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Dog Behavior and Discrimination: how come my dog listens to my husband but not me?

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I know, nowadays the word “discrimination” can be a negative thing. As socially conscious humans we’re not supposed to discriminate – at least when we’re talking about certain human characteristics. But trust me, we discriminate all the time – and it’s a good thing, as you’ll see below. How does discrimination relate to dog training? First a general definition of discrimination: 

  • the recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another: discrimination between right and wrong | young children have difficulties in making fine discriminations.
  • the ability to distinguish between different stimuli : [as adj. ] discrimination learning.
With consistency, and precise timing, we can actively teach dogs to discriminate. Check out the video of me and Poncho the dog. I’m teaching him to discriminate when to jump through my legs. Turning my right leg out is the cue for him to jump through. Turning my left leg out, he isn’t supposed to. He got his reward for staying put. 

Poncho learned pretty quickly that: right leg turned out = jump through = gets rewarded. Left leg turned out = stay = gets rewarded. If he didn’t jump when he was supposed to, or jumped when I didn’t want him to, then I’d give him a “too bad”, which is the cue for “no reward”. The punishment is he doesn’t get a food reward, and he has to wait to try again. 

Another human world example:

  • Green light = “go”, Red light = Stop, Yellow light = “slow down in preparation of stopping” (although some folks define the yellow as “speed up and get through the intersection”). 
In this example we, as humans, discriminate between the different colors of the traffic signal, and based on what we’ve learned, we know what to do for each one. I don’t know about you, but when I was a child, I quickly learned which parent to go to for what, and when to ask. This is example of “discriminative learning”.
As a certified pet dog trainer, I often hear comments or get questions, either from my manners class students or my Noozhawk advice column about “Why does a dog do one thing for one person and not another? Why does my dog pull on leash with me, but not my spouse?” Well, the simple explanation is: One person is more consistent with teaching and rewarding what they want and/or punishing out what they don’t want. In a case like this, the dog in question has been able to discriminate which parent to go to for what! 
Dogs, just like small children, don’t have the mental capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. They aren’t born with the section of the brain that is wired for it, and they never really develop it. However, they are very good at differentiating between safe and dangerous. Along with discriminating between safe or dangerous stimuli, they are masters at discriminating between finite cues – provided passively or actively. For example:

  • Passive cue: sneakers = going for walkies, dress shoes = dog stays home while human goes to work. 
  • Active cue: human places specific blanket (environmental cue) on couch = dog gets to hang out on couch. No blanky on couch, doggy isn’t allowed on couch.
So, if your dog is behaving differently for you than they are for someone else, ask yourself: 
  • What am I rewarding or not rewarding my dog for?
  • Am I being consistent?
  • What cues am I giving my dog?
Then, once you’ve answered yourself, you can then fix the problem, if there is one. 

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