There is a concept in psychology referred to as the “locus of control,” and it refers to where a person believes control over events in their lives is derived. If a person has an internal locus of control she believes she controls her own life, whereas a person with an external locus of control feels more powerless over things that happen to her. Typically people do not fall strictly on one side of the other; locus of control exists on a continuum.
Consider dog sports; have you caught yourself thinking that some people have “natural talent” in agility/obedience/etc? Or do you believe that everyone is capable of national or world championship level given enough hard work? I’d say most people fall somewhere between these two ideas, but the person who believes we can all get there with focused practice and dedicated training is exhibiting an internal locus of control, whereas the person who chalks success up to natural talent (or worse, a “special” dog) is exhibiting a very self-limiting external locus of control. You see, if success is a gift doled out by the gods, then not everyone gets to have it, and we have no control over it. Whereas if success is an achievement won by hard work and dedication, it’s possible for us all.
So, clearly, understanding this concept has something to do with competing. Adopting a more internal locus of control will help you with your goals in dog sports; I highly recommend it. But what does it have to do with training? Well, dogs fall on this spectrum too.
The Greatest Enemy of Anxiety
I tell my clients all the time: control is anxiety’s greatest enemy. Empowering their dogs is always where we need to start in any case where anxiety is concerned.
In humans, psychologists note that having an external locus of control leads to depression and anxiety. We can assume, and often observe, that dogs with certain behavior problems have an external locus of control as well. The dog with separation anxiety, for instance, believes he has no control over when he will be left or for how long. The dog that aggresses at other dogs when they get too close also believes he can’t control who attacks him, who invades his space, or who is friendly; so he preempts with aggression. Most notably, and the one most heartbreaking to me, is the otherwise-sweet dog who becomes a monster at the veterinarian’s office. This dog’s locus of control is entirely external, and humans have made it so. When we force dogs into treatments and procedures that they are extremely uncomfortable with we prove to them they have no control over what happens to their own bodies in this very special circumstance, and it is amazing how few dogs actually bite vets and vet techs.
So what can we do? How can we shift a dog’s locus of control?
Modern Training Methods
The first vital step toward helping dogs feel more in control of their own lives, and therefore less anxious and aggressive, is to adopt sound dog training techniques. Training that is heavily grounded in positive reinforcement is almost always the best solution to any training problem, be it basic obedience, advanced competition behaviors, or behavioral concerns. When it is not the best option, it is because another path offers a more concise route toward lasting change–and that is the only fair way to train an animal; in a streamlined and clear manner. Any method or training route that relies on external control to alter a dog’s behavior should be avoided, while methods that encourage change from an internal locus of control should be the norm.
It’s all well and good to talk about psychological concepts that apply to dog training but what can people actually do? In short, people can change much of how they interact and work with dogs. There are multiple moments throughout any given day that we make choices for our dogs; choices that they could make themselves.
This is a dog I am working with who has been taught to pick what she’d like to wear (harness, collar, or martingale collar/lead) when leaving the house:
And this is my pup Felix being asked which toy he’d like to work with in a training session:
Of course, choosing to reinforce good choices as opposed to asking or insisting on them is always a great call. These dogs have not been told to lie down and stay, but they have been tossed cookies for doing just that throughout the day while I work:
Finally, we can teach our dogs to cooperate with things that they need, but are unlikely to naturally accept, like vet care and grooming. I teach an entire online course for this, and it is consistently my mot popular offering. Here is my dog Idgie learning to accept veterinary procedures:
So where does your dog’s locus of control lie? I hope it’s pretty far toward internal on the spectrum, and I hope yours is too.