Nuisance Behaviors? Try the Water Principle.

Warning: does not contain actual water.

Last week we revealed our April 2020 Training Challenge: Explore DIY Destructible [Trash] Toys. Check out our blog post with more info on that challenge here. In that post, I mentioned that this can be a great option for dogs who shred inappropriate items, like tissues, paper towels, bedding, etc. This week, I want to talk more about that concept– working with your pet’s natural behaviors– by first talking about martial arts.

The martial arts style of Hapkido follows three principles, one of them being the “Water Principle”. While that principle can have multiple meanings, one of them is that of water flowing down a hill. When the water reaches a rock, it flows around it. It’s easier to simply flow around the rock than to push against it

One of the things that we seem to forget when we bring animals into our homes is recognizing that they’re a different species with different needs. What’s natural and normal for them is not natural and normal for us, and vice versa. Many of the behaviors that we label as “nuisance behaviors” are really just a difference in what different species think of as “normal”. 

We ask a lot of our pets. We ask them to essentially abandon what is normal to them in order to live in our society in a way that we deem appropriate. Perhaps it’s time that we start to loosen the reins and allow some room for their natural behaviors, too. 

That can sound scary. It doesn’t have to be! We can work with our animals’ natural behaviors instead of asking them to change them: the Water Principle. It’s easier to give our pets items that they’re allowed to destroy instead of expecting them to never destroy things. It’s easier to provide chewies than to expect them to never chew. It’s easier to provide a digging pit than to tell them they’re never allowed to dig again. We can work with our pets’ natural behaviors instead of against them. We already do that by providing cats with scratching posts, so why can’t we do that with all the other natural behaviors as well?

One of my favorite ways to do this is by letting dogs jump to teach them not to jump on visitors. You had to read that sentence over a few times, right? It doesn’t seem like it could make sense. But it can! For young, high-energy dogs it’s often unrealistic to expect them to remain in a sit-stay or even just keep all four feet on the floor when guests come over. Even after quite a bit of training I see these dogs need to get in just that one jump, and then they can sit-stay like a pro. 

In these cases, I say, “let ‘em!” Let’s teach them to jump up to a hand target, away from the person, to get those couple of jumps in before asking them to remain on the floor. 

It looks like this:

Oso demonstrating a “jump to hand target” behavior.

The dog gets to jump, like they want, and the person doesn’t get jumped on, which is what we want. Win-wins like this happen when we work with our animal’s natural behaviors, instead of against them. Flowing around the proverbial rock just makes sense.  

Now what?

  • Think about the behaviors your pet does that you don’t like. Is there a way to let them perform those behaviors more appropriately? (Hint: almost always there is!)
  • Set up the environment to allow them to perform those behaviors in a more appropriate way (aka: management). Encourage them to choose the appropriate option by making it easy for them to do so and reinforce the heck out of that decision. 
  • Start training! Oso didn’t immediately jump up to the hand target when I first got him; he had to learn how. Ask your trainer or behavior consultant for help with this if needed!
  • How do you already apply the Water Principle to your pet’s behaviors? Tell us in the comments!

Happy training!