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What’s in a Word? Change Your Vocab, Change Your Mindset

"What's in a word? Change your vocab, Change your mindset" on a background with a dog with his paw over his face and a woman shaking her finger at him
Wee Beasties trainer with black and white dog

Written by Rachel

Rachel is a Professional Pet Trainer & Behavior Consultant certified through the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior and Fear Free. She can help you train new behaviors and fix problem behaviors in a variety of species, including dogs, cats, parrots, and pocket pets like rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, etc.

If you hire me or read this blog or my social posts for a while, you’ll notice there are words I don’t really use compared to other trainers.

Correct.

Command.

Punish.

That’s because I’m a positive reinforcement trainer.

That’s a fancy way of saying that I reward good behaviors and train more acceptable behaviors for “bad” behaviors.

Why?

Well, aside from it being more in line with my morals and ethics, it’s more in line with modern behavior science as well. (See the list of references from this post for a start.)

The thing is, behavior in animals isn’t “good” or “bad.”

It’s just a way to meet a need.

It’s information on what is going on with that animal (humans included).

If I’m hungry, I eat. If I’m scared, I scream. If I’m mad, I will probably might throw things.

man's hand holding plastic water bottle
Man lying in road

We Do Things to Survive

Behavior as information, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. Animals in the wild do the things they need to survive. Our pets, no matter how removed from their wild ancestors, also have a need to survive. All animals, including ourselves do. I mean, you’re not just laying in the street are you?

No?

Didn’t think so.

So we do things to survive. We eat, sleep, try to scare off scary things that might eat us…The list goes on!

The thing is, humans tend to be picky about what behaviors they want to live with from other species…that’s why behaviors become “problems” to begin with! A simple clash between lifestyles.

A simple clash that can be solved by teaching alternative, more acceptable behaviors without ever punishing anything.

Out with the Old…

Since I don’t need to punish things, I don’t need to use that word (except to ask people not to punish behaviors!), and the same goes for “correct” or “correction.” 

“Correct” has become a sort of euphemism, or polite way of saying “punish” in the training world. I may tell you your answer is correct, but I’ll never ask you to correct a behavior in your pet.

As for “command”?

Well, to most of us, a command has an “or else” implied. “Clean your room or you won’t get any dessert,” “don’t murder people [or you won’t go to heave or your preferred positive afterlife location…]” and so on.

That “or else” is usually a punishment, right?

I’m sure you’re connecting the dots as we speak.

If I don’t have to, need to, want to punish something that’s just information, then I’m not really giving commands, am I?

Instead, I’m giving cues. A cue is more involved and simultaneously less demanding than a command. A cue is more like a signal—you can do that thing that you like and get rewarded for now.

Ideally, I’ve rewarded a behavior enough that, when my pet perceives a cue, my pet wants to do that behavior, or in the case of “problem” behaviors, I’ve rewarded the new behavior enough that my pet finds no satisfaction in doing the old one. 

Why scream when I could just go over here and sit and still get what I want?

Not Quite Right

And if my pet doesn’t respond to a cue as planned?

That’s just more information for me.

My pet is saying, “hey, that thing I know I could do right now really isn’t filling the need I have in this particular situation.”

They’re telling me that something isn’t quite right for this situation and maybe we need more practice with different layers added on to help them feel like the behavior I’m asking for really is the right answer here too.

We basically give our pets a voice when we change our vocabulary here.

We’re saying, “I’m listening” and “how can I help you be comfortable in the world we share?”

colorful blocks in different shapes with focus on a square peg trying to fit in a round hole

Oh, I See!

When you embrace that your pet is a living being with his or her own preferences and needs, other things start to fall into place.

Instead of your pet doing something to “get back at” you or “because they’re mad at” you, we realize our pets are just giving us information, even if we don’t particularly care for how it’s delivered!

That delivery can easily be adapted to fit our lives better and ultimately, to help us care for our pets better!

Isn’t that cool?

A simple change in a few words can help us understand what our pets need and want from us.

If you haven’t thought about this before, take a few minutes today.

Is your pet trying to tell you something?

Are you ready to hear?

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