. If you had the jumping dog in the first example above and decided to train him to behave nicely around guests, you would continue the management during purely social visits from guests while you were also training the behavior in controlled setups. The management would prevent him from practicing the undesirable behavior. If he was still getting to practice that with guests some of the time, your training during the rest of the time would go nowhere.

So what do people mean when they say, “Management fails”?

I have always seen that remark in the context of the third example above, or a similar example involving a dog who is aggressive to humans. They mean that if the safety of one of your dogs, cats, or even a child depends on certain doors always being closed and 100% consistent behavior on the part of all the humans in the household, odds are that some day a human will mess up, the wrong creatures will get access to one another, and someone will get hurt. They are emphatically encouraging people not to depend on management alone when someone’s safety is at stake.

The alternatives to simply managing aggressive dogs are counterconditioning and training the dog/s (while simultaneously managing as described above), rehoming a dog, or euthanizing a dog (sometimes done in the case of high level aggression where the dog is deemed unadoptable).

Susan Garrett is well known for encouraging training rather than management. She suggests making conscious choices whether to train or manage for each situation, rather than letting managing the dog be a default. She points out that a trained dog, as opposed to one who has to be managed (read: controlled) all the time, can go many more places, do more things, and can generally have a more interesting life. But she has also shared that she has chosen to manage at least one common problem: dogs getting aroused and barking when the doorbell rings. She uses a special ring on her phone instead of a physical doorbell to let her know she has a visitor . She (so far) has chosen not to train a doorbell behavior.

By the way, Susan Garrett’s doorbell solution fits under what Susan Friedman calls “Antecedent Arrangements.” Even though some trainers might consider it “only management,” from the animal’s point of view, it is less intrusive than even training a new behavior with positive reinforcement. It is one of the mildest forms of behavioral intervention since the animal is not asked to change. The situational trigger is just removed. This works well when the human’s routine is easy to change.

So why am I even talking about this? Because I’m a little bit of a contrarian, that’s why. No actually, because I discovered that there can actually be overlap between management and training. I had never thought of that, since lots of people who discuss the two talk as if they are mutually exclusive. But in one situation, I thought I was “only” managing my dog but she got trained without my realizing it! I was able to stop managing* and everybody was still safe and happy. Here’s what happened.

Clara and Cricket

When Clara came into my life in July 2011, my little rat terrier Cricket was about 15 years old and already frail. Clara was the smallest dog in the house for about two days– 11.5 pounds to Cricket’s 12–but outgrew Cricket (and everyone else) very quickly. As Clara grew in size and confidence, I quickly made the decision to keep them separated. Cricket disliked most dogs anyway, was getting dementia and didn’t interact with them well, and would only grow more frail. My worry was never aggression from Clara, but that lethal, wagging tail of hers and her bouncy habits.

I already kept Cricket separated from one of my other dogs. I decided rather than try to train Clara to be calm and keep her distance from Cricket, I would just keep her separated too. If Cricket had been a younger dog and more a part of the group, I probably would have made a different decision. But what I did decide had a very interesting result.

There were two exceptions to their separation each day. When Clara first got up in the morning, we would rush through Cricket’s space on our way to the back door so Clara could go out to potty. Conversely every evening Clara came through on the way to going to bed in her crate in my bedroom.

On these trips through Cricket’s rooms, I did not seek to train anything. I just made sure Cricket was out of the way and/or made sure I walked between them. I may have body blocked once or twice, but definitely not as a rule. That’s something I consciously avoid.  I just planned Clara’s route and made it easy for her to leave Cricket alone. Clara was always intent on our destination, which helped, too.

After a couple of months I noticed something. Clara was consciously avoiding Cricket. Clara the Rude, who body slammed dogs for entertainment and responded quite reluctantly to my other dogs’ requests to be left alone! Amazingly, she did not bother Cricket and actually avoided her.

How did that happen?

We Are Always Training Our Dogs

OK, this is another truism, but it’s, ahem, true.  I confess the first few times I heard it, I thought it was rhetoric. Only later did I come to realize that it was meant much more literally. All animals learn and change their behaviors because of consequences. Whatever your dog does, it does because there is something reinforcing about it. Some things are intrinsically reinforcing, of course, but one of the first things a student of learning theory finds out is that we have been training our dogs to do many of the problem behaviors we complain about.

It is dead easy to train our dogs to whine to be let out of their crates, steal our socks (what fun for a puppy when a human runs screaming after it!), dodge away when we reach for their collars, countersurf, and mouth our hands. I don’t mean that we are purposely training these things (usually), but that our behavior is creating the consequences that shape their behavior whether we want it to or not.

So, what of Clara and Cricket? Although I carry treats on me most of the time, I didn’t give Clara a treat for staying away from Cricket. But twice a day we went by Cricket, with Clara at a good distance, on a trip to something good. In the mornings the trip was to the outdoors and potty time. In the evening the trip was to the bedroom and Clara’s crate and soft bed, which she liked from the day she got here. So those were mild and rather non-immediate reinforcers, but the important part is that they were utterly consistent. Nothing fun ever happened around Cricket. Clara didn’t develop any kind of a history of interaction with her. Cricket was for going by at a distance and getting to a good place, and that’s what Clara learned to do. Getting to the good place was the end of a behavior chain that included walking far away from Cricket.

The movie shows the marked differences between Clara’s behavior with Cricket, and her behavior with Summer and Zani.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Astute viewers may notice the big obvious lip lick and lookaway that Clara performs upon seeing Cricket coming down the hall in one clip, when Clara was a year old. Those are common stress signals for dogs.  It’s quite possible I got a little help at times from Cricket, who could be pretty intimidating to other dogs, with the “stay away” message. However, given Clara’s habitual non-response to such cues from other dogs, I think in the long run this played a pretty minor role. In their last year together, Cricket had advanced dementia, and didn’t appear to be giving off as much dog communication to anybody. The last clips in the movie show Cricket’s typical behavior at that point in her life. They were taken in late April 2013, one month before she passed on.

A tan dog has backed int a smaller black and rust hound mix and is pressing the smaller dog into the wall with her butt
Clara smooshing Zani into the wall with her butt on purpose

I also want to mention that the movie may give the impression that I let Clara run rampant over my other two dogs. She would certainly like to spend her life bashing into them and smooshing them into walls, but I intervene pretty successfully in that most of the time. However, I think applying some of the principles I learned from her behavior towards Cricket would be helpful in that regard. I am always doing what I can to help the dogs get along well.

If I get brave, I’ll write a second post about Clara’s interactions with Summer and Zani and how they have built her current behavior toward them.

I hope this strong lesson for me about subtle reinforcers and the strength of consistent habits will be helpful for some others. I’m really curious as to whether this has happened to other folks. Have you ever accidentally trained a really good behavior? I hope it happens to me again!

*Please, please do not misconstrue my remarks as encouraging people to stop managing a dangerous dog, or testing the waters to check whether something magical has happened from management. Mine was a unique situation. Most important, as I mentioned above, Cricket was not in danger from aggression from Clara, only from careless behavior that might knock her over. If aggression were the issue, Clara never would have been walking through Cricket’s space in the first place.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube