Have you ever had a “But I … ” in a class? “But I … but he … but we … but it.” Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a “But I” as a student!
“But I . . . ” people are frustrating, nagging, selective listeners, and maddening! They find more excuses for what they do and do not do than you can imagine. They must stay awake nights dreaming of excuses why the ideas and suggestions you present won’t work. Not with their dogs, anyway!
“But I don’t care if she heels. She exercises in a fenced yard.”
“But she doesn’t like to sit.” “But she doesn’t want me to leave her on a stay.”
Sandra was my most recent “But I … ” and just as frustrating as any I’ve had before. This time, however, I turned the tables on her “But I … ” scheme. And guess what? It worked!
The idea for curing the “But I .. ‘. ” syndrome came one night as I was watching TV. I happened to hear the saying, “Physician, cure thyself.” Bingo! My idea was born.
Here’s my theory: If a student presents a dog behavior problem to me, I make appropriate suggestions to help change the behavior to the student’s satisfaction. If the first suggestion doesn’t work, I have several more to call up. Usually one of them will work. The results? The dog changes the undesired behavior, the student is thrilled with the dog, and I’m happy that I was able to help. Often, I realize that the new and improved dog is no longer threatened with losing his home.
With “But I . . . ” people, no suggestions are met with a willingness to try … or even an attitude that you, an experienced instructor, might have suggestions worthy of consideration. They know more than you do. They’ve already tried everything you suggest. In cases where they haven’t tried a particular solution, they know in advance that it won’t work. They’re omniscient – they have infinite knowledge. You don’t!
Following my brainstorm, I went to the next class with a new approach to Sandra and her little mixed terrier, Feisty. By the way, Feisty was indeed a feisty pup, but also very fond of people and other dogs, quite dominant, and very bright. She loved treats and toys and responded eagerly to Sandra.
As usual, Sandra presented a new complaint about Feisty the moment they arrived. “I’m mad at Feisty,” declared Sandra. “She tried to bite me this week.”
“What happened?” I inquired. “Tell me about it.”
“Well, she was chewing on a piece of rawhide and I tried to take it away from her,” she answered. “That’s when she growled and snapped at me. Luckily, I pulled my hand away in time, but she would have bitten me if! hadn’t been so quick.”
“Then what happened?”
“I smacked her and she snapped at me again.”
From previous experience, I knew any suggestion I might offer would be met with objections. This time, I decided, I’d encourage Sandra to solve her own problem.
“What do you think Feisty learned from that incident?”
“That’s easy!” Sandra exclaimed. “Now she knows that growling or snapping at me is how to get her own way.”
“So, what can you do to change this so she doesn’t growl or snap, yet she’ll let you take anything away from her?”
“That’s why we’re here. You’re the teacher!” she said. “That’s true, Sandra.” I took a deep breath (Patience, Charlotte, patience!) and smiled. “However, in the past whenever you’ve told me about a problem with Feisty, I’ve offered suggestions and you’ve responded with reasons why they won’t work. Now I must yield to your better judgement. So, tell me, what are you going to do about this behavior?”
Seeing that I wasn’t going to bite the bait, Sandra realized that I was through offering advice. I’d be supportive, but not instructive.
“Well, I guess I have to find a way to make her understand I’m the boss and she can’t always have her way.”
“That’s a great idea,” I answered. “Now, what can you do to begin teaching Feisty that you’re the boss?”
Still not offering advice, but encouraging her to figure things out for herself, I wanted Sandra to know that I wasn’t giving up on her and Feisty as students, just making them more responsible for the outcome of their actions.
Sandra thought for a moment and said, “I guess I have to be more insistent about her doing as I say. Up to now, I’ve been giving in to her too much. I just don’t want her to hate me, that’s all.”
“She won’t hate you, Sandra. She’ll respect you and with respect comes love,” I assured her.
During the next hour. I saw Sandra chatting to several of her classmates. I couldn’t hear their conversations, but I suspected she was consulting them on what to do. As much as I wanted to help Sandra, I knew in my heart that I could only help her by letting her find her own answers, so I maintained silence and kept my distance.
When the class left for the evening, I watched as several owners made their dogs sit/stay in the doorway as the owners passed through first, (I had taught that lesson several weeks before.) Sandra didn’t do that and Feisty charged through first pulling hard on her lead.
The following week, Sandra came in early and practiced having Feisty do a doorway sit/stay so she could enter the room first. I pretended to be preoccupied and ignored the whole process, but secretly I was pleased.
Near the end of the hour, Sandra made an announcement. “I’ve been having some trouble with Feisty growling and snapping when I try to take things away from her. But we’ve worked on that this week and we’d like to show you the new Feisty.”
In her hand, Sandra held a large dog biscuit and Feisty knew it! Placing the biscuit on the floor, she said, “Want a cookie?” Feisty immediately grabbed the biscuit and began crunching on it. When the cookie was half eaten, Sandra said, “That’s enough. No more.” Whereupon she reached down and picked up the remaining piece.
As she did, she commanded the dog to sit, then praised her. Feisty obeyed immediately and stared up at her owner, her little tail wagging furiously.
“That was wonderful, Sandra. How did you do it?”
“Well, Feisty likes cheese the best of all, so I gave her a biscuit first. While she was chewing on the cookie, I waved some cheese in front of her and she immediately dropped the cookie and reached for the cheese. But before I gave it to her, I made her sit, then I praised her. Next, I used the cheese to teach her to release a toy whenever I told her to.”
They say great strides are made with small steps. As I listened to Sandra, I realized a new and better relationship between Sandra and Feisty had been launched. But I wasn’t prepared for Sandra’s final comment. As her classmates stood around praising Sandra’s ingenious approach to a difficult problem, Sandra said, “After talking to some of you folks last week, I realized I hadn’t been doing the things that Charlotte’s been teaching us. When I looked at all your dogs and saw how happily they obeyed you, I knew I’d been wasting time trying to find excuses for Feisty rather than teaching her good manners. Now, we’re with the program!”
A few weeks later, I graduated another class with one little mixed terrier eagerly trying to be the best in class, and one owner who no longer responded with “But I … ” every time I offered advice.
Charlotte Schwartz was a longtime NADOI member and contributor to the organization.
This piece was originally published in FORWARD (Summer/Fall 1997)