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Why Self-Control is Better than “Discipline”

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘discipline’ as: ‘The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.’ The word ‘discipline’ not only carries with it the baggage of “force” and “dominance,” but also a hint of worthiness. And yet, ‘that dog needs discipline’ is a phrase we may still hear on a regular basis.

‘That dog needs to be taught some self-discipline’ is a lot more appropriate because it drops the implications of punishment. The definition of ‘self-discipline’ is: ‘The ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses.’ Discipline is imposed, self-discipline isn’t. The concept of ‘impulse control’ is what we most want our dogs to acquire.

Here is the story of a dog I went to visit recently whose owners, faced with their Beagle’s extreme unruliness, had decided it was time for some ‘discipline.’ It was backfiring on them big time.

Wesley had left the breeder late and had he spent his time in a yard and a barn with other beagles. He did not interact with the outside world until he was six months old. The family have had to acclimatize him to everything from TV to vacuum cleaner and from walking on a lead to encountering traffic. Wesley is now one year old.

Beagle drinking from mug on coffee table

This particular beagle has been allowed to call the tune from the day his owners brought him home. Things have now gone too far and the owners realize something needs to be done to get him “under control.”

What if we ask a dog that has always had his own way to do something for us, and he just looks at us – basically saying, “No!” We have two choices. Either we back down or we insist.  Neither works well for us. It’s a lose-lose situation.

This young adult dog will now get angry if he doesn’t get his own way. He doesn’t like to be manhandled or his collar grabbed. He delights in stealing, guarding and destroying things which predictably leads to a chase that ends in the wrecked object being forced from the tightly clenched jaws of a growling dog.

While I was at the home I had to constantly remember to be careful where I put my pen, my clipboard or my mobile. Wesley was quick!

His people are up and down all evening opening the door to the garden on demand which Wesley then declines to go through. He flies over the sofa and over anyone sitting on it, using people’s shoulders and legs like some sort of pontoon leading to the coffee table. Saying “No” and chasing him may get him off, but he delights in jumping straight back up again. A great game!

Teaching him ‘Off’ has to be done using rewards – but what is rewarding to Wesley apart from Wesley-generated attention? Petting leaves him cold – he gets too much of that already. Until now food has been his ‘divine right.’  I doubt if he’s ever had to work for it, so food has to gain some value.

BEagle standing on the coffee table
Beagle standing on the coffee table

Wesley is fed on demand and only fed when he goes to the cupboard and paws at it. Food will then be put out for him immediately and he may then just walk away from it. All sorts of different things are fed to him in an effort to please him and to get him to eat.

For Wesley to learn impulse control he must have choices. It’s for us to make sure he makes the choices we want him to make. In order to effect his choices we need to make them highly rewarding – what’s in it for him? He needs payment, therefore food as a currency must have some value.  For now he should not have any food at all, apart from his set meals, that he doesn’t earn (and no more putting his tongue on their plates while they eat either!).

This will be a lot harder for the lady than it will for Wesley. People can be convinced that their baby will starve because initially he may not eat much for a couple of days while he waits to be cajoled and tempted.  Dogs invariably eat up properly within a few days if the food is appropriate and the quantity isn’t too much – and if the humans don’t weaken their resolve.

Wesley’s family will have their work cut out for a while. I would expect him to revolt for a few days when he finds that he won’t be getting his own way so readily. They have been prepared for that.

The problem with trying to ‘discipline’ an unruly dog is that it’s all about preventing the dog from doing unwanted things in a ‘disciplinarian’ sort of way which implies being confrontational (dictionary definition of ‘disciplinarian’: ‘A person who believes in or practices firm discipline’). It also neglects to provide the dog with an alternative, more desirable behavior. A confrontational approach such as this risks generating an aggressive or fearful (or both) response.  The dog’s response may escalate and the situation is suddenly even worse than it was before.

Self-discipline (or impulse control) is a different matter. A dog can learn self-discipline by being allowed to find out for himself via positive reinforcement what works and what doesn’t. By setting him up for success we put him in a position where he can choose for himself the desired behavior which is then rewarded. Now that’s a win-win for everyone.

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