One of the first tools in every dog trainer’s toolbox is what we call “management,” or managing your dog’s environment, so he or she cannot practice the unwanted behavior. In fact, many behavior problems can be eliminated using management alone. So, what do we mean by “management”? And why is it such an important concept in dog training?
What we mean by “management”
Managing your dog’s environment simply means to observe and make choices about the setting to prevent unwanted behavior. For example, if your dog has a terrible cat-chasing habit, you would make sure he or she is on a leash every time the cat enters the room. You have removed the opportunity, using the leash, for your dog to chase the cat. This prevents the dog from practicing the unwanted cat-chasing behavior (and remember, practice makes perfect), while we teach the dog an alternate, acceptable behavior.
For example, what if your dog gets into the kitchen trash? This behavior is not ideal, because not only is the dog making a mess, he is endangering himself with anything inedible or poisonous he might eat. The easiest way to stop this behavior is to use management — put the trash can inside a cabinet, get a trash can with a lid the dog can’t open, or put a gate up in the doorway so the dog can’t get to the trash. “Management” is not a single solution, but looking what happens before the behavior, and altering the situation to make the behavior less likely.
Proactive vs. reactive
Management has two components: Observation and proactivity. This is opposed to what we sometimes do when our dog behaves in a way we don’t like — observation and reactivity. When we manage our dogs’ behavior, we want to be on the lookout for environmental triggers, or scenarios, in which the dog might perform the unwanted behavior before it occurs. We then make the choice to be proactive — to react to that potential situation before the dog does, and to change our behavior to help the dog.
Let me give you an example. If I am out walking my dog, and she sees another dog, I might tense up because I think she is going to bark at that other dog. I hold my breath and tug on the leash as the other dog gets closer. When the other dog is close, sure enough, my dog lunges and barks. I yell, “No!” and yank the leash.
That’s reactivity on my part. I am reacting to my dog’s behavior after it has happened, even though I saw the other dog before my dog did, and I predicted she would bark and lunge. Not only is this a useless way to train my dog, but she’s being rewarded for barking at the other dog. How is she being rewarded? Usually the other dog moves away, which makes her feel safer.
So, what would proactivity look like in this situation? One proactive action would be for me to turn and walk in the other direction as soon as I saw the other dog, before my dog had a chance to react. In this way, I both prevent the barking and lunging behavior, and prevent reinforcing (rewarding) the dog for that behavior. You can likely think of other ways to alter the picture to keep the lunging and barking behavior from happening.
Why is it so important to manage our German Shepherds’ environments?
The short version is this: Managing the environment can prevent the dog from practicing an unwanted activity. When your GSD practices a behavior you don’t like and is rewarded for it, the stronger that behavior will become! We use management to protect the dog’s training. Our goal is to teach our German shepherds a new behavior we do like. Without management, we are teaching dogs that unwanted behavior still pays.
And, most importantly, management is a requirement when the safety of the dog, other animals or people is at stake. German Shepherd owners know the importance of management for dogs who don’t yet come when called. Another example: If I think my German Shepherd is likely to jump up on a child, I can put pressure on the lead close to my dog’s collar, to keep her feet on the ground. While this action alone won’t train my dog not to jump, it prevents her from knocking the child down or jumping up or bumping the child’s face. Holding the leash changes the picture, so I can give my dog a massive reward for sitting, or turning her head away from the child.
Management gives us a chance to teach our German Shepherds calm behavior, while minimizing or eliminating those we don’t want.