Does Management Fail?

One of the very first things I tell clients, as a matter of fact I almost always say it during our first contact via phone inquiry, is that there are two paths we can take to deal with any problem: management and training. I believe those two things are equally critical to success and so I was surprised to read somewhere recently that a common phrase in dog training is “management always fails”.

On one hand, I understand and completely agree with the statement, but on the other hand, it seems to trivialize the importance of management. So here is the way I see it, and why I continue to point it out early in my relationship with someone wanting training help from me.

First, I loosely define management as physical constraints: a leash, a fence, a crate and a baby gate are all examples of management which I often suggest*. (see note below) I say that we always need to use management until the training takes place. This is because of one of the laws of behavior.

a behavior which is repeated has been reinforced

a behavior which is reinforced will be more likely to be repeated

 So, if the dog is repeatedly behaving in such a way that the person calls me for assistance, then the undesirable behavior must be being reinforced.

1207886480433131649gerald_g_rabbit-svg-hiExample: the dog who doesn’t come when she is called and instead runs off. If she continues to run the other way when she is called, something is reinforcing that behavior. It could be chasing rabbits in the woods; or playing with the neighbor’s dog, or getting into the trash somewhere; or any number of other things. Whatever it is, it’s more fun to do that, than to return to the person calling her name. If the person was more fun, the dog would choose to run back, instead of away. As long as that reinforcement continues, the behavior of running away will also continue.

Now of course my job is to help the person understand how to train the dog, which I will do by teaching the person how to use great reinforcers such as treats and play and a great relationship so that the dog begins to choose those things instead of chasing rabbits and eating garbage. But the problem is habits which were built through history of previous reinforcement.

When we begin, the scale is tipped heavily toward the bunny chasing. A couple treats for coming when called will just barely begin to adjust the balance. If the dog goes out the next day and chases bunnies again, we’ve just lost all the advantage we gained with treats. We need a history of many repetitions of treats for coming when called to give the scale a chance to become balanced. And if we want a reliable recall, we need the scale tipped heavily on the recall side, not just balanced.

The only way to give our treats a chance to balance out is to prevent further reinforcement for bunny chasing. So we keep the dog on a leash, or in a fenced yard (visible fences only please!). Now the dog cannot chase bunnies, and with daily practice of recalls in the house or in the yard, we pile the recall side of the scale with treats, and games, and fun. Day after day we pile on more and more until the scale is weighted so heavily in favor of responding to recalls that it overwhelms the bunny chasing side and the history of reinforcement has built the habit of coming when called.

curious dog with tennis ball

So, the management is a success in my carefully designed world. Why then, do trainers say “management fails”? I believe that expression refers to someone who relies on management only, without the added benefit of training. People who do not train their dog to come when called, and rely solely on management, are bound to be disappointed. Guests visit, and don’t know how to body-block the dog from pushing out the door and the bunny hunt is on. The leash gets dropped while the person ties a shoe and zoom, the dog is gone. Children come to visit and the dog is so excited that she jumps up on the baby gate which comes crashing down and now the dog is free to go.

If the dog has a solid recall, the open door, the dropped leash, the faulty baby gate are not a disaster. You simply call the dog back, give her an awesome treat for responding and the problem is prevented.

“Management fails” is similar to saying “life happens”. The careful dog owner should plan to use both management and training. Because training alone can be risky as well. If I am walking next to a busy road, I do not rely on my recall alone to protect my dog from traffic, even though my dogs are off leash at home all the time. We live far from the road and there is very little traffic on that road. I know there is plenty of buffer zone for my dog to wander away from me and be called back and still not be anywhere near the road.

Whether you rely more heavily on management or training will be specific to you, your dog and the environment. My dog’s leash manners are not good enough for a dog who might live in an urban environment where she had to be on a leash all the time. But that isn’t the environment I live in. My dog’s recall is very reliable even at long distances because our environment allows her to be off leash in woods and fields.

I always invite people to tell me what their daily life is and what their goals for a perfect dog are. Then we decide together, along with the dog of course, what should be trained to perfection, and when management will be called on.

note: In addition to physical restraint, there are other management tools I use such as stuffed kongs for enrichment, to help fulfill a dog’s needs and prevent boredom, but for this topic, I was just referring to limiting the dog’s access to reinforcers for behaviors we’d like to eliminate.

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